Flying Without Altitude

Unknown-2When the ribbon was cut on a redesigned and expanded Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) in 1992, economic development planners had every reason to hope that this world-class facility would drive growth in the region for decades to come.

PIT sits on 12,900 acres (making it the fourth-largest airport by land in the nation, behind only Denver International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and Orlando International Airport) and has the longest commercial aircraft runways in Pennsylvania at 11,500 feet.

The new terminal debuted with numerous features that were innovative in 1992, including an AirMall with more than 100 retailers and restaurants. The Landside/Airside design by Tasso Katselas Associates eliminated the need for connecting passengers to go through security again and simplified the movement of jets on the airfield. As the bustling hub of US Airways, PIT serviced more than 20 million passengers at its peak in 1997 (the terminal was designed to handle up to 30 million), with up to 600 flights per day arriving or departing.

This bright outlook turned gloomy in 2004, when US Airways began phasing out the PIT hub. This year, only 300 flights and about 8 million passengers will travel through PIT. Numerous gates at PIT have been eliminated or stand empty.

But 10 years after the downward slide at PIT began to accelerate, the economic potential of Pittsburgh International suddenly is looking up–and only because its operators decided to look down.

Confused yet? It turns out that the biggest potential revenue generator at PIT has nothing to do with its snazzy terminal or the number of planes that soar into the wild blue yonder from its runways: PIT is sitting on top of a natural gas bonanza 6,000 feet below the surface.

As reported this week in The New York Times, Consul Energy is about to drill the first fracking well at PIT. The airport, like most of western Pennsylvania, sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation–the largest natural gas repository in the U.S. The amount of gas that can be recovered under the airport is enough to power the entire state of PA for more than a year. Alleghany County officials (the county owns the airport) estimate that fracking at PIT could yield more than a half a billion dollars in new revenue over the next 20 years.

Consul Energy’s well will be constructed outside the airport’s fence, but when the drilling reaches 6,000 feet it will then proceed horizontally under Pittsburgh International’s runways and terminal.

The recent discovery that fracking is feasible at PIT could not come at a better time for the financially strapped airport. According to the Times report, about 42 percent of the annual operating budget at PIT goes to serving the airport’s debt. Revenue from fracking will cover nearly a quarter of the airport’s $91-million operating budget, officials estimate.

PIT won’t be the first airport to host drilling operations (on-site oil and gas wells predated the construction of Denver’s airport), but energy industry experts say the conditions for fracking at PIT are ideal. The airport reportedly sits above four separate layers of gas-infused shale, all of which can reached by a single above-ground drill rig. The gas will be delivered to a single pipeline and a new network of roads won’t be needed.

We’ve reported extensively in this space about some unexpected side effects of fracking operations, including huge sinkholes and earthquakes. The drilling plan at PIT has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, so we’ll assume for now these concerns have been addressed.