Pennsylvania

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Southwestern Energy fined for drilling unpermitted wells in Bradford County

A drilling rig in Bradford County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drilling rig in Bradford County.

Southwestern Energy Production company will have to pay $128,031 for drilling five unpermitted Marcellus Shale gas wells in Bradford County. The state Department of Environmental Protection announced the fine today after the Houston, Texas company continued to drill even after the DEP issued a “notice of violation” in January 2013.

Southwestern Energy has 229 active wells in the state as of the end of 2013. And although the DEP has issued 76 violations to the company, this is the first time the agency has issued a fine.

The wells were drilled in Herrick and Stevens townships after the original permits had expired. More from the DEP:

A DEP investigation revealed that Southwestern had drilled at the Reeve Sutton 4H well pad in Herrick Township, Bradford County for nine days in October 2012, about 18 months past the permit’s expiration date. The department issued notice of violation (NOV) letters for this unpermitted drilling to Southwestern in January 2013.

Southwestern committed the same violations at four other wells in Bradford County in October 2012 and February 2013, conducting drilling four to 16 months after permits had expired. Two of the four wells were drilled after the company received the NOVs from the department in January 2013.

A gas drilling permit lasts for one year. If drilling does not begin within that year, the company has to apply for a new permit.

Lawmaker proposes Marcellus Shale tax with a twist

A drill rig in Susquehanna County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drill rig in Susquehanna County.

A natural gas extraction tax in Pennsylvania has been regarded at times as a silver bullet, and lawmakers have proposed shooting it every which way to solve financial woes. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone suggested aiming it at the state’s pension problems.

Republican Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, running for reelection in his Bucks County district, is proposing a Marcellus Shale tax with a twist: the revenue would go solely toward the state’s public pension debt.

A natural gas drilling tax was considered by state lawmakers as recently as June and but it was jettisoned due to lack of support among Republicans.

Democrats have been full-throated supporters of an extraction tax, but Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa said they would want to spend the money differently, “the bulk of it going to education.”

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Williams bans pipeline surveyors for trespassing

Lancaster Newspapers reports a crew of pipeline surveyors trespassed on at least five properties in Lancaster County. The surveyors were contractors for the pipeline company Williams, which has now banned the workers from this and all future projects, according to a spokeswoman.

Five landowners spoke about the incidents in a press conference last night in Martic Township.

More from Lancaster Newspapers:

Each said their property is posted with “no trespassing” signs and none had given Williams permission to be on their property.

The gathering, organized by the citizens’ group Lancaster Against Pipelines, was held in the Venture Drive backyard of Tracey McVey.

McVey said she came home from work Tuesday afternoon to see three men in orange vests standing at the edge of her yard. When questioned, they told her they were surveying for the proposed pipeline.

When told they were trespassing, they took a step backward and told her “We’re now not on your property.”

Williams spokeswoman Cindy Ivey told Lancaster Newspapers in an email that the company has “an established procedure to review survey plans for each week.” The procedure includes a review of which property owners that have and have not given permission for surveyors to do their work.

“This particular crew did not follow our established procedures and has been relieved of their duties,” Ivey wrote. “They will not be allowed to return to the project or work on any other Williams’ project.”

Transparency about fracking chemicals remains elusive

Paul Woods, left, and David Manthos with the nonprofit SkyTruth check out results from their data-scraping bot at their office in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. SkyTruth says the chemical disclosure website FracFocus is flawed.

Courtesy of Tom Jones, SkyTruth

Paul Woods, left, and David Manthos with the nonprofit SkyTruth check out results from their data-scraping bot at their office in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. SkyTruth says the chemical disclosure website FracFocus is flawed.

The website FracFocus.org was built to give the public answers to a burning question about the shale boom: what exactly were companies pumping down tens of thousands of wells to release oil and gas?

Today, FracFocus has records for more than 77,000 wells. Pennsylvania is one of 14 states requiring operators to use the website as part of their chemical disclosure laws, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

However, transparency about those chemicals remains elusive.

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Pa. faults Chevron for lack of oversight, poor communication in fatal well fire

The family of Ian McKee, a worker who was killed in a February natural gas well explosion in Greene County, is suing Chevron Appalachia.

Katie Colaneri/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

State investigators have determined that human error may have led to a fatal explosion on a well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County in February.

In a new report out today, the Department of Environmental Protection says Chevron was “too guarded” in its communication with state regulators and the media, and did not provide adequate information after a fatal well fire in southwest Pennsylvania.

The DEP admits it is also to blame for the poor communication and that the agency did not immediately assert its authority following the incident in February.

A second report by the department’s Bureau of Investigations faults Chevron’s site managers for inadequate supervision over several contractors working on the Lanco A well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County.

DEP investigators found the explosion was likely caused by an inexperienced contractor – known as a “greenhat” – who was sent to assist a more experienced worker in preparing to put the three wells on the pad into production. The agency determined the unnamed greenhat did not properly tighten a bolt and locknut assembly on one of the wellheads, allowing gas to escape and eventually ignite.

“Our investigation revealed that the oversight of that operation was somewhat less than it should have been,” said DEP spokesman John Poister.

A contract worker, 27-year-old Ian McKee, was killed in the fire on Feb. 11.

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PPL proposes new transmission line

PPL has not proposed an official route yet, but this graphic shows the rough outlines of where the line would go.

Courtesy: PPL

PPL has not proposed an official route yet, but this graphic shows the rough outlines of where the power line would go.

PPL Electric Utilities is looking to build a new multi-billion dollar transmission line to keep up with natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale and the changing landscape of power generation.

If approved by regulators, the high-voltage power line is still a decade away but PPL has started planning.

The transmission line would start in Western Pennsylvania and run 725 miles through the state’s Northern Tier, into New Jersey and New York, as well as southward into Maryland.

The project would cost between $4 and 6 billion, according to PPL spokesman Paul Wirth.

“The gas industry is one of the impetuses behind it,” he says. “The other is that by starting in Western Pennsylvania we can bring existing supplies of lower-cost power—fueled by renewables and other sources—into this region.”

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Marcellus Shale gas production hits new milestone

On a per-rig basis, Marcellus Shale gas production outpaces other major shale plays around the country.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

On a per-rig basis, Marcellus Shale gas production outpaces other major shale plays around the country.

Natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale continues to break records.

Production hit an all-time high last month, according to new data released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In July it exceed 15 billion cubic feet of gas per day, and it’s expected to keep growing. Continue Reading

Federal regulator calls public response to gas pipeline ‘unprecedented’

Alisa Lykens has been with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for 24 years and says she’s never seen such a big response to a project so early on in the process.

Lykens was at Millersville University in Lancaster County Monday night. It was the first in a series of four meetings hosted by FERC to take public comments on a proposed interstate natural gas pipeline that would go through ten Pennsylvania counties.

“This is sort of unprecedented, at least in my experience,” Lykens says. “But it’s not surprising. We see there’s a lot of concern and that’s why we’re here.”

More than 300 people showed up, and many spoke out against the pipeline and voiced concerns about how it would affect property values, safety, and the environment.

Mark Clatterbuck was among them. His property could be affected by one of the proposed routes, and he wants FERC to try to quantify the intense public opposition in its analysis of the project.

“I’m just asking them to find a way to measure that,” he says. “Don’t just ignore this issue because it feels slippery.”

The 189 mile pipeline is part of a larger effort –called the Atlantic Sunrise project– from Oklahoma-based Williams Partners to bring Marcellus Shale gas southward to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and southern United States.

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Water engineer takes the reins at the Delaware River Basin Commission

Steve Tambini began his job as executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission this week. He replaces Carol Collier who ran the organization for more than 15 years.

courtesy of DRBC

Steve Tambini began his job as executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission this week. He replaces Carol Collier who ran the organization for more than 15 years.

The Delaware River Basin Commission, the agency that oversees the water supply for more than 15 million people in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware has a new director. In recent years the DRBC has found itself in the eye of the storm over natural gas drilling in eastern Pennsylvania.

The new executive director, Steve Tambini, is an environmental engineer who comes from the water utility sector.  His recent gig was with Pennsylvania American Water, and he says he’s spent his 30-year career as a water supply engineer primarily in New York and New Jersey. Tambini says his role at the DRBC is to focus on planning to insure supply meets demand.

“To make sure that those in the basin are using the water efficiently, so it’s not just a matter of building new supplies but it’s also a matter of taking a hard look at how water is being used throughout the basin,” said Tambini. “Conservation is also a critical part of our planning.”
Tambini says water quality is also a matter of planning. “Planning comes first,” he said. “Making sure we have good strong standards for water quality and making sure we do adequate planning is first and foremost.

But that planning may be more difficult with less money. Tambini begins the job with a budget that’s $500,000 less than expected. That’s because Pennsylvania recently slashed their payment to the multi-state agency in half. Continue Reading

Gas drillers didn’t report half the spills that led to fines

An investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found Marcellus Shale drillers didn’t report half of spills that led to fines.

The newspaper reviewed records from incidents at wells that led to a fine through the end of 2012:

The Post-Gazette investigation using well permit file documents and other DEP data focused on 425 incidents involving 48 companies that resulted in nearly $4.4 million in fines.

Of those 425 fines, 137 were due to spills at or near a well site. They ranged from relatively small incidents involving a couple of gallons of diesel fuel on a well pad to larger accidents involving thousands of gallons of hydraulic fracturing flowback fluid that killed vegetation or fish.

Since the first fine of the Marcellus era in 2005, the DEP has made it clear that incidents that potentially impact the environment would be the ones most likely to result in a fine, so it is no surprise that spills make up a significant portion of the fines.

But what is surprising — to politicians, environmental groups, the industry itself and state officials — was the number of spills that were not first spotted by the drillers themselves. About a third were first identified by state inspectors while others, about one-sixth, were discovered by residents, according to the Post-Gazette’s analysis.

State law requires reportable spills to be called into state environmental regulators within two hours.

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