Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

In a power shift, natural gas closes in on ‘king coal’

In Pennsylvania when you flip on a light switch, odds are you’re burning coal. But as the fracking boom continues to unlock huge quantities of natural gas, the electric grid is changing. Power plants are increasingly turning to this lower-cost, cleaner-burning fossil fuel.

The shift is being driven by both market forces and new regulations.

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EPA issues new rule to protect small waterways

Joanne Martin collects a sample of water from Brady Run, a stream in South Beaver Township in western Pennsylvania. She is a citizen scientist monitoring the water for potential pollution from nearby natural gas drilling.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Joanne Martin collects a sample of water from Brady Run, a stream in South Beaver Township in western Pennsylvania. She is a citizen scientist monitoring the water for potential pollution from nearby natural gas drilling.

Small headwater streams, tributaries and waterways will now be protected by the Clean Water Act under a new rule announced today by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. The move has a number of opponents including farmers and the oil and gas industry, who say it’s an overreach of federal authority.

The creation of the Clean Water Rule stems from ambiguous language in the Clean Water Act, which gives federal and state regulators authority to limit pollution of the nation’s “navigable” waterways. Several Supreme Court decisions ruled out wetlands from that definition, and created confusion regarding the EPA’s jurisdiction when it came to issuing permits for pollution discharges.

“The Clean Water Act has protected our health for more than 40 years and helped our nation clean up hundreds of thousands of miles of polluted waterways to the benefit of communities and businesses,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on a press call. “But Supreme Court cases in 2001 and 2006, put protection of 60 percent of our nations’ streams and millions of acres of wetlands into question.” Continue Reading

Industry launches new TV ad opposing shale tax

The battle over Governor Wolf’s shale gas tax proposal took an acrimonious turn last week with dueling letters between the industry and the governor. Now the television ads have arrived.

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and Industry began running TV spots opposing Wolf's shale gas tax.

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The Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and Industry began running TV spots opposing Governor Wolf's shale gas tax.

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which leads a coalition of groups opposing the shale gas tax, has begun running an ad against Governor Wolf’s proposal in the Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Wilkes Barre/Scranton media markets.  The TV spot, launched Monday, is part of the Chamber’s “Stop New Energy Taxes” campaign, an effort to beat back Wolf’s plan to tax Marcellus Shale production at five percent, with an additional 4.7 cents per thousand cubic feet.

Wolf says it will bring in $1 billion, much of which will be funneled toward education. The industry ad doesn’t mention education, but instead says it will cost “tens of thousands of jobs,” be the “highest energy tax in the country,” and “…even worse the money will be sent to Harrisburg, instead of critical local projects.”

So how accurate is the ad? Continue Reading

Reporter’s Notebook: Tracing the tracks of the oil trains

An oil train moves through the University Village neighborhood of Chicago. The trains pass through Chicago on their way to East Coast refineries.

Trudy E. Bell

An oil train passes apartments in the University Village neighborhood of Chicago. The trains travel through Chicago on their way to East Coast refineries like those in Philadelphia and South Jersey.

Driving south on Lakeshore Drive through the Lakeview section of Chicago, it’s easy to ignore the city’s role in industrial transport. Lake Michigan looks placid and blue. People are riding their bikes along the shore, or strolling, or picnicking. It’s a pleasant, sunny Sunday evening after a long hard winter. Chicagoans bustle through new parks and grand museums. But keep going, and avoid google maps’ efforts to divert you to the highway, and it’s soon obvious how this place serves as the nation’s bottleneck for oil trains.

Chuck Quirmbach, a seasoned public radio reporter from Wisconsin, served as my chauffeur and tour guide, pointing out old and new, like the city’s Millennium Park.

“Don’t know why they built that,” he said, adding that the city had plenty of other nearby parks.

Quirmbach, with his head of thick white hair usually framed by a pair of headphones, microphone in hand, is one of those reporters who has probably covered every kind of story imaginable. And he’s still curious. We stay on route 41, which takes us through the South Side, hugging Lake Michigan. But the green spaces along the lake soon give way to industry young and old. Or new parks interspersed with old decaying industry. At one point we drive by thick masonry walls, abandoned to weed trees, another form of greening. Continue Reading

Public health advocates push for Marcellus Shale registry

cabot_drill_site13

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

More than seven years into the drilling boom, health advocates continue to push the state to track drilling-related complaints.

Public health advocates continue to urge the state to do a better job of tracking health complaints related to natural gas development. The state Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection are discussing ways to work together to better monitor Marcellus Shale related health issues. But so far, there’s no money for those efforts.

Governor Wolf has proposed $100,000 to the health department in his budget plan, but it’s not guaranteed to make it through the legislature. Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley says he takes the issue seriously.

“If that doesn’t pass, we’ll have to look for Plan B. This is an issue that’s not going away,” he says. “There are questions. They need to be dealt with in a transparent way.”

Health advocates say $100,000 is not enough money to fund a health registry, but they’re encouraged the state is taking steps to investigate complaints.

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Wolf urges railroads to adopt oil train safety measures

This Feb. 17, 2015 file photo shows a crew member walking near the scene of a train derailment near Mount Carbon, W.Va.

Chris Tilley / AP Photo

This Feb. 17, 2015 file photo shows a crew member walking near the scene of a train derailment near Mount Carbon, West Virginia.

Governor Wolf is urging rail companies shipping crude oil through Pennsylvania to adopt voluntary safety measures to help prevent the risk of accidents.

It’s estimated that 60-70 trains carrying oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale travel through Pennsylvania each week to East Coast refineries like Philadelphia Energy Solutions. The state has seen four oil train derailments since January 2014, but none have led to the explosions or loss of life seen elsewhere.

On Tuesday, Wolf sent a letter to Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation, urging the companies to adopt the measures, which include slower speeds in highly populated areas. The governor has also hired University of Delaware professor and rail safety expert Dr. Allan Zarembski for a three-month stint to evaluate risks and provide policy recommendations.

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Study: Lower than expected air pollutants detected at Marcellus drilling sites

A Bradford County drilling rig

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A Bradford County drill rig.

An article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, published today, says measurements of air pollution from Marcellus drilling and transportation sites in Bradford and Sullivan counties were lower than the researchers expected. The study, “Atmosphere Emission Characterization of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Development Sites,” also reports levels of methane emissions were higher than those indicated in previous research.

Peter DeCarlo is assistant professor in the civil, architecture and engineering department at Drexel University and lead researcher on the report.

“We had seen a lot of data from other natural gas or oil development areas and we had seen pretty high levels of pollutants,” said DeCarlo. “So we went in expecting to see similar things in the Marcellus. The geology in the region is different in that [it produces] a lot of natural gas but we didn’t see a lot of the air quality pollutants that we expected.”

The researchers used a more sophisticated measuring technique than is typically available to researchers or regulators such as those at the Department of Environmental Protection. The researchers used tracers to track the plume of emissions in order to measure levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.

“We did very fast measurements over large spacial areas and downwind of the gas sites,” said DeCarlo. Continue Reading

Wolf nominates EQT executive to Public Utility Commission

Governor Wolf has nominated EQT executive Andrew Place to the state Public Utility Commission.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Governor Wolf has nominated EQT executive Andrew Place to the state Public Utility Commission.

Governor Wolf has chosen EQT executive Andrew Place to serve as a commissioner on the state Public Utility Commission.

Place is currently the corporate director for energy and environmental policy at EQT, where he focuses on Marcellus Shale natural gas development. Before joining the gas company in 2011, he worked on environmental issues for Carnegie Mellon University and the state Department of Environmental Protection. He replaces PUC commissioner James Cawley, whose term expired in March.

“Andrew Place brings the knowledge and expertise to help advance my vision for the PUC,” Wolf said in a statement. “We must ensure there is a balance between consumers and utilities. We also have to develop Pennsylvania’s abundance of energy resources to make sure we have the infrastructure to support the natural gas and other energy industries.”

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Case challenges township’s right to change zoning in favor of gas development

A natural gas rig in the Tioga State Forest. Critics of a zoning change in Middlesex Township fear more rigs like this will be built in previously residential areas.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

A natural gas rig in the Tioga State Forest. Critics of a zoning change in Middlesex Township fear more rigs like this will be built in previously residential areas.

Local rights to zone for oil and gas development in Pennsylvania are being tested by a Butler County case in which plaintiffs claim a township has acted unconstitutionally by failing to protect residents from the effects of a sharp increase in industrial activity.

Middlesex Township, about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh, approved an ordinance in August last year that allows industrial development on about 90 percent of its land area, up from about 30 percent before the ordinance was passed.

The measure has been challenged by two environmental groups, Clean Air Council and Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and four township residents, partly on grounds that it violates citizens’ rights to health and safety under Article 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The plaintiffs also argue that Ordinance 127 violates the state Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment, under which government has a responsibility to maintain environmental quality for its citizens.

The challenge, which will be reviewed at the township’s Zoning Hearing Board on Wednesday, May 27, attempts to build on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s landmark Robinson Township ruling in December 2013 that, among other things, established local responsibility to zone in a way that protects the health and safety of local residents.

In the Robinson ruling, the court ruled as unconstitutional three parts of Act 13, Pennsylvania’s wide-ranging 2012 gas law, which pre-empted municipalities’ ability to set their own zoning for oil & gas development; required local ordinances to allow for “reasonable” oil and gas development, and gave gas companies the right to obtain waivers of state rules designed to keep wells and rigs a certain distance from natural water sources. Continue Reading

Fracktivist faces 6 felony charges for recording lawyer

Vera

Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Vera Scroggins has been in a high-profile legal battle with a gas driller and now faces felony charges for an unrelated incident.

Anti-fracking activist Vera Scroggins has been charged with six felonies for violating Pennsylvania’s wiretapping laws by recording a Montrose lawyer and his secretary without their permission.

The charges stem from a 2013 incident in which Scroggins was denied an application to have her anti-fracking group participate in the town’s Fourth of July parade.

According to a criminal complaint filed this week, Scroggins and fellow activist Craig Stevens went to the office of the parade chair, attorney Laurence Kelly, in June 2013 seeking an application to participate. Kelly and his secretary said they were unaware they were being recorded until the end of the conversation.

“I have a 3 minute, 20 second video talking to him,” says Scroggins. “He refused to let us in the parade and said we’re too controversial because we’re anti-fracking. He said, ‘You’re recording this without my permission. It’s against the law.’”

Kelly did not respond to requests to comment. Scroggins says her video camera was visible during the entire exchange.

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