Pennsylvania

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Independent judges: Sunoco Logistics pipeline can’t bypass local zoning laws

Sunoco Logistics can’t bypass local zoning laws to develop its natural gas liquids pipeline project known as Mariner East. That’s the word from a pair of independent administrative law judges for the state’s Public Utility Commission, or PUC.

Sunoco Logistics wants to build 18 pump and valve stations to keep natural gas liquids flowing along the pipeline’s 300-mile route from western Pennsylvania to Marcus Hook.

For months, the company has attempted to make the case – to local residents and to the PUC – that it is a public utility corporation, and that the pipeline itself offers a public utility service.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, the judges dismissed that claim, resulting in a win for residents who have teamed up with environmental groups to fight the project.

“We’re happy that it proves what we’ve been saying all along,” said Tom Casey, the head of a citizens’ advocacy group in Chester County.

However, Casey, a resident of West Goshen Township, could not officially declare victory.

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Public will get to weigh in on Loyalsock forest drilling plans

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says it will release drilling plans for the Loyalsock State Forest and take public comments on them for 15 days.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says it will release drilling plans for the Loyalsock State Forest and take public comments on them for 15 days.

Facing mounting public pressure, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced today it will seek public comments on controversial plans to expand natural gas drilling in the Loyalsock State Forest.

At issue is a 25,000 acre swath of the forest known as the Clarence Moore lands– a treasured area for wildlife and recreation. 

DCNR’s announcement comes less than a week after StateImpact Pennsylvania published a story about environmental groups’ concerns over the lack of transparency in the process.

“When we met with the stakeholder groups, they asked for some sort of public input,” says Dan Devlin, head of the agency’s Bureau of Forestry. “We’ve struggled with that, and we’ve finally decided on what that process will be.”

He says because negotiations between the agency and two gas companies are ongoing, the public comment period won’t begin until a final development proposal is in place.

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Pa. health department reaches out to doctors amid controversy over drilling complaints

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is asking doctors to let them know if their patients could be experiencing health impacts from natural gas operations. The outreach follows allegations by two former health department employees who say staff were told not to respond to people who called with drilling-related health complaints.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is asking doctors to let them know if their patients could be experiencing health impacts from natural gas operations. The outreach follows allegations by two former health department employees who say staff were told not to return calls from people drilling-related complaints.

Are doctors in Pennsylvania seeing patients with possible health effects from natural gas development?

The state Department of Health wants to know.

The agency reached out to physicians through the Pennsylvania Medical Society this week, following a recent investigation by StateImpact Pennsylvania into how the agency handled drilling-related health complaints.

In a message on the society’s website, the department asks health professionals to contact the state’s Bureau of Epidemiology if they have encountered patients with symptoms they suspect could be related to natural gas operations.

Two retired state employees told StateImpact Pennsylvania that in 2012, community health staffers were instructed not to return phone calls from people who complained about gas development, but to forward the caller’s name and number to a supervisor.

In the wake of these allegations, state health secretary Michael Wolf wrote an editorial published on PennLive.com on July 22.

In it, Wolf made several claims about how the agency has addressed the potential impacts of shale gas development, including:

  • That the department “has conducted outreach on the issue” through the Pennsylvania Medical Society,
  • That the department has been “working with schools of public health in Pennsylvania to further understand and study the potential health impacts of drilling,”
  • That the department “will continue to carry out related monitoring activities under Act 13 of 2012,” the state’s two-year-old oil and gas law.

Neither Wolf, nor a department spokeswoman mentioned these initiatives in prior interviews with StateImpact Pennsylvania.

We checked in on where these initiatives stand. Here’s what we found out.

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U.S. Department of Energy seeks to curb methane emissions from gas infrastructure

Natural gas pipelines in Lycoming County. Natural gas systems are the second-leading cause of methane emissions, after agriculture according to the Obama administration.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Natural gas pipelines in Lycoming County. Natural gas systems are the second-leading cause of methane emissions, after agriculture according to the Obama administration.

The U.S. Department of Energy today announced a series of initiatives aimed a curbing methane emissions from the nation’s natural gas infrastructure. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. It’s released by livestock, landfills, and oil and gas production.

Methane accounts for about 9 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution, but it’s over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat trapping gas.

Scientists are still working to quantify methane emissions and their sources. A slew of papers has recently been published in academic journals. According to the White House, natural gas systems are the second-leading cause of human-related methane emissions, after agriculture.

As part of its broader effort to fight climate change, the Obama administration hosted a series of round-table discussions on how to limit methane leaks from natural gas infrastructure.

Energy Secretary Ernst Moniz called methane both a potent greenhouse gas and a powerful energy resource and says that curbing leaks will be beneficial.

“These benefits include job creation through pipeline and other equipment replacement, cost recovery for infrastructure investments that increase safety and save energy, and opportunities for addressing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in a statement.

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Gas industry survey shows job growth slowing

Ethan Eckard, 23, a test technician at Schramm, Inc. in West Chester, sits in the control room of the T500XD drill rig.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Ethan Eckard, 23, a test technician at Schramm, Inc. in West Chester, sits in the control room of the T500XD drill rig.

Job growth in the Marcellus Shale industry continues, but it’s slowing down.

That’s according to an annual workforce survey published today by the gas industry trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition. Companies expect to hire 2,000 new workers this year– a 50 percent drop from the 4,000 jobs they projected last year.

Over the past few years, booming business led to overproduction– producing a glut of gas that caused prices to plummet.

“I think it’s pretty clear we’ve been a victim of our own success,” says MSC President Dave Spigelmyer. “Natural gas prices have softened rather dramatically.”

As companies have shifted operations from the dry gas regions of Pennsylvania’s northern tier, toward the more lucrative wet gas in the southwestern part of the state, the survey projects most of the job growth this year will happen there.

The report includes responses from 60 of the coalition’s 288 member companies.

Spigelmyer points out the survey focuses on direct oil and gas jobs and doesn’t capture other employment benefits, like lower natural gas prices making Pennsylvania manufacturing more competitive. He says as drill rigs move elsewhere, job opportunities also shift.

“We’ve seen the job growth occurring primarily in the downstream sector—building out our pipeline infrastructure,” he says.

According to the survey, the share of new jobs going to Pennsylvanians increased slightly last year–up from 57 percent in 2012 to 60 percent in 2013.

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Congressional Watch-Dog Warns Fracking Waste Could Threaten Drinking Water

A sign protesting a proposed deep injection well sits on the lawn of a home in Brady Township, Clearfield County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A sign protesting a proposed deep injection well sits on the lawn of a home in Brady Township, Clearfield County.

The Government Accountability Office says new risks from underground injections of oil and gas waste could harm drinking water supplies, and the EPA needs to step up both oversight and enforcement. The GAO released a study on Monday detailing the EPA’s role in overseeing the nation’s 172,000 wells, which either dispose of oil and gas waste, use “enhanced” oil and gas production techniques, store fossil fuels for later use, or use diesel fuel to frack for gas or oil. These wells are referred to as “class II” underground injection wells and are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Oversight of these wells vary by state, with some coming under the regulatory authority of the EPA, including the 1,865 class II wells in Pennsylvania. The GAO faults the EPA for inconsistent on-site inspections and guidance that dates back to the 1980′s. Of the more than 1800 class II wells in Pennsylvania, the GAO reports only 33 percent were inspected in 2012. Some states, including California, Colorado and North Dakota, require monthly reporting on injection pressure, volume and content of the fluid.

As more oil and gas wells across the country generate more waste, the GAO highlights three new risks associated with these wells — earthquakes, high pressure in formations that may have reached their disposal limit, and fracking with diesel. Continue Reading

Federal regulators to hold meetings on proposed pipeline

A natural gas pipeline in Lycoming County.

Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania

A natural gas pipeline in Lycoming County. Oklahoma-based Williams Partners is seeking to build 177 miles of new pipeline through 10 Pennsylvania counties in an effort to bring Marcellus Shale gas to markets along the East Coast.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is planning to hold four public meetings throughout Pennsylvania next week to discuss a proposed expansion of the Transco natural gas pipeline system.

FERC regulates interstate pipelines. Last week the agency announced it would conduct an environmental impact statement on the project and is accepting public comments through August 18th.

Oklahoma-based Williams Partners operates the Transco system, which has over 10,000 miles of exisiting pipeline–moving gas to other businesses, like utility companies and power plants.

As part of a $3 billion project called Atlantic Sunrise, Williams is proposing 177 miles through Pennsylvania of new pipeline to connect Marcellus Shale gas to markets along the East Coast– cities like Baltimore, Washington D.C. and as far south as Alabama.

If approved by FERC, the pipeline would run through 10 Pennsylvania counties, including Columbia, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Clinton and Lycoming.

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Drilling plans for Loyalsock State Forest quietly move forward

A drill rig in the Tiadaghton State Forest. Although gas drilling is already occurring in many state forests, including the Loyalsock, environmental groups are opposing a proposed expansion in an area of the Loyalsock known as the Clarence Moore lands.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drill rig in the Tiadaghton State Forest. Although gas drilling is already occurring in many state forests--including the Loyalsock--environmental groups are fighting a proposed expansion in an ecologically sensitive area of the Loyalsock known as the Clarence Moore lands.

Controversial plans to expand natural gas drilling in the Loyalsock State Forest are quietly moving forward. Last month the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages drilling on public lands, met with two gas companies who own mineral rights there.

More than a year has passed since DCNR held a contentious public meeting on the issue in Williamsport. Since then, the agency has released very little information publicly.

Nearly 500 people attended that meeting, and everyone who spoke over a three-hour period expressed either opposition or concern. In a response to an open records request from the Pennsylvania Forest Coalition, DCNR said it did not keep a record of the comments.

A DCNR spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.

The plans unveiled last summer involve 26 well pads and four compressor stations on a 25,000 acre swath of the Loyalsock forest known as the Clarence Moore lands– a popular area for wildlife enthusiasts and hikers.

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Audit questions whether Pa. lawmakers understand fracking

Fracking site.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a fracking) site in Susquehanna County. Fracking is only one phase of shale gas extraction, but the word is often used as a catchall term for the entire process.

A key question during Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom centers on how much damage it’s done to water resources.

According to new information released this week by the state Department of Environmental Protection, water supplies around the commonwealth have been damaged by oil and gas operations 209 times since the end of 2007. This is the first time the agency has released such a tally.

Why did it wait so long?

According to state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, it’s because the agency has been following the letter of the law, but not “the spirit of the law.”

As part of a highly-critical audit of the DEP unveiled Tuesday, DePasquale says he believes state legislators may not have understood the implications of some of the public disclosure language they approved in Act 13– Pennsylvania’s 2012 update of its oil and gas law.

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Proposed Pipeline Project to Get Federal Scrutiny

Workers build the Laser pipeline in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks/WHYY

Workers build the Laser pipeline in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Federal regulators announced this week that a controversial pipeline expansion project will undergo an extensive environmental review. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate pipelines, will do an environmental impact statement on the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Expansion Project.

Oklahoma-based Williams has proposed an expansion to their Transco natural gas pipeline, which would run through parts of north and central Pennsylvania. The pipeline has garnered intense opposition in Lancaster County. As a result, the company has changed part of its original route to avoid nature preserves.

The Transco pipeline system moves natural gas through more than 10,000 miles of existing pipes. The expansion project is part of a larger effort to get Marcellus Shale gas to end users like power plants.

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