A Seneca Resources well pad in the Loyalsock State Forest.
Oil and gas companies were fined $2.5 million by Pennsylvania environmental regulators last year for violations at well sites and pipeline routes.
The 2013 total was the third highest in the three decades of oil and gas penalties the Department of Environmental Protection tracks in its public compliance report. Oil and gas companies were fined higher amounts only in 2010 ($2.7 million) and 2011 ($2.6 million), according to the database. (Tallying the fines in a different way through its fiscal report, DEP said the 2013 total was actually tied with 2011.)
Unlike recent years when high-profile spills, fires or methane migration cases attracted attention and hefty penalties, 2013 saw smaller but significant fines issued without fanfare to companies for violations that accumulated over years. Six of the 20 largest fines ever levied by DEP’s oil and gas program were handed out last year, but only one was among the ten largest.
The entrance to a Chevron well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County.
Two weeks after a fire broke out on a Chevron well pad in Greene County, emergency crews have stopped the flow of natural gas from two damaged wells on the site.
The well where the fire started was capped on Sunday afternoon. Around 4 p.m. Tuesday, crews capped a second well that had borne the brunt of the blaze. Chevron says it has begun checking seals and valves on a third well on the pad.
“Once it is determined that the [third] well is also secure, a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the incident will begin,” Chevron spokeswoman Lee Ann Wainwright said in a statement.
Around 7 a.m. on February 11, a well on the pad in Dunkard Township exploded and the fire burned intermittently for five days. The official cause is still under investigation, but state officials say there may have been a defect in the wellhead that caused the release of methane. State police believe Ian McKee, a 27-year-old contractor worker who was on the site, died in the explosion.
The Department of Environmental Protection has been monitoring air and water quality in the area and says the methane releases are not a threat to public health.
Chevron says air samples were consistent with readings at a DEP air quality station in Washington, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles away from Dunkard Township.
In January, seven cars of a 101-car train traveling from Chicago to a refinery in South Philadelphia slid off the tracks on the Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge.
This post was updated on 2/26/14 at 11 a.m.
Four days after American railroads agreed to voluntary changes to make shipping crude oil by rail safer, the federal government has taken the effort a step further. The Department of Transportation issued an emergency order Tuesday requiring shippers to test each load of crude oil before transporting it and to classify the shipments as higher risk.
“From emergency orders to voluntary agreements, we are using every tool at our disposal to ensure the safe transportation of crude,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
It is the department’s fourth emergency order in less than a year, following a string of derailments involving oil trains, including two recent incidents in Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, an oil train derailed in the town of Vandergrift, about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, spilling thousands of gallons of heavy Canadian crude. In January, tanker cars carrying light crude from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale slid off the tracks of a rail bridge in Philadelphia.
The emergency order applies to all shipments of crude oil, according to a DOT spokesman. However, the federal government is targeting shipments coming from the Bakken.
The DOT is concerned that shippers may not be properly classifying cargo on these trains. In addition to requiring shippers to test each load of crude, the federal government will no longer allow the oil to be shipped as low-risk material.
Environmental groups object to Governor Corbett's plan to expand leasing of state park and forest land for gas drilling.
A statewide coalition of environmental groups held a rally today opposing Governor Corbett’s proposal to expand leasing of state parks and forests for natural gas drilling.
They marched from the capitol rotunda to Corbett’s office to deliver a petition opposing the plan.
The rally was timed to coincide with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources appearing before the House Appropriations committee.
DCNR secretary Ellen Ferretti told lawmakers Corbett’s proposal will not allow for any new or additional surface impacts to public lands.
“Each and every [leasing] proposal will be evaluated to make sure it adheres to this directive,” she said.
Former Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, leased about 130,000 acres of state forest land before he instituted a moratorium on future leasing during his last year in office.
Governor Corbett says he plans to issue a new executive order, under which companies could not build new well pads on state land. Instead, they could access gas by drilling horizontally underground from private property that’s adjacent to public land, or add new wells to existing well pads on state land.
A fire broke out on a Chevron natural gas well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County, Pa. on Feb. 11.
On Sunday afternoon, crews capped a leaking Chevron natural gas well in Greene County that caught fire nearly two weeks ago, resulting in the death of a 27-year-old contract worker.
Methane gas continues to spew from a second well that also ignited on February 11 in Dunkard Township. Chevron says it could be a few more days before Texas-based Wild Well Control can shut off the flow.
In the meantime, the Department of Environmental Protection has been monitoring air and water quality in the area and says the releases should not be harmful to nearby residents.
Scott Perry, the DEP’s Deputy Secretary for Oil and Gas Management who was on the scene in Greene County last week, says Wild Well Control has estimated the two wells were initially venting between 10 and 25 million cubic feet of gas a day.
“They were estimating high so they could establish a conservative safe zone,” Perry says, noting the flow of gas had since decreased.
A CSX unit train delivers a load of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to a refinery in South Philadelphia.
Federal regulators and American railroads have agreed to voluntary changes that could make shipping crude oil by rail safer, including slowing down trains in major cities by at least 10 miles per hour.
Under the agreement between the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Association of American Railroads, operators will also inspect tracks more frequently and pay to boost emergency planning along their routes. Federal regulators say these voluntary changes are paving the way for more regulation since a dramatic increase in rail traffic hauling domestic crude oil has resulted in more accidents on tracks across the country – including Pennsylvania.
“Safety is our top priority, and we have a shared responsibility to make sure crude oil is transported safely from origin to destination,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement to the Associated Press.
“It does seem pretty obvious that one should look at the problem in all its aspects,” says Phil Rinaldi, CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions.
The refinery in South Philadelphia takes in at least two loads of crude oil every day on trains stretching more than 100 cars long. Last month, a train bound for the refinery derailed, leaving seven cars intact, but leaning across a bridge spanning the Schuyllkill River and a major highway.
Crude-by-rail is helping to keep Philadelphia in the oil refining business – an industry that was on its way out in 2011 – but Rinaldi admits there is room for improvement.
“We think that we’re taking prudent risk and maybe this is a little bit of a learning as we go along, but railroads have been pulling cargo for just too many years to believe that they can’t do that safely,” he says.
Pennsylvania's highest court threw out sections of the state's oil and gas law in December, saying they violated citizens' environmental rights.
Pennsylvania’s highest court has denied a request by the Corbett administration to reconsider its recent decision, which found portions of the state’s oil and gas law unconstitutional.
In a 4-2 decision in December, the state Supreme Court court threw out portions of the law, known as Act 13, which restricted local zoning of oil and gas development.
One section of the law that was struck down called for statewide rules on oil and gas to preempt local zoning rules. Another section required local governments to allow oil and gas development in all zoning areas.
In the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Ronald Castille, the court determined both those provisions violated the Environmental Rights Amendment of the state constitution, which guarantees Pennsylvanians the right to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. ”
The decision was hailed as a major victory by environmental groups and local governments who argued Act 13 went too far in restricting local authority.
In January, the Corbett administration asked the court to reconsider its decision. Corbett’s General Counsel James Schultz argued the court, “made its own sweeping factual findings regarding the impact of Act 13″ without giving the state an opportunity to present its own evidence.
The court issued an order today simply stating, “the application for reargument or reconsideration of the opinions entered by this Court on December 19, 2013 is denied.”
The company — known for the so-called “Halliburton Loophole” that exempts hydraulic fracturing from federal oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act — racked up 255 violations involving storage, treatment and transportation of hydrochloric acid without permits from the DEP.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports Halliburton was repeatedly violating a state exemption that allows companies to store small amounts of this acidic waste. The DEP told the Tribune-Review the company was storing ten times the regulated limit, and some believe the violations could warrant a criminal investigation.
Ian McKee, 27, originally of Warren, Pennsylvania, was identified by his family this week as a contractor for Cameron International, a company that was working on the Chevron well pad when the fire started early last Tuesday. State police were unable to access the scene until Wednesday as crews worked to extinguish the fire and clear the pad of debris.
During a somber press conference at the Bobtown Fire Department, a representative of Cameron said Mr. McKee, who is originally from Warren, Pa., but lived most recently in Morgantown, left behind a fiance who is pregnant with his child.
Stefan Radwanski, vice president and general manager of Cameron’s Surface Systems division, said the company has been in regular contact with the McKee family and will continue to provide for their needs.
“All of us at Cameron are deeply saddened by this incident and our thoughts and prayers are with the McKee family,” he said