Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Senate bill would encourage use of coal mine water to frack

A rock pulled from the bottom of a creek in Tioga County is covered in orange slime, resulting from iron sulfide in mine water drainage.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A rock pulled from the bottom of a creek in Tioga County is covered in orange slime, resulting from iron sulfide in mine water drainage.

A bill that would encourage the use of coal mine water to frack natural gas wells was approved by the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on Monday. Senate Bill 875 limits potential liabilities for producers who would use the polluted mine water, instead of cleaner fresh water, in the drilling process.

Using acid mine drainage to frack was an idea that had support from the Corbett Administration, as well as the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, as a way to reduce the amount of fresh water used by Marcellus Shale developers. But some industry lawyers have said the state’s Clean Streams Law could make producers liable for cleaning up the mine water that they didn’t pollute, in perpetuity. So although some drillers are using acid mine drainage to frack, it hasn’t been an idea that has gotten much traction.

This bill specifically addresses the use of mine water that has been treated by the coal company to standards set by the federal Clean Water Act under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. This water typically sits in containment ponds.*

Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law was enacted, in part, to prevent a repeat of the coal industry’s devastating impact on water quality. It empowers the Department of Environmental Protection to manage waste water discharge and enforce penalties on industries that pollute. Drillers are worried the Department of Environmental Protection could penalize them for the dirty mine drainage water if they use it to frack a well. Continue Reading

DEP issues permits to Shell for possible ethane cracker

Opponents of a possible ethane cracker in Beaver County worry that it will harm air quality.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Opponents of a possible ethane cracker in Beaver County worry that it will harm air quality, a claim that was rejected by DEP.

Shell Chemical moved a step closer to the possible construction of a major petrochemical plant in western Pennsylvania on Friday when it received four permits for air quality and water management from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Four years after announcing it was considering building the multi-billion-dollar plant in Beaver County about 25 miles north of Pittsburgh, the Dutch oil giant still hasn’t decided whether to go ahead with the project, which would include an ethane cracker, but it called the permit issuance an important step in its evaluation process.

“The receipt of the air permit is a critical milestone for the project, and we are pleased that we continue to make progress in our project evaluation,” the company said in a statement. Continue Reading

DEP plans new fracking chemical disclosure site, promises more transparency

John Quigley was confirmed as DEP secretary Wednesday.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Newly confirmed DEP Secretary John Quigley wants to make the agency more transparent, with data easily accessible.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is developing several tools to make information on natural gas drilling more accessible to the public. This includes a new fracking chemical disclosure site, a web portal for information on each natural gas well, and opportunities for the public to comment on proposed DEP policies.

DEP Secretary John Quigley says the effort is part of the Wolf administration’s commitment to “collaboration, transparency and integrity.” He spoke Wednesday night at the annual dinner of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council in Philadelphia.

“Our department first has a commitment to collaboration, second it will be driven by science, and third we will show the work,” Quigley said.

The remarks signal a change in tone at the environmental agency, which under Corbett was criticized by some residents and environmentalists as opaque and inaccessible.

The state’s gas drilling law, Act 13, requires producers to post a list of chemicals used to frack each well on the disclosure website FracFocus. But until recently, FracFocus.org posted individual PDF documents for each well, making it difficult to organize the data in a searchable manner. The law directs DEP to find or create an alternative if the FracFocus site was not searchable by January 1, 2013. FracFocus did upgrade its site last month, creating a method for users to download the data into searchable databases.

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New fracking jobs number likely more accurate, say economists

Pennsylvania recently changed the way it counts gas industry jobs. Economists say the new estimates are probably more accurate.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

Pennsylvania recently changed the way it counts gas industry jobs. Economists say the new estimates are probably more accurate.

Pennsylvania’s new way of counting jobs related to Marcellus Shale drilling is probably more accurate, say economists who study the industry.

Last week Governor Tom Wolf’s administration changed the way the state Department of Labor and Industry tracks gas jobs. Approximately 30,000 people work directly in oil and gas sectors. Under the old method, the department used to count another 200,000 people in 30 related industries. Now the agency says nearly 90,000 jobs in Pennsylvania are linked to drilling.

Industry trade groups and former Governor Tom Corbett have often credited the Marcellus Shale with supporting more than 200,000 jobs.

Matthew Rousu is an economics professor at Susquehanna University who recently authored a paper critiquing various studies that examine the economic impacts of the gas industry. He noted many “clearly exhibit bias either for or against fracking.”

Rousu was quick to point out that he disagrees with Wolf on many issues. For example, he’s not convinced the state needs a new tax on gas production.

“I think they’re doing a lot of things wrong.” Rousu says of the Wolf administration. “But this change seems pretty reasonable to me. The previous jobs number did seem high. But 90,000 is an enormous number. It’s 1.5 percent of workers in the state.”

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Shell buys more land at possible cracker site but still hasn’t decided whether to build

Former Gov. Tom Corbett agreed $66 million a year in tax breaks if Shell builds an ethane cracker in Beaver County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Former Gov. Tom Corbett agreed to $66 million a year in tax breaks if Shell builds an ethane cracker in Beaver County.

Shell Chemical on Wednesday confirmed its purchase of the site of a former zinc smelter in Beaver County but said it still hasn’t decided whether to go ahead with construction of a major petrochemical complex that would include an ethane cracker.

“Shell can confirm that we have closed on our land purchase of the former Horseheads property,” said Ray Fisher, a spokesman for the Dutch oil giant, referring to the operator of the smelter. “However, we have not made a final decision to build the project; we will make that decision when our full project evaluation is complete.

“The land purchase is a necessary step for Shell to advance the permitting process, and allows us to proceed with some preliminary site-development work,” Fisher said in a statement.

He refused to confirm a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the company paid $13.5 million for the western Pennsylvania smelter site after buying 12 other nearby parcels for a total of $13.8 million.

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DEP seeks record fine of $8.9 million from Range Resources

Kimberly Paynter/Newsworks.org

Kimberly Paynter

A Marcellus Shale gas rig in Lycoming County.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced a record fine today against the Texas-based Range Resources, which the agency says has failed to fix a gas well that polluted groundwater and a stream in Lycoming County. The DEP announced Tuesday that it will assess an $8.9 million fine against Range for refusing to fix the faulty cement job on a natural gas well that the agency says caused methane to migrate into private drinking water supplies. The penalty would be the largest to date against a Marcellus Shale gas driller.

“Today, we made it clear that we take seriously our responsibility to protect residents and Pennsylvania’s natural resources,” said DEP Secretary John Quigley in a statement. “Clean water is an important part of a strong economy and Range Resources owes it to the people of Lycoming County and surrounding areas to make the repairs necessary to immediately stop the discharge of natural gas to the waters.”

The fine sought by the DEP is more than double the highest fine ever issued by the agency against a gas driller. That fine, $4.15 million and now the second highest, was also issued to Range Resources back in September. In that case the company agreed to pay the fine for violations at six wastewater impoundments in Washington County. But in this recent Lycoming County case, Range Resources has not agreed to the sanction, saying the methane migration is naturally occurring and existed before their well was drilled. Continue Reading

What happened to 160,000 fracking jobs? Under Wolf, the numbers change

Workers at a natural gas site in Bradford County.

AP Photo/Ralph Wilson

Last week Pennsylvania changed the way it counts jobs associated with the Marcellus Shale industry.

Somehow Pennsylvania lost 160,000 gas industry jobs overnight.

What happened? Did drillers flee at the specter of a new tax on production? Not quite. Although companies have been laying off workers and cutting costs– lackluster market conditions don’t explain this shift.

Instead, it was a decision made under Governor Wolf’s new administration. Last week the state Department of Labor and Industry quietly changed the way it tracks employment in the Marcellus Shale industry.

“Those numbers were a joke,” says John Hanger, Wolf’s secretary of planning and policy. ”The errors were so glaring, they had to be changed.”

Wolf’s predecessor Tom Corbett, a Republican, often credited drillers with supporting more than 200,000 Pennsylvania jobs.

“We were very uncomfortable with some of the misrepresentations under the past administration,” says labor department spokeswoman Sara Goulet. “The numbers we put out had caveats. [The Corbett administration] was misrepresenting them.”

As StateImpact Pennsylvania has previously reported, the way the state reported gas jobs had been repeatedly questioned over the years by independent economists.

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Bradford County considers royalties lawsuit against Chesapeake Energy

Bradford County has nearly 1,000 acres leased to Chesapeake Energy and is considering suing the company for allegedly underpaying royalties.

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Bradford County has nearly 1,000 acres leased to Chesapeake and is considering suing the company for allegedly underpaying royalties.

Pennsylvania’s most drilled-on county is exploring the possibility of joining one of the many lawsuits that have been filed recently against Chesapeake Energy. The Oklahoma City-based company has been widely accused of cheating landowners out of royalty money from natural gas drilling.

The Bradford County commissioners asked their solicitor to look into the matter and will make a decision in two weeks. The county has about 1,000 acres leased for gas development and receives royalty payments from Chesapeake. Commissioner Doug McLinko (R) says the county–like many private landowners– feels it’s being underpaid because of the way Chesapeake interprets leases and withholds certain fees.

“What’s going on in this county is just incredible,” he says. “It’s so out of control.”

A Chesapeake spokesman declined to comment for this story. Continue Reading

Pennsylvania case studies mirror EPA’s national fracking report

The EPA's case studies included Susquehanna County where this Cabot gas rig was working

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

The EPA's case studies included Susquehanna County where this Cabot gas rig was working

A federal investigation into links between fracking and drinking water contamination in Bradford and Susquehanna Counties found some private water wells had been damaged by methane and ethane migration caused by nearby fracking. But the report found no evidence that homeowners’ private water wells and springs had been affected by frack fluids or waste water.

In Washington County, the same probe found ground water near a gas industry waste water impoundment contained chlorides that exceeded the federal health limit but that methane found in about a quarter of wells tested was naturally occurring.

The two case studies were among five cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its long-awaited national investigation into the potential impacts by fracking for oil and gas on drinking water resources. Continue Reading

New pipeline could mean tax bonanza for NJ towns, but for Pa.? Not so much

Joe Kulick is township manager of Durham, Pa., one of 27 towns along the route of the PennEast pipeline.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Joe Kulick is township manager of Durham, Pa., one of 27 towns along the main route of the PennEast pipeline.

As Republican legislative leaders and the natural gas industry unite to beat back Gov. Tom Wolf’s severance tax proposal, here’s something lawmakers in Harrisburg are not talking about: Companies building new pipelines to grow markets for Pennsylvania’s natural gas don’t have to pay local property taxes on those lines to counties, towns and school districts.

So how much could local communities be missing out on?

In one case, StateImpact Pennsylvania has found that a proposed pipeline that would run beneath the Delaware River, the undulating boundary between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, could mean millions of dollars a year in new property tax revenue for towns in the Garden State. But on the other side of the river, Pennsylvania could be leaving millions of dollars a year on the table.

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