Officials Go Underground to Save Airport ; Pittsburgh Facility, Mired in Debt, to Tap a Shale Gas Trove below Its Runways

By Wald, Matthew L | International New York Times, August 13, 2014 | Go to article overview

Officials Go Underground to Save Airport ; Pittsburgh Facility, Mired in Debt, to Tap a Shale Gas Trove below Its Runways


Wald, Matthew L, International New York Times


Drilling for oil and gas in a shale formation is to begin this month under the runways of the airport, potentially providing financial salvation for the once-thriving facility.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Where 600 flights used to take off and land every day here at Pittsburgh International Airport, there are now about 300. Partway down Terminal B, the moving sidewalk that used to lead to a dozen gates now stops abruptly at a plain gray wall.

Pittsburgh's airport is struggling financially and mired in debt, with sharply lower traffic ever since US Airways began phasing it out as a bustling hub in 2004. Long gone are the days when British Airways flew 747s to London, and TWA flew to Frankfurt.

For salvation, airport officials are looking down -- about 6,000 feet. The quiet runways, it turns out, are sitting on enough natural gas to run the whole state of Pennsylvania for a year and a half, and this month, Consol Energy will drill its first well here to tap the gas, which county officials say will bring them nearly half a billion dollars over the next 20 years. The well is outside the airport fence but with horizontal drilling will extract the rich deposits that lie under the terminals and runways.

"It's like finding money," said Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive of Allegheny County, which owns the airport. "Suddenly you've got this valuable asset that nobody knew was there."

The discovery could not have come at a better time for the airport, which devotes 42 percent of its annual budget to pay off its large debt, much of it incurred to build out the gates it no longer uses. The airport has 75 gates; 62 are still available, but many of those are actually vacant, marked with the airport logo and not an airline's.

After the drilling -- which uses hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking, begins in earnest and the natural gas royalties kick in, the airport will receive about $20 million a year, a hefty portion of an operating budget currently below $91 million.

Pittsburgh is not the only airport with oil or gas exploration on its grounds. Dallas-Fort Worth has done it for years, and there were oil and gas wells at Denver International even before the airport was there.

But no other airport relies on oil and gas revenue the way Pittsburgh will. Dallas-Fort Worth, by comparison, earns $8 million each year from the 100 wells on its property, a fraction of its annual revenue of $6 billion. And Denver International brought in $6.2 million in 2012, about 1 percent of its revenue, from its 76 wells.

Mr. Fitzgerald and others have recognized for a while that their chunk of southwestern Pennsylvania lies atop the vast Marcellus Shale, a fracker's paradise that is among the most productive in the world. But it wasn't until the last few years that airport officials got serious about extracting the gas.

The airport offers conditions just about ideal for fracking. For example, the airport sits above four separate layers of shale, each containing natural gas and related liquids. All of it can be reached by a single set of drilling pads, delivering their gas to the same pipelines, using a single set of roads.

With a single well, drillers can bore down a few thousand feet, turn sideways and drill lateral wells up to two miles long. In other areas of Pennsylvania, that can mean having to secure permission from hundreds of property owners. The airport, though, is 9,000 acres with a single landlord. …

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