Mike Butler: Pittsburgh International Airport model for how to ease emissions

If anyone wonders what the airport of the future might look like, the Pittsburgh International Airport is a great example.

For that, we must applaud the imaginative Allegheny County Airport Authority. It is taking two related paths to showcase how Pennsylvania’s second-largest airport can protect the environment while also raising funds to operate it.

This is major news. Airports are among the largest sources of emissions in the country. Los Angeles International Airport, for instance, is the largest source of carbon monoxide in California. So, any new initiatives airports and airlines can take to reduce aviation’s environmental footprint will prove essential to meeting our environmental goals.

But more than that, the county is showing the benefits of affordable and reliable energy need not exclude any kind of energy, and to boot, it’s showing us how revenues can grow along with our progress toward environmental goals. At a time of record high gasoline prices and inflation unseen in 40 years, this is a lesson that should help the Biden administration see how to formulate energy policies that help lower costs, instead of blocking energy production as it is doing in places like the Gulf of Mexico.

The authority’s actions are two-fold. Its innovative $1.3 billion airport renovation project will deliver an accessible and sustainable terminal by 2025. It is using the latest structural systems and materials to reduce the terminal’s carbon emissions by 20% by 2028.

Just as inventive, the authority executed a novel plan to drill natural gas wells on the airport campus that could eventually supply airplane fuel and other uses while raising money for the airport’s renovation. It also pairs that natural gas with solar in a first-of-its-kind airport microgrid, which uses solar when the weather conditions are right, and falls back on natural gas when needed.

By focusing on natural gas, which burns cleaner than diesel and gasoline, the authority is demonstrating that natural gas goes better together with renewable and lower-carbon energy sources while we make our way to a future without traditional fuels like oil and gas, which even the most aggressive forecasts say will not happen before 2050.

The authority late last month underscored the use of abundant, affordable natural gas when it updated a 2013 Marcellus shale gas agreement with CNX Resources that provides incentives for additional drilling. Under the initial pact, CNX drilled 14 wells and, over the next five years, the airport will help secure customers for gas that could be supplied from additional wells.

Authority officials are perceptive in recognizing the necessity of reducing the airport’s carbon footprint while also helping airlines do the same. Airport officials are evaluating ways to use more sustainable fuels, including organic waste, to generate sustainable aviation fuel. Already, the airport employs an electrical microgrid powered by CNX gas that also incorporates solar panels.

The CNX agreement also enables the airport to get up to 5% on the sale of any compressed or liquefied natural gas that it brokers by landing gas customers. CNX has indicated it intends to produce natural gas derivative fuels such as liquefied natural gas or compressed natural gas from the wells, including building a liquefaction plant. The company has a unique ultra-high-pressure separation technology that will manage gas streams to generate electricity as well as hydrogen near the airport campus wells.

The airport has benefited from the CNX agreement. It received $46 million when the 2013 pact was signed and has realized over $57 million in royalties since the first Marcellus well went into production in 2016. Under the amended agreement, the airport could add $24 million in Marcellus royalties and up to $27 million in Utica royalties by 2030.

We must congratulate and celebrate the airport authority’s progressive approach to helping curb air pollution. At a time when environmentalists deem the nation’s major airports this century’s new smokestacks, Pittsburgh International Airport can serve as a model for how to address the challenge.

Author: Mike Butler
Publication: Trib Live
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