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Before drilling the class, some schools drill for gas

After struggling through a winter of sky-high natural-gas prices, a school system near Pittsburgh has decided to drill for its own gas.

The school board in Penn Hills, a community of 50,000 in the heart of Pennsylvania coal country, has struck a deal with Penneco Oil Co. to sink as many as 10 natural- gas wells under the district's eight schools.

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The school system would get 12.5 percent of royalties plus a fixed share of the gas - not enough to supply all of its energy needs, but enough to cut its heating costs in half and delay a tax increase, officials say.

Last school year, it cost $450,000 to heat the schools, in part because of natural gas prices almost six times higher than normal.

"I'm not sure it will eliminate the need to buy any gas, but whatever the savings, we will gladly accept them," says school board member Barry Patterson. Officials hope approval will come in time to have the first well producing next month in Penn Hills.

Other schools around the United States and in Pennsylvania have leased drilling rights over the years, but this could signal a resurgence in the practice.

In oil-patch states like Oklahoma and Texas, wells already dot the landscape. "We have ... oil wells and gas wells producing next to schools, churches, restaurants, you name it," says Mickey Thompson, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association.

About five miles from Penn Hills, the Plum Borough district has three wells - one about 500 feet from an elementary school - that have been producing gas since 1996. Officials say the wells helped them avoid last winter's energy crunch and earned $11,000 in royalties last year.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor