Energy. Environment. Economy.

Pennsylvania lawmakers seek answers on oil train safety

State Public Utilities Commission chair Gladys Brown told lawmakers she'd like to hire more inspectors, however her agency has limited authority over rail safety.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

State Public Utilities Commission chair Gladys Brown told lawmakers she'd like to hire more inspectors, however her agency has limited authority over rail safety.

As the shipment of oil by train has skyrocketed in Pennsylvania and around the nation, lawmakers in Harrisburg want to weigh in on safety issues. Unfortunately they have little authority, since the rail industry is regulated almost exclusively by the federal government.

Every week between 60-70 trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota travel through Pennsylvania. The state has had four oil train derailments since the beginning of last year, but none have led to the deadly accidents and explosions seen elsewhere.

At a state senate hearing on oil train safety Tuesday, Public Utilities Commission (PUC) chair Gladys Brown noted that her agency has just 15 inspectors to monitor 5,600 miles of track.

“We would like to increase the number of inspectors,” she told senators. “We know there’s a lot of factors in terms of the types of training they need, but funding is also a big factor.”

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Report cites lack of data on fracking health issues

Edna Moten's daughters say they too developed lesions.

Susan Phillips / StateImpactPA

Jeannie Moten (L) on the porch of her mother's house in Washington County. Moten says she developed skin lesions after gas drilling began nearby.

More than a decade into the U.S. fracking boom, researchers still don’t have enough information to determine whether the controversial method of extracting oil and gas threatens public health, a leading health-policy journal said on Monday.

Health Affairs, which analyzes public-health issues for readers including government officials, health-care advocates and scholars, said a lack of definitive data was in part the result of scarce government funding. It also blamed corporate reluctance to disclose details on chemicals used in fracking; the long-term nature of epidemiology needed for credible studies, and flaws in some studies.

It said there have been many studies that have associated fracking (hydraulic fracturing) with air and water contaminants, and which have noted many pathways by which fracking-related chemicals can enter the environment.

But it says information on individual exposures and baseline data on pre-fracking conditions are often hard or impossible to find.

“These and other data gaps have hindered the kind of large-scale epidemiological studies that can link exposures to actual health outcomes, with valid comparison groups,” said the report by David Tuller, the academic coordinator of the joint masters program in journalism and public health at the University of California at Berkeley. Continue Reading

Butler County gas leaseholders sue local opponents of zoning change

Workers at a hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Workers at a hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County.

A dozen western Pennsylvania residents who have leased their land for gas drilling are suing local opponents of gas development in a case that free-speech advocates say could have far-reaching consequences for critics’ ability to debate the industry’s plans.

A suit by the 12 leaseholders and a real estate developer in Middlesex and Adams Townships, Butler County, claims that opponents of a plan to sharply increase the amount of township land that can be used for gas drilling are interfering with the plaintiffs’ contractual rights and depriving them of income from gas royalties.

The suit also accuses two environmental groups and five township residents of making false public statements in their efforts to halt the construction of a gas well pad by R.E. Gas Development, a unit of State College-based Rex Energy, less than a mile from a  school. Continue Reading

EPA: Fracking water problems not widespread

Kimberly Paynter/

The EPA says fracking does pollute drinking water, but the incidents are not "widespread."

The Environmental Protection Agency says fracking can cause water contamination, but the problems are not widespread. The EPA released its long-awaited draft study today on the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies. Speaking on a conference call with reporters, the EPA’s science advisor and deputy assistant administrator of the office of research and development Thomas A. Burke said the study “greatly advances our scientific understanding of fracking’s potential impacts.” Burke also called the study “the most comprehensive” look at the impacts of fracking on drinking water.

“Based upon available scientific information, we found that hydraulic fracturing activities in the United States are carried out in a way that has not led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water sources,” said Burke. “In fact the number of documented impacts on drinking water resources is relatively low when compared to number of fractured wells.”

Burke emphasized that the study is not a “health risk assessment,” nor is it meant to influence specific policy.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection reports 256 incidents of private water supply impacts resulting from both conventional and unconventional (shale gas) drilling. Those incidents include water wells that have run dry as well as contamination.

The EPA’s report looked at the hydrologic cycle of water related to the entire unconventional gas drilling process, including water withdrawals, well completion, and waste water treatment, recycling, and disposal.

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Quigley confirmed as DEP secretary

John Quigley was confirmed as DEP secretary Wednesday.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

John Quigley was confirmed as DEP secretary Wednesday.

The state senate confirmed Governor Wolf’s nominee, John Quigley, to head the state Department of Environmental Protection Wednesday in a 44-4 vote.

Quigley has served as acting DEP secretary since January. He previously headed the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) during the Rendell administration.

During his confirmation hearing Tuesday, some Republican senators raised concerns about his views on Marcellus Shale drilling. Some viewed Quigley’s past statements as being overly critical of the gas industry and worried whether he will impose burdensome regulations that will stifle business.

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Panel moves Quigley nomination to full senate, without recommendation


Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Gov. Wolf's nominee to head the state Department of Environmental Protection, John Quigley, testifying before a state senate panel Tuesday.

A panel of state senators declined Tuesday to endorse Governor Wolf’s pick to head the state Department of Environmental Protection. Without the committee’s official approval or disapproval, acting secretary John Quigley’s nomination now heads to the full senate.

The official word from the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee was “no recommendation,” but the Republican chair, Gene Yaw (Bradford) said he will still vote to approve Quigley and expects he will be confirmed.

Yaw says he is primarily concerned with some of Quigley’s past statements. As a former secretary for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Quigley has been an outspoken critic of how natural gas leasing was handled by his former boss– Democratic Governor Ed Rendell.

Quigley has said Pennsylvania’s forests were treated like a “cash cow” and that Marcellus Shale money had become akin to “crack cocaine” for state government. He’s also questioned whether gas drillers would leave a legacy of environmental damage rivaling previous extractive industries, like coal and timber.

Quigley was much more circumspect in his comments Tuesday before the committee, noting the Wolf administration wants the gas industry to be successful.

“Some of his positions are things we would not agree with,” said Yaw. “You look at his past history, and then you look at what he said today– and it’s everything people would expect and would want to hear.”

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New water-quality rule expected to affect energy companies

The Delaware River is among major drinking water sources that will get extra protection from a new EPA rule covering their tributaries

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

The Delaware River is among major drinking water sources that will get extra protection from a new EPA rule covering tributaries

Pennsylvania’s energy companies are expected to be among businesses that will be affected by a new federal rule extending the protection of the Clean Water Act to small tributaries and other waterways that feed major rivers supplying drinking water to millions of people.

Operators of natural gas rigs or builders of pipelines will likely have to comply with the Clean Water Rule, announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on May 27, which imposes tougher standards on companies that want to operate near the streams that flow into rivers.

Businesses of all kinds will have to apply for a permit to operate near the waterways, and the EPA will determine on a case-by-case basis whether their activities would be in compliance with the 1972 law, which is the basis for the new rule.

It’s not yet clear whether the gas industry will be affected by the rule’s requirements to the same extent as other industries because of existing exemptions, said Adam Garber, field director for PennEnvironment, which welcomed the new rule. Continue Reading

DEP fines Chevron $940K for fatal gas well fire

A fire broke out on a Chevron natural gas well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County, Pa. on Feb. 11, 2014.

Katie Colaneri/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A fire broke out on a Chevron natural gas well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County, Pa. on Feb. 11, 2014.

A Chevron subsidiary has agreed to pay the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection $940,000 for multiple violations involving a 2014 fatal explosion at a natural gas well site in southwest Pennsylvania.

DEP spokesman John Poister said the penalty against Chevron Appalachia LLC was “among the largest fines” the agency has imposed.

Fires at two wells in Dunkard Township, Greene County burned for several days before they could be extinguished, but it took more than one week to find the remains of Ian McKee, 27, a contractor with Texas-based Cameron International who was killed in the blast.

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Wolf’s gas tax would be among highest in nation, says Independent Fiscal Office

Workers at a natural gas sites in Washington, Pa. The IFO says Gov. Wolf's proposal would give Pennsylvania one of the highest effective gas tax rates in the nation.

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Workers at a natural gas sites in Washington, Pa. The IFO says Gov. Wolf's proposal would give Pennsylvania one of the highest effective gas tax rates in the nation.

Governor Wolf made taxing the natural gas industry the centerpiece of his campaign, and if he gets his way, he could move Pennsylvania from having one of the lowest effective gas tax rates in the country to one of the highest.

That was the analysis presented Monday at a joint senate committee hearing in Harrisburg from the state’s Independent Fiscal Office (IFO). Much like the Congressional Budget Office in Washington D.C., the IFO is tasked with providing nonpartisan analysis for budgetary purposes.

“The proposed severance tax will likely move Pennsylvania from one of the lowest severance tax states to the highest tax state, relative to other major gas producing states,” says IFO director Matthew Knittel.

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In a power shift, natural gas closes in on ‘king coal’

In Pennsylvania when you flip on a light switch, odds are you’re burning coal. But as the fracking boom continues to unlock huge quantities of natural gas, the electric grid is changing. Power plants are increasingly turning to this lower-cost, cleaner-burning fossil fuel.

The shift is being driven by both market forces and new regulations.

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