Allegheny County Council voted to ban new natural gas drilling — also known as fracking — inside and underneath county parks at a meeting Tuesday night. The bill would also ban other industrial activities from taking place inside county parks, including quarrying, forestry, and housing construction.
County residents and environmental advocates present at the meeting applauded the decision. Many spent hours giving public comments and rallying in support of the bill. Some have been working towards the ban since 2014, when legislation to ban fracking in county parks was introduced but was not passed.
“No one has ever gone to North Park and kayaked and thought the experience would be made better by a convoy of diesel trucks or radioactive air pollution,” Zachary Barber, a clean air advocate with PennEnvironment told council.
“Protecting these parks isn’t a matter of politics. It is a matter of good policy, but even more it’s a matter of common sense,” he added.
The ban passed Tuesday night would not apply to the existing leases like the one at Deer Lakes Park, but it would prevent the operation from expanding.
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Pushback on bill
During a discussion on the bill, some council members voiced concerns that it could hamstring council’s future ability to implement pollution controls on fracking operations near county land.
“If everybody signs a lease around that park and we don’t, we’ve got nothing to say about the safety of what’s going on there,” said councilor Nick Futules, a Democrat. “But by signing a lease for the subsurface, we do have something to say.”
Futules said he does not support fracking inside of county parks, but does think it should be possible to frack underneath the parks.
Republican Suzanne Filiaggi said she had “serious concerns” about the bill’s language. She worried that the restrictions on commercial activity were too broad and could put some of the businesses that rent space in the park, such as ski slope operators, in jeopardy when their leases are up.
“A serious read of the language makes all partnerships vulnerable in that they must … defend or prove that their use is directly associated with the public’s recreational use and enjoyment,” Filiaggi said, adding that the ordinance could potentially discourage growth.
Councilor Bethany Hallam, one of the bill’s sponsors, said council members had the chance to introduce amendments at past committee meetings.
“If you don’t support fracking in the parks, then you should vote ‘yes’ to ban fracking in the parks. It just seems like such common-sense legislation to me,” she said.
“What I haven’t heard is any single person saying, ‘Please don’t ban fracking in the parks.’ Not once,” she said. “Not the 70-plus folks that came to our public hearing, not the dozens of folks who came here tonight, not the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of folks who are in all of our email inboxes. Not one person has said, ‘Vote no on this.’”
The bill passed with 11 members voting in favor of the ban. Filiaggi and fellow Republican Samuel DeMarco voted against the ban along with Democrats Futules and Bob Macey.
In a statement, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said that although his administration does not plan to allow fracking on or under county parks, decisions about leasing “should be conducted on a case-by-case basis by the leaders elected to make those decisions.”
Fitzgerald promises a veto
Fitzgerald, who has long been an advocate for the natural gas industry, said he “fully [supports] a move from fossil fuels to sustainable energy,” but “we cannot flip a switch to make that happen overnight. Natural gas is part of that path and to ignore that is shortsighted.”
“Any future legislation can simply repeal this one,” he said. “It’s just propaganda to benefit their own political interests.”
Fitzgerald promised to veto the bill, but if the bill’s 11 council supporters stick by it, that’s more than the two-thirds majority required to overturn the veto.