Pennsylvania

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1.5 million at risk in PA for crude oil derailment

 The aftermath of the CSX Bakken crude oil train derailment in Mount Carbon, W. Va.

Photo by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The aftermath of the CSX Bakken crude oil train derailment in Mount Carbon, W. Va.

In Pennsylvania, nearly 1.5 million people are in potential danger if a train carrying crude oil derails and catches fire, according to a PublicSource analysis.

That is about one in every nine Pennsylvanians, or 11.5 percent of the state’s population.

The analysis also found 327 K-12 schools, 37 hospitals and 61 nursing homes in the state are at risk.

These numbers take on new meaning in the wake of the recent calamitous derailment near Mount Carbon, W. Va. And, a federal report predicts 15 trains carrying crude oil and ethanol in the United States could derail in 2015 alone.

On Feb. 16, the nation watched as blazing orange clouds of fire shot out of crushed tank cars in West Virginia from a derailed CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil. Fires burned for days,   drinking water was affected, a house was leveled and hundreds were evacuated from their homes.

The scene had many Pennsylvanians wondering: Will it happen here next?

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With his first budget, Wolf gears up for gas tax fight

Gov. Wolf steps away from the podium at the end of a news conference at Caln Elementary School Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Thorndale, Pa.  Wolf kicked off a statewide "Schools that Teach Tour" and outlined a forthcoming proposal to the Legislature to increase taxes on Pennsylvania's natural gas industry to help boost aid to public schools.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Gov. Wolf steps away from the podium at the end of a February news conference after he outlined a plan to increase taxes on the natural gas industry to help boost aid to public schools.

Governor Wolf made taxing natural gas drillers the centerpiece of his campaign. As he prepares to give his first budget address Tuesday, the issue has once again taken center stage in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state without a severance tax, but it does levy many other levy taxes on drillers. A gas tax has been a hot-button political issue for years– but how does Pennsylvania actually stack up against other states?

The answer to that question gives a window into why the debate is so complex and controversial.

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Governor Wolf asks Obama to strengthen oil train safety

The CSX K040, an oil train bound for South Philadelphia, chugs past an intermodal train through Center City.

Courtesy of Robert King

The CSX K040, an oil train bound for South Philadelphia, chugs past an intermodal train through Center City.

Writing that the “potential for disaster is too great to ignore,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has sought help from President Obama regarding oil train safety. In a letter to the President, Wolf wrote the “tools and options available to me are limited.” The recent oil train derailment in West Virginia has focused more attention on the safety of crude oil transport. Shipments have risen in the past several years because of the shale oil boom in North Dakota, and the lack of pipeline infrastructure to carry all that crude to refineries on the East Coast. Pennsylvania has experienced four train derailments since January 2014. Two of those derailments happened in heavily populated Philadelphia, but none resulted in a fire.

In the letter to Obama, Wolf says about 60 to 70 oil trains pass through Pennsylvania each week on their way to refineries in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Based on information filed by CSX and Norfolk Southern with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency last May, StateImpact calculated that Philadelphia could be getting up to 42 oil trains a week, while up to 30 oil trains could be rolling through Pittsburgh each week. The companies are only required to report the trains carrying more than 1,000,000 gallons of crude. So those numbers don’t include trains carrying less. A train with at least 45 tank cars, each carrying 700 barrels of oil a piece, would be needed to exceed the one million gallon threshold. The CSX train that derailed in Mount Carbon, West Virginia last week had 109 tank cars carrying more than 3 million gallons of crude oil.

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Improvements planned for fracking chemical disclosure website

The groups managing the national fracking chemical disclosure website, FracFocus, say they are planning improvements to make information more transparent.

EnergyWire reports the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission are responding to criticism from environmental groups and open government groups. Pennsylvania is one of 14 states that requires gas drillers to use the website as part of its chemical disclosure laws.

As StateImpact Pennsylvania has previously reported, the way the data is reported makes it difficult for researchers to analyze.

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Report: Pennsylvania’s effective tax rate on drillers is declining

Natural Gas, fracking

AP Photo/David Smith

The report finds the annual effective tax rate on drillers has dropped from 5.3 percent in 2011 to 2.1 percent in 2014.

Even though revenue from Pennsylvania’s gas impact fee has generally ticked upward over the years, the annual effective tax rate on Marcellus Shale drillers has steadily gone down– that’s according to a new analysis released by the state’s Independent Fiscal Office.

The IFO is modeled on the U.S. Congressional Budget Office and provides nonpartisan analysis for budgetary purposes. In a brief released Thursday, the IFO found the effective tax rate on natural gas drillers has declined steadily over the past four years– from 5.3 percent in 2011 to 2.1 percent in 2014.

“Over time the effective tax rate of the impact fee has declined,” says IFO director Matthew Knittel. “That is mainly due to the large increase in the production of natural gas.”

The IFO brief comes in the wake of new data from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which shows Marcellus Shale drillers recently broke another production record– approaching nearly 4 trillion cubic feet of gas in 2014.

Under the state’s 2012 oil and gas law, known as Act 13, gas companies have to pay a flat impact fee for each well they drill. The fees have brought in an average of $210 million per year. The IFO estimates the fees will generate about $220 million this year.

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Senator Casey tells Obama Administration to speed up rail safety initiative

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.

In the wake of the fiery oil train derailment last week in West Virginia, which forced dozens of residents to evacuate and had the state’s governor declare a state of emergency, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey says the Obama Administration should speed up authorization for rail safety improvements. Casey says the rules, which included new funding approved last year as part of an omnibus bill, are stalled at the Office of Management and Budget.

Casey sent a letter to OMB Director Shaun Donovan, urging him to speed up their review of the rule.

“If we don’t push hard to get it through the process, the process will take as long as people want it to take,” Casey told reporters on a conference call.

The rules include strengthening tank cars, reviewing speed limits, improving training for first responders, as well as funds to hire 15 new rail safety inspectors and retain 45 inspectors hired last year. Continue Reading

Activist faces fines, jail time for getting too close to Cabot site

A Cabot driling site in Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Cabot has waged an aggressive legal battle against an anti-fracking activist who brings visitors to its sites and points out environmental violations. The company says Vera Scroggins frequently trespasses and poses a safety risk.

A Susquehanna County judge has found anti-fracking activist Vera Scroggins in contempt of court for getting too close to a Cabot Oil & Gas site last month. She now faces a fine and possible jail time.

This latest ruling was a win for Cabot in its protracted legal battle against the self-described “gas tour guide.” She frequently brings visitors to Cabot sites and points out its environmental violations. The company says she has repeatedly trespassed on its property and poses a safety risk.

Cabot spokesman George Stark says the company is pleased with the contempt ruling.

Contempt of court

The case drew international attention after Cabot got a sweeping court injunction against her in 2013– which effectively barred her from half the county. Last March, the injunction was modified to be much less restrictive. But she still has to stay 100 feet from Cabot wellpads and access roads.

“After repeatedly telling this individual that her actions were illegal and dangerous, Cabot was forced to seek an injunction to prevent harm to her or others,” Stark wrote in an email to StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Anti-fracking activist Vera Scroggins was found to be in contempt of court for getting too close to a Cabot site.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Anti-fracking activist Vera Scroggins was found to be in contempt of court for getting too close to a Cabot site.

At an October 2014 hearing, Scroggins was found to have come too close to an access road, but she was not punished, since there was some confusion about whether the road was a family’s driveway.

This time, she will likely face a fine of $300 to $1,000. She says she’s innocent and won’t pay– which could mean jail time.

At a hearing in Montrose Wednesday, Cabot contractor Jordan Huffman testified that on January 16th he saw Scroggins and three other people parked on the access road to the Gesford 2 wellpad in Dimock Township, Susquehanna County.

Testimony from two of her friends contradicted that– they said her car was parked on a private driveway nearby, and she never approached the access road. Huffman showed the courtroom a photo he’d taken of Scroggins on the private driveway.

He had not taken a photo of her Cabot’s access road. He said she moved her car after he initially spotted her. She says he was lying.

“I’m shocked and disturbed an individual would fabricate a story to get me held in contempt,” she said.

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Federal court weighs in on air emissions controversy in Pa. gas fields

A compressor station pumps natural gas into the Tennessee Pipeline in Dimock, Pa.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

A compressor station pumps natural gas into the Tennessee Pipeline in Dimock, Pa.

A federal court weighed in on a contentious debate over air emissions from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas sector this week. In Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future v. Ultra Resources Inc., Pennsylvania’s Middle District Court ruled against the environmental group, more commonly known as PennFuture, and in favor of the gas company. But in the 31-page decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani laid out for the first time in this region, how state environmental regulators can make sure natural gas companies can comply with the Clean Air Act without gaming the system.

The issue is how to determine what’s known as “aggregation,” or combining multiple pollution sources into one, something allowed under the federal Clean Air Act. Typically, it’s a tool that industry doesn’t like. That’s because when smaller sources of air pollution become regulated as one large source of air emissions, they can be subject to stricter regulatory standards. It also triggers a lengthier review process by state regulators, and subsequently, could mean more public input. If the Department of Environmental Protection decides that a company’s natural gas facilities are aggregated, this tends to force gas drillers to install more pollution controls than would be the case otherwise.

Environmental groups like the Clean Air Council and PennFuture have argued that the DEP should aggregate natural gas facilities, thereby forcing the gas companies to comply with stricter air emissions standards. In this case, PennFuture objected to Ultra Resources building a series of eight compressor stations, which help move natural gas along pipelines, without pulling a permit that would have those facilities aggregated into one source. Ultra Resources instead applied for permits for each compressor station, located in Tioga and Potter counties, and the Department of Environmental Protection granted them. In 2011, PennFuture filed suit, saying when combined, the compressor stations emitted more than 100 tons of nitrous oxide each year, and should be subject to the more stringent regulatory regime as a major source.   Continue Reading

Senate committee approves shale gas health bill

Edna Moten says nearby gas drilling has polluted her water and air.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Edna Moten says nearby gas drilling in Washington County has polluted her water and air.

A bill to create a Marcellus Shale health advisory panel, which never made it out of committee last year, was approved by the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee unanimously today.  Senate Bill 375, introduced by Senate Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R-Jefferson), would create a nine-member panel to advise the legislature on the health impacts of shale gas production. The board would be chaired by the state’s health secretary, and include the head of the Department of Environmental Protection. The General Assembly would appoint seven advisors, who would be required to have an expertise in either public health, earth and mineral sciences, environmental studies, shale gas extraction or the use of natural gas.

All members of the bipartisan committee voted in favor of the bill.

The panel would meet at least twice a year and review health data related to shale gas drilling, consult with researchers and submit an annual report on their activities.

In 2011, former Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission recommended that the state monitor public health impacts from drilling, however the legislature never allocated funding for it.

Last June StateImpact Pennsylvania reported on allegations by two former state health workers who said they were instructed to ignore public complaints about drilling. In response, the Department of Health changed its Marcellus Shale policies.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the vote was nearly unanimous. It was unanimous among all the members of the committee not on leave.

A bottom up and top down approach to methane detection

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University use "tracers", inert gasses, to detect methane leaks at well sites.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University use "tracers", inert gasses, to detect methane leaks at well sites.

Scientists looking to figure out how much natural gas leaks from shale gas production sites are taking both a bottom up and top down approach. Using NOAA aircraft usually reserved for flying through hurricanes, researchers from the University of Colorado flew over shale plays in Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas to measure how much methane was escaping into the atmosphere. Their study was published last week in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. While flying over Northeast Pennsylvania one day in 2013, researchers detected a natural gas leak rate from the Marcellus Shale of just 0.18 to 0.41 percent of production. Those results are much lower than the researchers fly-over detections in Utah’s Uinta Basin, which were reported at 6.2 to 11.7 percent of production.

But the research is limited in that it was just one day, and emissions can vary daily as well as hourly. Writing in a post on the Environmental Defense Fund blog, EDF’s associate vice president Mark Brownstein says it’s not yet time to “pop the champagne corks.”

More robust studies that cover longer time periods actually suggest methane emissions are often higher than previously estimated. EDF’s own studies – including two released last week looking at the transmission and storage and gathering and processing sectors of the oil and gas industry – have repeatedly shown that random leaks and malfunctions are a major source of emissions.

Because these events are random, a one-day overflight will not give a full picture of emissions coming from a basin over a day, a month, or a year. What is needed is regular and ongoing monitoring.

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