Pennsylvania

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As gas boom cuts into forests, scientists study how to put it back together

 

In the seven years since Marcellus Shale gas companies began working in Pennsylvania’s state forests, none of the nearly 1,700 affected acres has been fully restored and put back the way it was before drilling began.

Now state foresters and Penn State scientists are trying to plan for the future and help gas companies figure out the best ways to clean up after themselves.

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More pollution flowing into Chesapeake Bay than expected

Lisa Graybeal is a third generation dairy farmer in Lancaster County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Lisa Graybeal is a third generation dairy farmer in Lancaster County.

After decades of work and billions of dollars spent, a massive effort is still underway to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. In 2010, Pennsylvania and other states in the watershed began a new plan to restore the health of the bay—with the goal to fully implement pollution reduction practices by the year 2025.

But new data shows more nitrogen and sediment is running off into the bay than previously expected.

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Philadelphia’s mayoral race has candidates talking shale gas

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest oil refining complex on the Eastern seaboard. Half of all Bakken Crude traveling across the country by rail ends up at the PES plant.

Nat Hamilton/WHYY

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest oil refining complex on the Eastern seaboard. Half of all Bakken Crude traveling across the country by rail ends up at the PES plant.

On Thursday evening business leaders and local politicians gathered at Drexel University in Philadelphia to talk about exporting Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas from the Port of Philadelphia, and got an earful from activists. But the export terminal is just one idea inside of a larger vision to turn Philadelphia into an “energy hub,” an issue that continues to come up in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary race.

So, what is an energy hub?

Here’s what the energy hub aims to do in a nut shell.

Take advantage of all that abundant Marcellus Shale gas flowing out of wells in the northeast and southwest parts of the state, places like Susquehanna County, or Washington County. Send all that gas to Philadelphia, instead of spreading it out to places like New York or Canada, or the Gulf Coast.

And once all those billions of molecules of gas get to Philly, turn them into trillions of dollars.

To do that, say the hub’s boosters, simply use cheap gas to power new factories, turn that cheap gas into plastics, or liquefy it and sell it abroad for lots of money.

And yes, create good jobs.

The energy hub’s most powerful advocate is Phil Rinaldi. Rinaldi runs Philadelphia Energy Solutions. That’s the company bringing in all that crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota across the state, inching along the city’s railroad tracks in black tank cars.

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Are Marcellus drillers cheating the state? Agencies take a closer look

Pennsylvania has leased thousands of acres of public land for Marcellus Shale drilling. Now that the gas is flowing, the money is too. But state agencies are taking a closer look at whether they're getting paid properly.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

Pennsylvania has leased thousands of acres of public land for Marcellus Shale drilling. Now that the gas is flowing, so is the money. But state agencies are taking a closer look at whether they're being paid properly.

People who leased their land for Marcellus Shale drilling have been complaining for several years that some companies are cheating them out of gas royalty money.

It turns out the commonwealth of Pennsylvania is having the same problem. But the issue is so complex and convoluted, the state doesn’t even know how much money it’s owed.

“It’s complicated”

Gas drilling on state-owned land has sent hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties to Harrisburg. Private landowners have received millions more. But some companies have been accused of underpaying. Royalty disputes have led to several class action lawsuits and an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general’s office.

Towanda-based attorney Chris Jones says his clients don’t understand why the state hasn’t done more to protect them.

“Many times we’re being asked, ‘How come the state isn’t doing anything? How come there isn’t anything to stop what the gas companies are doing with our royalties–with our money?’”

Pennsylvania has its own problems– specifically two agencies managing drilling on public land: the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Game Commission.

“We’ve been conducting investigations for some time now,” DCNR chief counsel Richard Morrison told StateImpact Pennsylvania in January. “It’s an internal process. It’s complicated and will take some time.”

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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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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

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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In fracking hot spots, police and gas industry share intelligence on activists

Police monitor an anti-fracking protest at Gov. Wolf's inauguration in January.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Police monitoring an anti-fracking protest outside the state capitol during Gov. Wolf's inauguration in January.

Last month an anti-fracking group settled a lawsuit against Pennsylvania, after it was erroneously labeled a potential terrorist threat. The case dates back to 2010 and was an embarrassment for then-Governor Ed Rendell.

But documents obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania show law enforcement here and in other parts of the country continue to conduct surveillance on anti-fracking activists, leading some to claim their Constitutional rights are being violated.

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Gas companies buy livestock, goodwill at Pennsylvania Farm Show

Gas companies bid on livestock from kids who live in the counties where they drill.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Gas companies stopped by the Farm Show this week to bid on livestock from kids who live in the counties where they drill.

Much of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale drilling takes place in rural areas. Over the years, gas companies and farmers have had to learn how to co-exist. Sometimes those relationships are positive. Other times, they can be rocky.

That’s why some drilling companies come to Pennsylvania Farm Show—where they make an effort to buy livestock and a little goodwill.

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Gas drilling draws citizen scientists to the field

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.

Joanne Martin stands on the muddy bank of Brady Run, a stream in Beaver County in western Pennsylvania. To get there, she crawled down a steep gravel slope, ducking low tree branches and stepping over dead brush.

Martin has been coming to Brady Run for three years to test the water for signs of pollution from natural gas drilling. There’s a producing well pad just about a half a mile from here.

First, Martin plunks in a wooden measuring stick to check stream depth.

“Then, I go upstream a little bit because I don’t want to take water from where I disturbed the sediment,” she says. “I don’t want any of that in the sample.”

She takes a small cup, the kind you might use at a doctor’s office, and dips it into the stream, bracing herself for the icy water.

Back on the bank, Martin uses a pocket-sized monitor to test her sample. It’s measuring the conductivity of the water. A higher conductivity reading than usual could be a sign that metals are discharging into the stream, possibly as the result of a spill of the salty flowback water that comes up out of a well after it has been hydraulically fractured or fracked.

Martin is not a professional scientist. So why is she standing in the middle of a frigid stream on a December morning?

Across the country, the shale boom has given rise to fears about whether oil and gas development might be polluting the water we drink and the air we breathe. This has led some residents to try doing their own field research, in the mode of “citizen science.” But unlike the annual Christmas Bird Count or a website to help astronomers catalog billions of galaxies, their work is a tricky blend of science and advocacy.


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