Drilling is set to come to Pittsburgh International Airport, but if Tuesday's vote by Allegheny County Council is any indication, it still isn't entirely welcome.
County council voted in favor of accepting a contract from Consol Energy to drill for natural gas in the 9,000 acres surrounding the airport, a deal that proponents say could bring nearly $1 billion to the area.
But that came over the objections of four council members, some of whom voiced concerns about the deal's high velocity through council. And it certainly was not favored by the dozen-odd residents who showed up in masks and with placards to protest shale drilling, saying the county hasn't given thought to long-term risks.
"I'm not completely convinced that we've done what we've needed to do in the short amount of time we've been given," said council member James Burn Jr., D-Millvale. He joined Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square; Amanda Green Hawkins, D-Stanton Heights; and William Robinson, D-Hill District, in voting against the contract.
Victory went to members such as Robert Macey, D-West Mifflin, who held aloft the banner of jobs. His constituents in former steel towns are tired of losing their careers, he said. He is not going to deny them the chance to work again.
"There are so many jobs that are related to this in my neck of the woods, and I haven't heard of one person who has told me to vote against this," he said. "I'm voting for this because it means a heck of a lot to our communities."
Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, abstained, saying her law firm has represented Consol. The balance of the board voted for the deal.
The contract now awaits county Executive Rich Fitzgerald's signature. A month after he puts pen to paper, Allegheny County Airport Authority would receive its $50 million royalty check, Allegheny County Economic Development director Dennis Davin said, though drilling probably won't begin for another two years.
Mr. Fitzgerald released an enthusiastic press release after the meeting, praising council's decision.
"It isn't often that the County is able to announce a billion dollar investment, but that's exactly what Council's action allows us to do tonight," he wrote. "With this type of investment, there will be even more growth of good, family-sustaining jobs in our community."
Since the beginning, the plan to drill for shale gas in the largely undeveloped acres surrounding the airport has lived a split life, heralded as both an economic no-brainer and derided as a step backward into environmental ruin.
County officials point to the $450 million in royalties Consol is expected to pay over the next 20 years, as well as the extra $500 million the company plans to invest in drilling-related infrastructure.
By Federal Aviation Administration regulation, any proceeds must go toward the airport, so county officials hope to use revenues to fuel economic development within the 9,000 acres and to pay off airport debt.
Indeed, as Mr. Fitzgerald and the authority negotiated with Consol, it seemed like the deal kept getting better and better: first a $30 million up-front payment, then $40 million, and now $50 million.
But opponents argued the contract was too good to be true at any price, pointing to the usual concerns about water contamination and adding that drilling near an active airport could cause unforeseen problems.
At the meeting, Loretta and Kenneth Weir of Pittsburgh donned masks depicting Mr. Fitzgerald and Marcellus Shale Coalition president Kathryn Klaber before speaking their piece, symbolizing Mr. Fitzgerald's ties with the shale industry.
"We've been told to look at the money, the money, the money -- and we haven't looked at the gorilla in the room," Mr. Weir said. Other residents echoed his concerns, deploring the contract's quick pace and complaining that an environmental assessment won't be conducted until after the deal is signed.
But not all visitors spoke against the deal. Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, gave his support. Speaking on safety concerns, he said it is better to get in on the ground floor and improve as the industry grows.
"When the steel industry came, it was a dangerous industry," he said. "But we didn't wait for all the problems to be resolved -- and we made it as safe as it could be."