Energy. Environment. Economy.

Groups call for investigation into health department’s handling of drilling

Ruth McDermott Levy with the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments speaks at a press conference at Pennsylvania's State Capitol.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Ruth McDermott Levy with the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments speaks at a press conference at Pennsylvania's State Capitol.

Despite calls from environmental groups, it is not clear that there will be an investigation into how the Pennsylvania Department of Health handled complaints about Marcellus Shale natural gas development.

“At this time, we are not looking to audit the Department of Health on this issue,” said Susan Woods, a spokeswoman for Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

DePasquale’s office recently completed an audit faulting the state Department of Environmental Protection for mishandling public complaints about water contamination and unconventional shale development.

Woods said the Auditor General’s office will continue to “monitor what goes on” at the Department of Health.

A spokesman for state Attorney General Kathleen Kane said he could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.”

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Pennsylvania gas production continues to break records

Pennsylvania is on track to produce enough gas this year to satisfy about 16 percent of annual demand for the United States.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is on track to produce enough gas this year to satisfy about 16 percent of annual demand for the United States.

Drillers in Pennsylvania continue to produce record-breaking amounts of natural gas, according to new numbers released this week from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Companies operating in Pennsylvania produced nearly 2 trillion cubic feet of gas in the first half of 2014.

If they continue at this pace, Pennsylvania is on track to produce 4 trillion cubic feet this year– or about 16 percent of what the entire United States consumes annually.

The state’s main gas industry trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, touted the fact that the gas output has lead to job growth and a competitive edge for the manufacturing sector.

“These record-shattering numbers, driven principally by operational efficiencies and a maturing infrastructure network, reflect the fact that Pennsylvania is well-positioned to continue playing a leading role in strengthening our nation’s energy security,” said MSC spokesman Travis Windle.

The production figures keep surpassing expectations, even among people who closely watch the industry.

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Pennsylvania Environmental Regulators Reject Teen’s Climate Change Petition

Mount Pleasant resident Ashley Funk sued the state to compel the DEP to reduce carbon emissions.

courtesy of Ashley Funk

Mount Pleasant resident Ashley Funk sued the state to compel the DEP to reduce carbon emissions.

Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board has rejected a petition from a Westmoreland County woman to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Ashley Funk was 18 years old at the time she sued the state to force the Department of Environmental Protection to take action on climate change. Funk, now 20 and a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, says she filed the petition as a way to take action on climate change.

“We all agree that Pennsylvania needs to address climate change, the question is how,” says Funk. “I think the (Department of Environmental Protection) is talking about climate change but they haven’t shown to us that the steps they are taking are going to do anything. That we will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the percentage that is needed in our state.”

Funk filed the petition as part of a national campaign organized by the environmental group, Our Children’s Trust. It seeks a reduction in carbon emissions by six percent each year until 2050. The targets are based on the work of climate scientist Jim Hansen. The lawsuits appeal to the duty of governments to protect the “public trust,” a concept that dates back to Roman times, according to the organization’s website. Funk, who is represented by attorneys from Widener University’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, also drew on a section of the Pennsylvania Constitution known as the environmental rights amendment.  Continue Reading

Pa. health department updates policies for drilling-related complaints

The Pennsylvania Department of Health announced Monday it has updated its policies for handling complaints related to Marcellus Shale drilling.

All those who file a complaint with the department’s Bureau of Epidemiology will now receive a letter acknowledging their concerns and outlining the agency’s findings.

The changes follow a recent investigation by StateImpact Pennsylvania in which two former employees said they were told not to speak with their colleagues or the public about drilling-related health concerns.

A working group convened by Secretary Michael Wolf in the wake of these allegations found that some people who complained did not receive a formal response from the department.

“What we found was, there wasn’t a standard procedure,” said spokeswoman Holli Senior. “Everything was on a case-by-case basis.”

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Public Utility Commission appeals Commonwealth Court decision on Act 13

A Lycoming County rig

Tim Lambert / WITF-FM

A drill rig in Lycoming County.

Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission has appealed a recent Commonwealth Court decision, which stripped the agency of its authority to review local zoning ordinances regarding Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling. The state’s drilling law, enacted in 2012, gave the PUC authority to decide whether or not a municipality’s zoning ordinances complied with the state constitution and the new rules regarding natural gas drilling.

Act 13, the comprehensive legislation that amended the state’s oil and gas law, had implemented statewide zoning rules that the municipalities had to follow. It also allowed those who disagreed with the ordinances to bypass local zoning hearing boards, and appeal directly to the PUC or the Commonwealth Court. Several municipalities sued the state over this controversial law, and the case eventually made its way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The high court ruled in December that these restrictions on local zoning for natural gas development were unconstitutional.

But the Supreme Court sent some decisions in the case back down to the Commonwealth Court to decide. Among these included whether or not the Public Utility Commission’s authority superseded local zoning boards when it came to challenging a municipality’s zoning decision.

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Heirs to 19th century lumber baron claim gas rights in Loyalsock State Forest

A wellpad in the Loyalsock State Forest. Gas drilling is already occurring there, but there are controversial plans to expand it in an ecologically sensitive area known as the Clarence Moore lands.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

A wellpad in the Loyalsock State Forest. Gas drilling is already occurring there, but there are controversial plans to expand development into an ecologically sensitive area known as the Clarence Moore tract.

A group representing the descendants of a 19th century lumber baron is claiming most of the mineral rights in an area of the Loyalsock State Forest where there are controversial plans to expand natural gas drilling– it’s a direct challenge to two gas companies who say they own the rights and have already submitted development plans to the state.

Shortly after the Philadelphia Inquirer published an October 2012 story about environmental groups fighting the gas companies’ plans, a Boston-based group called the Thomas E. Proctor Heirs Trust sent a letter to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

“As you may know, the article contains inaccurate information regarding the ownership of the natural gas rights,” wrote trustee Charles Kendall. “These rights were originally reserved in a deed dated October 2, 1894 from Mr. Proctor… Proctor’s heirs have been managing and leasing the property ever since. Any attempts by others to develop the Proctor gas rights under Loyalsock  Forest… will result in appropriate legal action.”

At issue is a 25,000 acre swath of the forest known as the Clarence Moore lands– a treasured area for wildlife and recreation. Two gas companies– Anadarko Petroleum and Southwestern Energy– say they own the mineral rights and are currently working with DCNR on development plans.

DCNR has said the Clarence Moore tract presents a unique case because of the intense public interest and the fact that the state does not own the mineral rights.

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Report faults EPA for failing to regulate fracking with diesel

Workers at a hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Workers at a hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County.

A new report out today reveals natural gas drillers could be using diesel to frack wells without the mandated federal permits. Unlike other chemicals used in gas drilling, Congress requires extensive oversight if diesel is present.

The so-called Halliburton Loophole in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing from federal oversight. But diesel is an exception. That’s because it moves quickly through water, and even small amounts of the neurotoxins within the liquid fuel cause liver and kidney damage.

But a public records request to the Environmental Protection Agency by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project shows no permit applications or approvals to frack with diesel. This despite the group’s finding that since 2010, 33 separate companies publicly reported a total of 351 wells fracked with diesel in 12 states. Mary Green is the group’s senior attorney.

“It seems that EPA was convinced this problem was largely if not completely eliminated,” Green told StateImpact.

A back and forth between the EPA and industry over fracking with diesel began back in 2011 when House Democrats, led by California Congressman Henry Waxman, sent a letter to the EPA with evidence that companies continued to use diesel to frack without obtaining the required permits under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Continue Reading

New Marcellus Shale gas pipeline proposed for Pa., NJ

Workers construct a gas pipeline in Harmony, Pa.

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Workers construct a gas pipeline in Harmony, Pa.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has the details on a proposed $1 billion pipeline project to bring natural gas from the Marcellus Shale to customers on the east coast.

Wyomissing-based PennEast Pipeline Company said the pipeline would start in Luzerne County and travel about 105 miles to hook up with Transco’s Trenton-Woodbury interconnection in New Jersey. The company estimates the 30-inch diameter line would provide natural gas for about 4.7 million homes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

More from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

UGI Energy Services, a subsidiary of UGI Corp., of Valley Forge, would build and operate the interstate pipeline. UGI’s gas utilities serve 45 Pennsylvania counties, including outlying portions of Bucks, Montgomery and Chester Counties.

Affiliates of South Jersey Gas, New Jersey Natural Gas, and Elizabethtown Gas in New Jersey are also investors in the project.

“This project serves to meet that growing demand in the mid-Atlantic marketplace, while providing greater system resiliency and reliability for local utilities,” John Walsh, UGI’s chief executive, said in a statement.

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OSHA will not fine Chevron for fatal well fire in southwest Pennsylvania

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has wrapped up its investigation into the death of a worker at a Chevron natural gas well site in southwest Pennsylvania. The agency announced in a brief statement Tuesday it will not issue citations or fines for the incident.

On Feb. 11, Ian McKee, 27, was killed when a well exploded in Dunkard Township, Greene County. McKee was a contractor with Houston-based Cameron International.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recently concluded that the fire was caused by an inexperienced contract worker who did not properly tighten a bolt and locknut assembly on the wellhead, allowing methane to escape and eventually ignite. State investigators found workers on the site were improperly supervised by Chevron.

OSHA said it could not determine the exact cause of the incident.

Here’s the agency’s full statement:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) responded immediately to investigate the workplace fatality that occurred on Feb. 11, 2014, at the Lanco well site located in Greene County, Pa., and operated by Chevron Appalachia, LLC.  At the conclusion of an in-depth, six-month investigation, OSHA determined that no citations would be issued, and concluded that the exact cause of the incident could not be determined. As is routine in such investigations, OSHA involved the victim’s family both during its probe and afterwards, to explain the agency’s findings and any actions that could be taken.

Last month, McKee’s parents filed suit against Chevron for information about their son’s death.


This story has been updated with the following correction: OSHA’s statement originally had the incorrect date of the well fire. It occurred on February 11, 2014.

On public land, a gas company takes private control

On any given day Bob Deering doesn’t know how much trouble he’ll have getting to and from his home. He lives on a mountain in Lycoming County and he’s routinely stopped and questioned by security guards. It’s been happening for the past six years– ever since the natural gas boom began.

“I’ve been coming up here with my grandparents since 1953,” he says. “But if I would have known in 2001 what I know now, I’d never have built a house up here.”

Deering expected to enjoy a quiet retirement. In the early 2000′s, he and his wife built a log home from a kit. Their property is surrounded by state forest and game land.

But in recent years their neighborhood has gotten noisy as gas companies drill wells, build pipelines, and move heavy equipment.

Nearly a third of Pennsylvania’s roughly 2 million acres of public forest land is already available for oil and gas development. Governor Corbett wants to lease even more land, but an environmental group is suing to try to stop him.

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