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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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Q&A: Industry Economist Makes the Case for Exports

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage tanks and a membrane-type tanker are seen at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Futtsu Thermal Power Station in Futtsu, east of Tokyo February 20, 2013. Japan's imports of LNG hit a monthly record of 8.23 million tonnes in January, on an increased need for fuel to generate electricity after the nuclear sector was hit by the Fukushima crisis.

Issei Kato / Reuters/Landov

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage tanks and a membrane-type tanker are seen at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Futtsu Thermal Power Station in Futtsu, east of Tokyo February 20, 2013. Japan's imports of LNG hit a monthly record of 8.23 million tonnes in January, on an increased need for fuel to generate electricity after the nuclear sector was hit by the Fukushima crisis.

The nation’s new energy secretary Ernest Moniz spoke at an energy conference Monday, where he told the audience that applications for new natural gas export facilities would be decided upon by the end of the year. Gas producers want to sell their fuel overseas where it fetches a higher price. But before it gets shipped abroad, it has to be converted to its liquid form known as LNG – or liquefied natural gas. Building those facilities is expensive. The closest proposed LNG export terminal to the Marcellus Shale deposit is in Cove Point, Maryland. That could cost more than $3 billion dollars to convert from its former role as a natural gas import terminal. But domestic manufacturers and those who say U.S. security depends on keeping the fossil fuel stateside are pushing back. Environmentalists worry that exports will stimulate more production in states like Pennsylvania, where activists have been pushing to implement a drilling moratorium. StateImpact spoke to the chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute, John Felmy, about the future uses of natural gas, and the export issues.

Q: Phillips: John, one of the things that keeps popping up in the news is this issue of exporting natural gas, liquefied natural gas. What was the role and what is the role of Marcellus Shale production regarding the future of LNG Exports?

A: Felmy: Well, Marcellus Shale could play a tremendous opportunity in terms of exports, because it’s such a vast deposit. Developing it can of course be used to supply other states, as we are doing now. But there is likely to be so much of it, that exporting it at a very good price would help in terms of keeping production going.

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DEP’s Fracking Record-Keeping Blocks Transparency

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Empty water jugs used to haul clean water hang from a house in Washington County. Residents suspected nearby gas drilling as the culprit for their wells going bad. The DEP investigation concluded drilling was not to blame.

Here’s a key question amid Pennsylvania’s natural gas drilling boom: How is drilling affecting residential water wells? Researchers say data on that core question is spotty. But one Pennsylvania agency could hold the key to answering questions from both residents and scientists. The problem is, the state Department of Environmental Protection says it organizes its records only to “support our operations,” according to agency spokesman Kevin Sunday.

So a simple request that could shine light on at least how many cases of water contamination the DEP determined were due to gas drilling operations, turned into a protracted legal battle. In an open records case settled last year between DEP and the Scranton Times-Tribune, the Commonwealth Court criticized the DEP for poor record-keeping.

But the DEP remains unapologetic about their unsuccessful argument to the court that providing copies of their water investigation determination letters would be “burdensome.”

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Lovers of Pa.’s Loyalsock Forest Fight to Limit Drilling There

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY/Newsworks

"We have to be the voice of the birds," said Paul Zeph, of the Pennsylvania Audubon Society.

Deep in the Loyalsock State Forest, where no cell phone signal reaches, the sounds of rushing waterfalls and forest birds are suddenly interrupted by the sound of a helicopter.

Paul Zeph of the Pennsylvania Audubon Society says the noise could be related to gas drilling. Drillers will often drop seismic testing equipment into remote areas that are difficult to reach by roads. And that leads Zeph to cite one of the many worries that naturalists and outdoors lovers have with plans to expand drilling in the Loyalsock.

“Song birds identify one another through singing and they identify their territory through singing,” says Zeph. “With a very noisy environment, studies are starting to show that it’s impairing the ability to find mates.”

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In Sunbury, Drilling Waste, Politics, And A Pile Of Dirt

A pile of dirt has sparked controversy in the city of Sunbury, Northumberland County.

Recently, an otherwise civil city council meeting devolved into a shouting match. Councilman Joe Bartello and Mayor David Persing sparred over the city’s stormwater management rules.

“It’s already a law!” Bartello yelled. “Council doesn’t have to vote to get a stormwater plan!”

“Just bring us something that proves they need [a stormwater plan],” Persing fired back.

“I can’t give you more than you already have,” Bartello replied, “You have the codebook.”

“You never gave me a thing!” the mayor shouted back, “What the hell did you give me?”

It turns out shouting matches are not all that uncommon at Sunbury city council meetings, but the controversy over this dirt has been going on for months.


Unanswered questions

Sunbury is a small city of about 10,000 people along the banks of the Susquehanna River.

Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania

The dirt covers about an acre of a former industrial site in the city of Sunbury. It's in a floodplain next to the Susquehanna River and a residential neighborhood.

The dirt in question is in a rail yard at the northern edge of town surrounded by a tall barbed-wire fence.  It covers an acre of an old industrial site. The area is in a floodplain right next to the river and a residential neighborhood.

Councilman Bartello heads the city’s Department of Public Safety. His job includes overseeing code administration.

He’s been asking a lot of questions about this site and not getting many answers. He’s wondering where all the dirt is coming from. He says the ground is roughly six feet higher than it used to be.

Bartello has asked the company hauling in the dirt to give him a stormwater managment plan, in accordance with the city codes.

“There’s really no information,” Bartello says, “We always get the same answer: ‘There’s nothing going on.’”

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Pennsylvania Will Get 3 Percent Less This Year In Shale Drilling Impact Fees

EPA/ Jim Lo Scalzo/ Landov

A gas drill rig near Montrose.

Despite a slowdown in natural gas drilling, Pennsylvania will only see a small drop in the amount of impact fees it’s collecting, according to new data released this week by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC).

A year-old law, known as Act 13, places an impact fee on every gas well in the Marcellus Shale formation.

Last year, Act 13 brought in $204 million to the state and local communities. This year, it’s expected to bring in $198 million — a three percent drop.

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Controversial Head of DEP Leaving Agency to Work on Behalf of Energy Industry

Susan Phillips/StateImpact Pennsylvania

DEP Secretary Michael Krancer will leave his post on April 15 to work for his former employer, the Philadelphia law firm, Blank Rome.

The head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, Michael Krancer, announced today he will be leaving the agency on April 15 to return to Blank Rome, an influential Philadelphia law firm where he worked during the 1990′s.

Krancer will become chair of Blank Rome’s Energy, Petrochemical and Natural Resources Practice, where he will be, “enhancing the firm’s existing energy and public policy talent and advising US and global energy clients,” according to a Blank Rome press release.

Governor Corbett’s deputy chief of staff, Christopher Abruzzo, will serve as acting DEP secretary until a replacement is named.

Krancer has been a controversial figure, leading the DEP at a critical time through the expansion of gas drilling the Marcellus Shale. He has clashed the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and been criticized by environmentalists for his pro-industry stance. Recently, he’s been reluctant to embrace the scientific consensus surrounding climate change.

 

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Using Abandoned Mine Drainage to Frack

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Seneca Resources biologist Doug Kepler holds up a rock covered in orange slime, a result of acid mine drainage.

In the Susquehanna River Basin, just one well can use an average of 4.4 million gallons of water during a frack job, which can last several days to a week. The majority of that water comes from Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams.

Meanwhile, more than 4,000 miles of streams polluted by abandoned coalmine drainage flow through Pennsylvania’s forests, killing all aquatic and invertebrate life. And it would take an estimated $15 billion to clean up these dead streams. Some environmentalists and at least one Marcellus driller have decided there’s an opportunity here to kill two birds with one stone. Using the abandoned mine drainage to hydro-frack wells, they say, could help clean up the coal industry’s toxic legacy while simultaneously reducing water withdrawals from the state’s rivers and streams.

Other environmentalists think it’s a very bad idea, saying it would make a dirty process even dirtier.

The debate has suddenly heated up in Harrisburg, as the Senate considers a bill to encourage more drillers to use the mine water by reducing their liability. And despite the fact that it’s been promoted by watershed groups, the idea is getting some serious push back from environmentalists who think the bill gives industry a green light to pollute without any consequences. Continue Reading

The Truthiness of “Promised Land,” Five Things to Know Before You Go

Kim Paynter / WHYY

A drill rig rises above a farm in Susquehanna County, Pa.

“Promised Land,” Hollywood’s new movie about fracking, hits theaters nationally today. The film, starring Matt Damon as a land man, has already begun playing in Philadelphia and New York City, and StateImpact had this review of it last week. The gas industry has been nervous about how they’re portrayed in the film, and the Marcellus Shale Coalition has purchased ads to run in theaters seeking questions from viewers.

Today, we’re sorting fact from fiction. Here’s five things we think you should know before setting out to watch the film.

Dead Cows:

Promised Land: Photos of dead cows are handed out in the form of anti-drilling leaflets by fractivist Dustin Noble, played by John Krasinski.

StateImpact Pennsylvania: We wrote about dead calves at a Pennsylvania dairy farm, where the farmer linked the death of her calves to a frack wastewater spill. Our first story came from a simple press release sent out by the Department of Agriculture in 2010 about a quarantine of cows exposed to frack water, which had leaked from a waste water empoundment. When we followed up months later, we learned from the farmer, Carol Johnson, that those same cows gave birth to about a dozen calves, but only three survived. Johnson, and researchers at Cornell University, linked the deaths and still births to the frack water exposure. But the state Department of Agriculture disagreed.

Burning Taps:

Promised Land: Although no one actually sets their tap on fire in the film, the townsfolk have heard about it. The fractivist demonstrates this to a classroom full of young school children by pouring household chemicals onto a toy farm and throwing a match on top of it. The explanation of fracking to the kids is loose, combining drilling with the fracking process.

StateImpact Pennsylvania: Flaming tap water is a result of methane migration. We’ve done lots of stories of how, why and where this happens. For a clear explanation, see our posts on the topic.

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StateImpact Pennsylvania Wins duPont-Columbia Award

Columbia University

StateImpact Pennsylvania’s coverage of natural gas drilling has won the DuPont-Columbia Award. In its citation, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism says the project, “showed the significant impact of natural gas drilling on Pennsylvania residents, and is an important model for reporting on local issues.”

Columbia awards the DuPont to about a dozen broadcast news organizations each year, and regards the honor as, “the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prizes,” which the school also administers.

Here are the reports StateImpact Pennsylvania won for:

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