PITTSBURGH - Even as some cities around the nation have voted to ban fracking for natural gas, other rural areas are quietly embracing the boom by allowing drilling under public parks and land and reaping millions in royalties.
In Washington County, just outside Pittsburgh, officials say the unexpected revenue stream is letting them make improvements that otherwise might not have been possible.
"Having that funding source has been a tremendous boom to us," said Lisa Cessna, the executive director of the local planning commission. The county has received about $10 million directly from drilling companies since 2007, and royalty payments are still coming in. That's helped build fishing piers, playgrounds and walking trails.
Cessna said there have been complaints. Some of the drilling leases are for wells that start on adjacent private land and go under parks, but in other cases, the drilling sites have been on county land. That's led to questions about whether any kind of industrial activity should be allowed on recreational land.
"You can make it work. There's going to be bumps in the road," Cessna said. "You're going to upset some people. But the end result is going to outweigh the negatives."
Cessna said her advice to other counties considering such leases is "be very diligent. Always keep in mind that your park is first and foremost." Washington County has insisted on special legal language that gives it control over many aspects of the drilling process, she said.
"We approve every pipeline, well pad, access road. It's labor intensive, but it's worth it. That's the most important message - maintain full control," Cessna said.
In elections last November, Colorado voters in four towns approved bans or moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which uses water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to break apart deep rock and recover more oil or gas. Many other cities and municipalities around the country have passed similar measures, but in some cases, those bans are mostly symbolic.
For example, the city of Pittsburgh has banned fracking but has few locations suitable for drilling. Meanwhile, Allegheny County, which surrounds Pittsburgh, has approved drilling on or under thousands of acres of public land at the international airport and in county parks, in deals that have the potential to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two decades. Drilling could start within the next year, and the county has already received a $46 million signing bonus.
Pennsylvania has also allowed some gas drilling in state forests since 1947 and since 2008 has signed several major new shale gas leases for almost 139,000 acres of public land. So far those leases have generated about $413 million for the state. Environmental groups have pushed for a halt to further leases.
One Washington County politician who supports drilling says he's taken a hard look at the potential risks but believes the benefits are greater.
Larry Maggi, a Democratic county commissioner, said locals have "seen what can happen to our resources" through past experience with coal mining and other industries.
"We're trying to be careful. We welcome drilling, but it's been done safely," Maggi said. "We're just not seeing the damage to the environment that some people say."
Maggi added that the local boom is "giving good family-sustaining jobs to young men and women" and is helping many local businesses, even turning some people into millionaires. Last week, the county commissions also approved a project that would allow drilling under the county airport.
That's not to say there haven't been problems. In one case, a drilling contractor mistakenly cut down a number of trees, and there was also a spill of drilling fluids.
"That upset us, but they took care of it," Maggi said of the response from Range Resources, a drilling company based in Fort Worth, Texas.
Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella called the partnership with the county a "tremendous success" that they're proud of. He said the drilling sites and access roads at Cross Creek Park take up less than 1 percent of the total land.
"We learned from the spill, and, in fact, that lesson changed the way we manage water transfer with new engineering practices and containment," Pitzarella added.
But both of Pennsylvania's leading environmental groups oppose drilling on public parklands.
"Parks are very special and sacred places," said John Norbeck, the vice president for PennFuture, a statewide environmental group. "We don't believe that there should be any drilling on park lands."
David Masur, the executive director for Penn Environment, questioned the logic of turning public parks into "cash cows." Masur said it "begs the question, is any place off-limits" for drilling?
Norbeck said that if local authorities consider drilling leases, there needs to be "a robust public process" that includes an analysis of potential air, water and noise pollution that might impact a park.