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Feds fine Marcellus driller XTO $2.3 million

A natural gas well operated by Northeast Natural Energy on Saturday, Aug.  6, 2011. The well is the subject of a dispute over a drilling ban recently enacted by the city of Morgantown, which is directly across the Monongahela River from the well. (AP Photo/David Smith)

AP Photo / David Smith

A natural gas well in West Virginia.

The Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Department of Justice, have fined XTO, a subsidiary of ExxonMobile, $2.3 million for violating the Clean Water Act. The damage to streams and wetlands took place in West Virginia and includes an estimated $3 million remediation price tag. During drilling operations at eight separate sites, the company dumped sand, dirt, rocks and other material into streams and wetlands while constructing well pads, roads, and pits.

“American communities expect EPA and our state partners to make sure energy development is done responsibly,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “This case will help to protect clean water in West Virginia, and support a level playing field for energy developers that play by the rules.”

This isn’t the first time the EPA has sanctioned XTO. In July 2013 the EPA fined XTO $100,000 for dumping frack water into the Susquehanna river system in Penn Township, Lycoming County. Between 6,300 and 57,373 gallons of waste water contained high levels of strontium, chloride, bromide, barium, and total dissolved solids and flowed continually for more than two months in the fall of 2010, according to the EPA.

XTO is one of the top violators in Pennsylvania, with the most recent data showing 177 violations for a total of $227,199 in fines. The company also faces criminal charges stemming from the Penn Township incident.

DEP slaps Vantage Energy with massive fine for landslide and dumping

A Cabot Oil and Gas rig in Susquehanna County, which sits on one of the most productive "sweet spots" in the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Marcellus Shale gas rig.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined the Colorado-based Vantage Energy almost $1 million for more than a dozen violations of the state’s Clean Streams Law and the  Oil and Gas Act. The sanction stems from a landslide at the company’s Porter Street well site in Franklin Township, Greene County. But it turns out the landslide was just the start of the company’s violations. While checking on site remediation months later, DEP inspectors discovered a contractor dumped two truckloads of wastewater off the side of the damaged well site, further polluting two unnamed tributaries to Grimes Run.

“They dumped it down the side of the well pad, which undid what little work they did to correct the [original] problem,” said John Poister, from DEP’s Southwest Regional Office.

In a year of multi-million dollar fines handed down by DEP, this $999,900 fine, just $100 short of one million, still stands out as one of DEP’s largest for Marcellus Shale drillers.

“This points out just how serious the problems are at this well site,” said Poister.

Poister says the original landslide on January 16, 2014 took off a corner of the well pad, traveling forty feet downslope and landing on top of two unnamed streams. Although the company notified DEP of the incident, Poister says drilling continued without adequate remediation. During an inspection on March 19, two months after the incident, DEP employees documented how the landslide “continued to move and grow.” Continue Reading

New York State bans fracking

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration will prohibit fracking in the state, citing unresolved health issues and dubious economic benefits of the widely used gas-drilling technique.

AP Photo/Mike Groll

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration will prohibit fracking in the state, citing unresolved health issues and dubious economic benefits of the widely used gas extraction technique.

New York state officials have decided to ban hydraulic fracturing within their borders, citing health concerns.

Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement at an end-of-year press conference in Albany Wednesday afternoon.

From the New York Times:

The state has had a de facto ban on the procedure for more than five years, predating Mr. Cuomo’s first term. The decision also came as oil and gas prices continued to fall in many places around the country, in part because of surging American oil production, as fracking boosted output.

The decision has been fraught for Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat.

In June 2012, he flirted with approving a limited program in several struggling Southern Tier counties along New York’s border with Pennsylvania. But later that year, Mr. Cuomo bowed to entreaties from environmental advocates, announcing instead that his administration would start the regulatory process over by beginning a new study to evaluate the health risks.

New York’s acting health commissioner Howard Zucker acknowledged there are gaps in the data but said there are many “red flags” and questions about the risks of fracking.

“The science isn’t here,” Zucker said. “But the cumulative concerns based on the information I have read … gives me reason to pause.”

New York State’s Republican chairman, Ed Cox, slammed the health review as a “political charade.” Cuomo says he is expecting “a ton of lawsuits” in the wake of the decision.

Industry representatives in Pennsylvania have pointed out that New York’s decision on fracking will have little bearing here — at least in the near future — since most of New York’s share of the Marcellus Shale contains less economically attractive dry gas.

Christopher Robart, a consultant with IHS Energy, says the decision will have little to no impact on business in Pennsylvania.

“Folks in the industry have put a lot of money into parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania and built infrastructure,” he says. “Once that’s in the ground, there’s a certain amount of stickiness in the market.”

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Maryland Governor proposes stringent fracking regulations

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley delivers his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in Annapolis, Md., Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. The term-limited governor has proposed strict regulations on fracking. But it's unclear what will become of them once he leaves office in January.

Patrick Semansky / AP Photo

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley delivers his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in Annapolis, Md., Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. After three years of research, the term-limited governor has proposed strict regulations on fracking. But it's unclear what will become of them once he leaves office in January.

Marcellus Shale natural gas deposits lie beneath just a tiny sliver of western Maryland. But with three years worth of review, the state issued a 104 page report Tuesday detailing the pros and cons of fracking, along with recommendations for some of the most stringent rules in the country. Maryland’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Study was conducted by the state’s Department of Environment, and Department of Natural Resources at the behest of the outgoing governor, Martin O’Malley. It’s unclear what will come of the proposal because the newly elected incoming governor-elect, Republican Larry Hogan, has criticized the lack of drilling in the state’s two shale gas counties.

The hold up to Maryland’s shale gas boom has been the state’s extensive analysis of current research into the economic, public health and environmental impacts of fracking. Today’s report includes a long list of proposed recommendations that it says would allow gas drilling to occur with minimal risks.

“…provided all the recommended best practices are followed and the State is able to rigorously monitor and enforce compliance, the risks of Marcellus Shale development can be managed to an acceptable level.”

The proposed regulations include a five-year plan on each well, a 2000 foot vertical buffer between an aquifer and the targeted gas deposit, a setback of at least 1000 feet from the edge of a well pad to an occupied building, school or church and 2000 feet from a private drinking water well.

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Casey tells Obama administration: climate plan an unfair burden for Pa.

Sen. Bob Casey is criticizing the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

Emma Lee/NewsWorks/WHYY

Sen. Bob Casey is criticizing the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Casey says the Obama administration’s plan to tackle climate change by cutting carbon emissions from power plants would place an unfair burden on Pennsylvania.

The overall goal is to cut emissions by 30 percent nationwide by the year 2030. States will be directed to craft plans to meet their own specific targets.

Pennsylvania – the nation’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide and fourth-largest coal producer – would be required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 32 percent over the next 15 years.

Casey’s comments were part of a 22-page letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. In the letter, he supports the general mission of the EPA’s proposal to stem the impacts of climate change, which Casey says would negatively effect public health and national security.

“So for all these reasons, we must reject the status quo and look in the other direction, our clean energy future in which we rise to the challenge of climate change…,” he writes.

However, Casey finds fault with how the plan would impact Pennsylvania.

More from the Associated Press:

He said Pennsylvania is being tasked with substantially increasing renewable energy such as wind or solar power, even though federal data show that the state is technically limited compared to other states to do so.

Mr. Casey also said the EPA plan fails to credit Pennsylvania for clean power sources such as existing hydropower and nuclear power. And he said the proposal does not take into account the environmental value of Pennsylvania plants that provide energy by burning coal refuse, which otherwise would litter the state’s landscape.

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New report counts more than 13,000 renewable energy jobs in Pa.

John Bennett is site manager at the Twin Ridges Wind Farm in Somerset County, Pa.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

John Bennett is site manager at the Twin Ridges Wind Farm in Somerset County, Pa.

A new report shows the renewable and alternative energy industry supports more than 13,000 jobs in Pennsylvania.

The Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance and Environmental Entrepreneurs – the two nonprofit organizations that put out the report – are touting it as the first full accounting of these jobs, which are not tracked by the state.

The state Department of Labor and Industry only counts employment in the coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy sectors and puts out a monthly report on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling jobs. The agency gets statistics on solar and wind jobs, for example, from trade associations.

“There hasn’t been formal data on these types of jobs in Pennsylvania,” said KEEA Executive Director Brian Kauffman. “So that was one of the major motivations [for the report] to get a sense of where we are so we can get a sense of where we’re going.”

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PA Congressman launches frack waste investigation

A truck delivers fracking wastewater to a Susquehanna County recycling center

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A truck delivers fracking wastewater to a Susquehanna County recycling center.

The state’s new acting secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection, Dana Aunkst, has lots of questions to answer regarding how the state oversees frack waste disposal and transportation. On Wednesday, Congressman Matt Cartwright, a democrat from Schuylkill County, sent Aunkst a 3-page letter seeking information as part of an investigation into how states monitor waste generated by shale gas drilling. The states have responsibility for the waste because it’s exempt from federal oversight. The investigation comes on the heels of a report released by the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s office in July, which criticizes the DEP’s role in protecting drinking water from contamination by gas drillers.

“The audit concluded that Pennsylvania’s current system for oversight of fracking waste “is not an effective monitoring tool” and “it is not proactive in discouraging improper, even illegal, disposal of waste,” wrote Cartwright in the letter.

Cartwright is leading the investigation through the Economic Growth, Job Creation, and Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Aunkst was just recently appointed acting secretary after former secretary Chris Abruzzo resigned in the wake of the porngate scandal. Aunkst has until November 12 to respond. Read the letter and Cartwright’s questions below. Continue Reading

DEP seeks record fine against gas driller as AG files criminal charges

Pennsylvania regulators are seeking a record $4.5 million fine against EQT Corp. for a major leak from an impoundment pond in Tioga County, the Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday in a news release. The announcement comes one week after the state Attorney General’s office filed criminal charges against the company for the same incident.

In May 2012, EQT estimates between 300 and 500 gallons of “flowback fluid” – the liquid that comes back out of the ground after a well has been fracked – seeped out of an impoundment pond at a well site in Duncan Township. Flowback contains high levels of salts, heavy metals and some naturally occurring radioactive materials.

DEP inspectors found the fluid had polluted soil, as well as nearby groundwater seeps and waterways – including Rock Run, a high quality, wild trout stream. Trees and shrubs along the path of the spill were also damaged.

EQT “has not been cooperative”

According to the DEP, the impoundment was supposed to contain six million gallons of fresh water. Instead, the agency says EQT used the pit to store flowback without a permission from the department and without the required safeguards to prevent leaks.

Acting Secretary Dana Aunkst said in a statement the company “has not been cooperative” during the state’s investigation. The agency has filed a complaint with the state Environmental Hearing Board, alleging EQT violated Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law.

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DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo resigns amid lewd email scandal

DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo (left) resigned from his office today.   Dana Aunkst (right) will now serve as Acting Secretary. Here, the two testify at the department's senate budget hearing in Harrisburg.

Marie Cusick

DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo (center) resigned from his post today. Dana Aunkst (right) will now serve as Acting Secretary. On the left is Deputy Secretary Jeff Logan. Here, the three testify at the department's senate budget hearing in Harrisburg in February.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Chris Abruzzo has resigned his position, according to a statement issued by Governor Tom Corbett. The resignation is effective immediately. It comes amidst a scandal involving several top Corbett officials exchanging lewd emails.

Abruzzo is one of eight Corbett appointees recently named by the Attorney General’s office as having sent or received pornographic emails on state computers. Some of the emails were shown to reporters, but the information was released without details as to who sent what to whom.

In a letter to Gov. Corbett, Abruzzo says he doesn’t remember the emails but accepts “full responsibility for any lack of judgement I may have exhibited in 2009.” At that time, Abruzzo worked under Corbett in the Attorney General’s office leading the Drug Strike Force. Current Attorney General Kathleen Kane says Abruzzo and others exchanged the lewd emails between 2008 and 2012, while Corbett served as AG.

In the letter, Abruzzo says he has not reviewed the emails Attorney General Kane has shown to reporters, but decided to resign because the issue has become a distraction.

“..it is my concern that these assertions have become a distraction from the great record of this administration; a record that has held the line on taxes for Pennsylvania families, invested the most state dollars for basic education in the history of the state, and put hard-working Pennsylvanians back to work.”

With the election just a month away, Corbett faces a tough fight against his challenger Democrat Tom Wolf. Continue Reading

PUC rejects judges’ decision, orders hearings on Sunoco Logistics pipeline

The Public Utility Commission has ordered more hearings on Sunoco Logistics’ request to bypass local zoning to build structures for facilities along its 300-mile natural gas liquids pipeline.

In a 4-1 vote Thursday, the PUC rejected a recommendation from its administrative law judges to dismiss the petition because the company is not a public utility. The commission argues Sunoco Logistics and its Mariner East project are the product of a merger between two pipeline companies that had public utility status since the 1930s.

At issue now is whether the buildings that would shelter the pump and valve control stations should be exempt from local zoning laws — not the facilities themselves.

“To answer this question, we must decide whether it is in the convenience or welfare of the public for Sunoco to enclose the planned facilities with walls and roofs, even if those enclosures may conflict with local zoning ordnances,” Commissioners Pamela Witmer and John Coleman wrote in their motion.

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