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Politicians may not be in a hurry to break drilling deadlock in the Delaware watershed

Wayne County Commissioner Brian Smith leased his farm to an energy company, but has not seen any natural gas production on his land.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Wayne County Commissioner Brian Smith leased his farm to an energy company, but has not seen any natural gas production on his land.

Dairy farming doesn’t bring in the money it used to in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. So to make ends meet, farmer Brian Smith is also a school bus driver and a county commissioner.

A few years ago, Smith leased his land in Damascus Township to an energy company looking to tap into deposits of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale below his farm.

Smith said he wanted some financial security for his family of eight. “You start thinking as you turn 50 years old, if something happens to me, how are these kids gonna pay $300,000 to pay off the debt that’s on this farm?”

But in the parts of Pennsylvania that lie in the Delaware River watershed, natural gas drilling has been on hold for more than four years. That’s because the five-member Delaware River Basin Commission, the agency in charge of overseeing the region’s water quality, has been unable to come to a consensus about how to regulate it. The DRBC came close to voting on draft regulations in late November 2011, but the meeting was postponed indefinitely to give the commissioners more time.

For the last two years, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has been the commission’s only vocal “yes” vote. The other commissioners – the governors of New Jersey, New York and Delaware, plus a federal representative from the Army Corps of Engineers – haven’t taken a final stand.

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Has natural gas transformed Pennsylvania’s economy?

Hydraulic fracturing has unleashed a huge amount of natural gas in Pennsylvania.The Marcellus Shale is rapidly becoming one of the most productive gas plays in the world.

The boom has brought new jobs and new wealth to the state. But like every industry, it responds to supply and demand.

Overproduction led to a glut of gas, causing companies to shift operations to different parts of the shale in search of more lucrative natural gas liquids.

Over the past five years, the ebbs and flows of the industry have meant a changing economic reality for different parts of the state.

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After Pa. couple discovers plan to drill on unleased land, energy company cancels permit

Joyce and Steve Libal run an orchard out of their 63-acre home in Apolacon Township, Susquehanna County.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Joyce and Steve Libal run an orchard out of their 63-acre home in Apolacon Township, Susquehanna County.

It all started with beans.

Joyce and Steve Libal run a small orchard on their 63-acres in Little Meadows, Susquehanna County where they sell fruit and organic vegetables.

One day in early September, a friend came by to purchase ten pounds of green bush beans.

“In this area, with all the drilling going on, the conversations usually end up talking about the gas industry,” Steve Libal says. “And he just brought up that he had seen, he’s a borough councilman and they received a packet of information about a well pad behind our house.”

A map the gas company, Talisman Energy, sent to the municipality shows a plan for a well pad just beyond the thick row of trees at the back of their property. A dotted line shows a well bore moving 2,000 feet across their land. (You can see the map below.)

“I just thought this has to be some sort of horrible mistake,” Joyce said. “Someone made a mistake and we have to enlighten them so they can fix it.”

The couple contacted the Department of Environmental Protection. A geologist for the DEP who was reviewing the well permit said he would let Talisman Energy know about the situation.

Just hours after getting the e-mail from the DEP, they got a call from a landman asking them what it would take for them to sign a lease with Talisman.

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Despite abundant supply, natural gas slow to catch on as transportation fuel

A customer fills up at a public CNG station in Towanda. There are only about 22 public stations like this one in Pennsylvania

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A customer fills up at a public CNG station in Towanda. There are only about 22 public stations like this one in Pennsylvania.

The most recent Marcellus shale production numbers were record-breaking.  If Pennsylvania keeps up this pace, it will be producing enough gas to supply more than 10 percent of what the entire country uses in a year.

And with this glut, there are efforts to find new markets for the gas— especially in transportation.

Compressed natural gas (CNG) can be used as an alternative fuel to power cars and trucks, but it isn’t catching on everywhere.

“Way too much supply”

In Pennsylvania, we have more natural gas than we know what to do with. Alan Walker, who heads the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development, puts it this way:

“It’s an industry that responds to supply and demand. Right now we have way too much supply,” he says. “It’ll balance out, because people aren’t going to drill wells if they can’t make money at it. There was this rush—like the gold rush—and we are producing a lot more than we can absorb.”

Unlike the rush to get the gas out of the ground, there hasn’t been a rush to convert vehicles to natural gas.

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Q&A: Oil Spill Expert Puts Crude-By-Rail Boom In Perspective

A train pulling a row of tank cars moves along the tracks near a Hess transfer facility near Tioga, North Dakota, U.S., on Thursday, July 11, 2013. There is a continued boom situation in the area due to the ability to extract oil from the Bakken Formation.

Matthew Staver /Landov

A train pulling a row of tank cars moves along the tracks near a Hess transfer facility near Tioga, North Dakota, U.S., on Thursday, July 11, 2013. There is a continued boom situation in the area due to the ability to extract oil from the Bakken Formation.

Philadelphia is at the center of a new industrial boom: trains are snaking through the city, bringing light, sweet crude oil from North Dakota to the city’s revived refineries. They’re the same type of train that derailed and exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic in July, leaving 47 people dead.

StateImpact has reported that the deadly accident hasn’t put the brakes on oil trains coming into Philadelphia. In fact, there are more coming than ever.

So, what exactly is this stuff and what are some of the risks involved?

StateImpact talked to oil spill expert Nancy Kinner, Director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, who put this new boom in perspective.

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Oil Trains Rumble Into Philly, Bringing Dakota Crude, Jobs And Safety Concerns

CSX K040 Robert King

Courtesy of Robert King

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Philadelphia Energy Solutions would be accepting trains carrying 70,000 gallons of crude oil each. The correct volume is 70,000 barrels.

Robert King remembers the very first time he saw an oil train.

“It was April 14, 2013.”

King, a 17-year-old Philadelphian, is a “railfan,” the name for members of a worldwide community of passionate, or some might say obsessive, train buffs.

On that day, King and railfans from the Midwest to the East Coast were busily tracking the inaugural run of a brand new train: the CSX K040, an oil train more than one-mile long hauling raw crude from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota bound for South Philadelphia.

With his camera bag slung over his shoulder, King pedaled his blue-and-white mountain bike to Schuylkill River Park in Center City and up the ramp to a foot bridge overlooking the CSX tracks. Then he settled in to wait. As he stood there, he recalls, “There’s some worry on my mind.”

King fretted that another train slated to use the tracks at the same time might ruin his dream photo. But he got lucky that day, snapping the photo of Philly’s first oil train that you can see on this page.

Nowadays, railfans like King have frequent chances to catch this view.

That’s because Philadelphia is at the center of a new industrial boom. Oil trains are becoming a common sight on tracks between North Dakota and Philadelphia. To get here, they travel through some densely populated areas – Chicago, Albany and New Jersey – which is raising some safety concerns.

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Pennsylvania’s Climate Change Future: Read The Missing Report

A 2009 state report found Pennsylvania contributes one percent of the world's greenhouse gases.

Frank Rumpenhorst DPA /LANDOV

A 2009 state report found Pennsylvania contributes one percent of the world's greenhouse gases.

A pair of legally-mandated reports outlining how climate change will affect Pennsylvania are currently a year overdue.

The state’s Climate Change Act required the publication of both reports in 2009, followed by an update every three years.

Both documents were due last year, but they’re still under review, and the state Department of Environmental Protection won’t say when they will be released.

StateImpact Pennsylvania has obtained one of the original draft reports. It was written by a team of scientists from Penn State University and submitted to the DEP in early 2012.

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Marcellus Shale Exports Could Transform Global LNG Market

The offshore loading pier at Dominion has not received a ship importing liquefied natural gas since January 2011.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY/Newsworks

The offshore loading pier at Dominion has not received a ship importing liquefied natural gas since January 2011.

In energy-hungry countries, all eyes are on Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas. In a dramatic shift from just five years ago, the U.S. is looking to export, instead of import natural gas. And if more natural gas starts getting shipped abroad, Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale could help change the global market for natural gas, and lighting homes in Tokyo.

The U.S. currently has two export terminals, one in Sabine Pass, Louisiana, and the ConocoPhillips LNG export terminal in North Cook Inlet, Alaska. The U.S. Department of Energy just gave preliminary approval for ConocoPhillips to expand its Freeport, Texas import terminal to export liquefied natural gas. About 17 other export proposals now await approval by the DOE, including the Cove Point liquefied natural gas import terminal operated by Dominion Resources.

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Corbett Administration Ignoring Pennsylvania’s Climate Change Law

The Corbett Administration has failed to produce a pair of legally required reports about climate change, and the governor is reluctant to publicly discuss the topic.

Michael Bryant/Inquirer/Landov

The Corbett Administration has failed to produce a pair of legally required reports about climate change, and the governor is reluctant to publicly discuss the topic.

Despite widespread scientific agreement about the risks of climate change, the issue has become highly politicized.

After President Obama recently announced his plans to tackle global warming, Governor Corbett called the proposal a war on coal and jobs.

While the Corbett administration is critical of federal action on the issue, it’s also been ignoring a Pennsylvania law requiring the state to address climate change.

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Senate Panel Examines Complaints Of Underpaid Gas Royalties

National Association of Royalty Owners (NARO) President Doug Sikes testifying before a Senate committee on gas royalty payments.

Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania

National Association of Royalty Owners (NARO) President David Sikes testifying before a senate committee on gas royalty payments.

A Senate hearing today about gas royalty payments began with a mention of mushrooms.

Joel Rotz is the senior director of state government affairs for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. He pointed out the state’s prominence as a top mushroom producer.

“Why do I bring that up?” he asked rhetorically, “Most of you know how you grow mushrooms. Keep them in the dark. Feed them a little manure, and they grow. We’ve got landowners out there right now who are feeling a little like mushrooms.”

As StateImpact Pennsylvania recently reported, some landowners in the state’s most drilled on place — Bradford County — are alleging they’re being cheated out of royalty payments by one of the biggest gas companies in the nation.

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