- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 7, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - County officials in western Pennsylvania approved a plan Wednesday to drill for natural gas under a Pittsburgh-area park over the objections of opponents.

The Allegheny County Council voted 9-5 to allow energy companies Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley to extract natural gas from beneath 1,180-acre Deer Lakes Park from well sites on neighboring private properties.

The vote followed seven hours of testimony and debate, and afterward some opponents shouted “Shame!” at council members.

County executive Rich Fitzgerald called the decision a victory for taxpayers, park users and residents. He said he would sign the ordinance and lease shortly.

The proposal includes a $4.7 million bonus for the county, a $3 million donation to a park improvement fund and 18 percent royalties that county officials estimate would generate $3 million. Range Resources said the wells could produce natural gas for 30 to 40 years with about half the production occurring in the first eight years.

Protect Our Parks said its members were outraged by the decision, and member Gwen Chute said legal action was under consideration to stop the drilling.

Fitzgerald said the county is often sued on contentious issues but he believed the ordinance would withstand any legal challenge.

Before the vote, several council members spoke about the reasons for their decision. Councilwoman Barbara Danko called the drilling proposal “short-term gain” at the expense of future generations.

“I’m not naive to the fact that we need energy,” Danko said. “I do think … that the parks are different.”

Councilman Ed Kress, who represents the area, said he had originally opposed the idea because of questions about royalty payments, but changed his mind after talking to his constituents.

“It’s not a perfect deal, but it’s a good deal,” Kress said. “I’m trying to arrange a future for the people in my district.”

University of Pittsburgh law school professor Jules Lobel warned members that they were voting on more than just one project.

“You are setting a precedent that you can use the parks for industrial purposes,” he said.

James Converse, a member of Friends of South Park, said money to fix many problems in parks had to come from somewhere, and the alternative was raising taxes.

“We need to do this project just to prove to people that drilling can be done right,” he said.