Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Towns take on gas industry, at their own peril

Protestors of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline link arms before they are arrested by police for trespassing on private property in Conestoga, Pa.

COURTESY OF MICHELLE JOHNSEN

Protesters of the Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline link arms before they are arrested in Conestoga, Pa in January. They later pleaded guilty to trespassing charges.

Local governments all over the country are trying stop the surge in oil and gas development by embracing a novel legal tactic–community-based rights ordinances. It’s a strategy that carries risks.

In rural Conestoga Township, Lancaster County concerned residents want to stop a $3 billion interstate gas pipeline from coming through their community. Oklahoma-based Williams Partners Atlantic Sunrise project is one many proposed pipelines in Pennsylvania facing intense opposition. If approved, it would cut through 10 counties and carry Marcellus Shale gas as far south as Alabama.

As Williams prepares its formal application for federal regulators, Conestoga Township residents are fighting for more local control.

 

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EPA releases first part of frack study, an analysis of chemical disclosure

A truck delivers drilling waste water to a frack water recycling plant in Susquehanna County

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A truck delivers drilling waste water to a frack water recycling plant in Susquehanna County

The Environmental Protection Agency released an analysis of frack water on Friday, based on data that drillers supplied to the website FracFocus. The EPA’s report is just one part of the agency’s long awaited fracking study, which will assess the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies. The full report is due out this spring.

The EPA researchers say less than one percent of frack fluid in their analysis of 39,000 wells contained additives, while water made up 88 percent of the fluid, and sand, or quartz, made up ten percent. The agency identified 692 separate frack water ingredients. Maximum concentrations of these chemicals were usually below 2 percent of the total mass, while half of the chemicals were below 0.3 percent of mass. EPA science advisor Tom Burke told reporters on a press call that the chemical additives and volumes of water varied greatly from well to well. Water usage for each fracked well ranged from 35,000 gallons to 7.2 million gallons.

“While these maximum concentrations [of chemical additives] are low percentages of the overall fracturing fluid,” said Burke, “more than half the wells had water volumes greater than 1.5 million gallons. So a small percentage may mean hundreds or thousands of gallons of chemicals could be transported to, and present on, the well pad prior to mixing on the fracking fluid. Remember one percent of a million gallons is a large number — 10,000 gallons.”

The three top chemicals used in the frack fluid were hydrochloric acid, methanol, and hydro-treated light petroleum distillates. Hydrochloric acid is used to keep the well casings free of mineral build-ups, while methanol is used to increase viscosity. Petroleum distillates are refined products like diesel, kerosene, or fuel oil, and are used to make the fluid “slick,” or soapy, and thereby reduce friction. Continue Reading

Marcellus Shale drillers to begin monthly gas production reporting

Gas companies previously had to report production figures twice a year. A new law requires monthly reports.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Gas companies previously had to report production figures twice a year. A new law requires monthly reports.

Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale drillers will begin filing monthly production reports next week, to comply with a new law enacted last fall.

Monthly production reports bring Pennsylvania in line with other major gas-producing states. The data was previously collected by the state Department of Environmental Protection twice a year.

Transparency around gas production data has become an issue for some landowners who have questioned the accuracy of their royalty payments. Since royalty checks are typically distributed on a monthly basis, it has been difficult for landowners to compare the information they receive from gas companies with the data posted on DEP’s website, which represented six months of production.

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Quigley responds to criticism over new drilling regulations

"A government that works is a government that listens," says Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley. "We're trying to listen to as much input as we can."

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

"A government that works is a government that listens," says Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley. "We're trying to listen to as much input as we can."

Governor Wolf’s pick to head the state Department of Environmental Protection is defending the way the agency has handled proposed changes to gas drilling regulations.

At a public meeting last week, representatives from the state’s Marcellus Shale industry sharply criticized the agency and suggested the Wolf administration illegally appointed non-voting members to its newly formed Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board (TAB). The new members include representatives from academia and the environmental community.

Drillers argue these new appointments– which occurred shortly after Wolf took office– have no place on the TAB, which gives technical recommendations.

“This is an attempt to be as transparent as possible,” says Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley.

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Preparing for the worst, Delco first responders simulate oil train accident

Delaware County EMS personal try to find a way to get their vehicles to the site of an oil train incident during a practice run.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Delaware County EMS personal try to find a way to get their vehicles to the site of an oil train incident during a practice run.

The increasing number of rail cars carrying crude oil through Pennsylvania means a rising risk of accidents. Recent derailments caused trains to explode and incinerate areas along tracks in Illinois and West Virginia, threatening waterways. So far, Pennsylvania has been lucky. Within the past year and a half, oil trains traveling through the state derailed in Philadelphia, Vandergrift and McKeesport, but none of them exploded.

Back in the sumer of 2013, that wasn’t the case in the Quebec village of Lac Megantic, where an oil train crash killed 47 people. Five bodies were never recovered, having been incinerated.

Nationwide, oil train traffic has increased 4000 percent since 2008. And Philadelphia is a top destination for these trains, which haul millions of gallons of volatile crude oil from the Bakken Shale fields in North Dakota to area refineries each week. With the increase in oil train traffic from North Dakota, the Department of Transportation predicts an average of 10 of these trains will derail each year.

 

While activists and politicians push Philadelphia’s emergency planning operation to disclose their response plans, neighboring Delaware County has forged ahead with practice runs.

About 150 first responders, from local, state, and federal agencies gathered at the Lazaretto Ballroom in Tinicum Township Delaware County last week. The training exercise was for this new danger – crude-by-rail shipments. The room was full of uniformed first responders from some of Delaware County’s 80 separate volunteer fire companies. Continue Reading

Gas industry slams DEP over new drilling rules

Gas industry representatives are criticizing the way the DEP has handled proposed changes to drilling regulations.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

The DEP is in the process of changing its oil and gas drilling regulations.

Representatives from the state’s Marcellus Shale industry are criticizing the way the Wolf administration has handled proposed changes to drilling regulations.

At a meeting of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board (TAB) Friday, industry groups questioned the level of transparency around new draft rules.

Kevin Moody, of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, was among the critics.

“I’m not going to go all ‘Al Pacino’ here, but this whole proceeding is out of order,” he told DEP staff .

Since 2011, the agency has been revising its Chapter 78 regulations, which govern the oil and gas industry. In December 2013, the rules became available for public comment. The agency held nine hearings across the state and received more than 24,000 comments. Shortly after Governor Wolf took office, the DEP made a slew of significant changes– imposing more stringent rules for things like waste, noise, and streams.

Jim Welty is vice president of government affairs for the trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

“The MSC submitted extensive and detailed comments, the vast majority of which appear to have been ignored,” he said. “In our view [these regulations] are designed to increase costs and threaten continued development of this industry.”

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DEP reverses decision over waste water disposal well

Diagram of a deep well injection disposal site.

Adapted from the National Energy Technology Laboratory / Environmental Protection Agency

Diagram of a deep well injection disposal site.

The Department of Environmental Protection took the unusual step of reversing its approval of a frack waste water disposal well in Indiana County this week. The decision took both the energy company and the opponents of the disposal well, by surprise.

“This is novel, this has not happened previously,” Pennsylvania General Energy vice president Lisa McManus told StateImpact. “So it came as a complete surprise to us.”

Pennsylvania General Energy, or PGE, received the green light from the DEP in October to convert a former gas producing well in Grant Township into a disposal well. This came after the Environmental Protection Agency approved the project last spring. The EPA has overseen deep injection wells in Pennsylvania since 1983. Those wells are designated as Class 2 wells and are regulated by the underground injection control program, via the Safe Drinking Water Act. Although about 1,860 Class 2 wells are permitted in Pennsylvania, less than ten of them are approved for oil and gas waste disposal.

Still the DEP needed to sign off on the conversion of the Grant Township well’s function. DEP issued PGE a permit in October, but two residents of Grant Township appealed the decision.

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Measuring the climate trade-off between coal and natural gas

President Obama’s plan to combat climate change relies heavily on replacing coal with natural gas as a way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide electric power plants pour into the atmosphere. But natural gas comes with it’s own climate problems.

 

 

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is also a powerful greenhouse gas, which can be 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide within twenty years.  And with so many opportunities for unburnt methane to escape on its way from the wellhead to the power plant, those leaks could offset any benefits from burning natural gas instead of coal. Scientists have just begun to try to measure those leaks. One team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, spends their days chasing methane plumes. Continue Reading

Kane: gas royalties fraud investigation ‘wrapping up’ soon

Attorney General Kathleen Kane began investigating gas royalty complaints more than a year ago.

AP Photo/Marc Levy, file

Attorney General Kathleen Kane began investigating gas royalty complaints more than a year ago.

State Attorney General Kathleen Kane says her investigation into allegations of underpaid gas royalties will be concluded in the near future.

“I can’t comment on where it is right now,” she told a Senate Appropriations committee Tuesday. “But I can tell you we’re almost wrapping it up.”

More than a year has passed since former Governor Tom Corbett and state Sen. Gene Yaw (R- Bradford) asked Kane to investigate Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy, after leaseholders complained the company was cheating them out of gas royalty money.

“Both the anti-trust and bureau of consumer protection is working very hard,” said Kane. “They’ve conducted hundreds of interviews with landowners. It took a little bit longer than we may have hoped.”

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Railroad chief says oil companies need to do more for rail safety

A CSX unit train delivers a load of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to a refinery in South Philadelphia.

NAT HAMILTON/WHYY NEWS

A CSX unit train delivers a load of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to a refinery in South Philadelphia.

The head of the Federal Railroad Administration says oil companies need to do more to insure the safety of crude by rail shipments. FRA acting administrator Sarah Feinberg says that the railroad companies carrying the highly volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota have done all they can do and the energy industry needs to step up. More from Reuters:

Sarah Feinberg, acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the energy industry must do more to control the volatility of its cargo.

“(We) are running out of things that we can put on the railroads to do,” she said. “There have to be other industries that have skin in the game.”

Recent oil train derailments and explosions in West Virginia and Illinois, which incinerated areas along the tracks, have created momentum in Congress to enact new rail safety laws. Senator Bob Casey has sponsored legislation that would create a new division within the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and provide new funds for training first responders. The RESPONSE Act was introduced by North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Casey was in Philadelphia on Monday, promoting the legislation, which he says has bipartisan support. Continue Reading

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