Energy. Environment. Economy.

Corbett administration won’t ‘rule out’ gas tax this year

Tom Corbett

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

"I don't like a severance tax," Corbett said at a press conference today in Harrisburg. However, his budget secretary says the administration has not ruled it out as a way to raise revenue.

With mounting pressure to find new revenue in the face of an estimated $1.4 billion budget gap this year, the Corbett administration is signaling it may be open to levying a new extraction tax on Pennsylvania’s natural gas operators.

At a press conference in Harrisburg today, Corbett said he still doesn’t like the idea of taxing gas production, but he’s open to raising revenue and imposing new taxes if the legislature deals with one of his top priorities– pension reform.

Corbett wants to replace the state’s public pension system with a less costly hybrid 401(k)-style program for future hires.

“Right now we have a 50 billion dollar problem,” he said, referring to pension obligations. “We have to deal with that if you want me to even consider dealing with revenue. I’m not going to say revenue is a severance tax or any other type. Let’s deal with the cost driver first.”

Corbett says he is willing to miss the legally-mandated June 30th budget deadline in order to get a deal done, noting that Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley has already cancelled a planned family cruise.

Speaking with reporters after the press conference, Corbett’s Budget Secretary, Charles Zogby, was clear that raising taxes on drillers is still on the table.

“There’s multiple options we can look at,” he said. “I’m not ruling out a severance tax.”

Legislators from both parties have been proposing various gas tax bills.

Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House Republicans, says a tax is something, “we’re not advocating right now,” but added, “I know a lot of people are advocating it, so I gather it’s on the table.”

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Corbett signs new regional agreement to clean up Chesapeake Bay

Pennsylvania has renewed its commitment to a regional partnership aimed at cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Governor Tom Corbett joined officials from Washington, D.C. and five neighboring states that share the watershed in signing a new agreement at a press conference in Annapolis on Monday.

Under the agreement, the states will collaborate to make fisheries sustainable, reduce toxic contaminants, expand public access to waterways and increase resiliency to impacts of climate change.

The first Chesapeake Bay agreement was signed by Governor Dick Thornburgh in 1983. This is the fourth pact for the group, which also includes the heads of various federal agencies.

“This agreement is a sensible way to approach improving both the water quality and the environment of a region that means so much to all of us,” Corbett said. “I applaud the cooperative efforts of all bay watershed entities that have made this historic agreement possible.”

For its part, Pennsylvania has focused efforts on decreasing agricultural runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous from animal waste and fertilizers. Other pollution sources that impact the Chesapeake Bay include runoff from urban and suburban development, wastewater treatment plants, and septic systems.

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Survey: public distrusts gas industry and anti-fracking film, Gasland

A new study shows the public views both the natural gas industry and the anti-fracking film, Gasland, as among the least trustworthy sources of information when it comes to hydraulic fracturing.

According to a paper published last month in Energy Research and Social Science, people are more likely to trust information from university professors, environmental groups, newspapers, and landowner groups.

Regulatory agencies ranked fifth in trustworthiness among the eight possible choices. They were followed by cooperative extensions and the natural gas industry.

Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox.

Linh Do via Flickr

Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox. The Oscar-nominated film was ranked by survey respondents as the least trustworthy source of information on fracking.

The 2010 film, Gasland, came in last place.

Although newspapers were ranked as the number one source of information, they came in third for trustworthiness– behind professors and environmental groups.

The results come from telephone and mail surveys conducted during the summer of 2012 of people who live in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region. The paper was a collaboration among researchers from Sam Houston State University in Texas, Penn State University, and Texas A&M.

“There’s so much information in the media from so many different stakeholders,” says lead author Gene Theodori of Sam Houston State. “The general population is just trying to sort through all this information.”

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Do not disturb: what can drillers do with new forest leases?

 flares in Tioga county

Scott Detrow/StateImpact Pennsylvania

The Corbett administration is preparing to lease approximately 25,000 acres of public park and forest land to raise $75 million for this year’s budget.

Last month, Corbett issued an executive order overturning a 2010 state moratorium on new oil and gas leasing of public land. The administration has called it a restrictive approach to expanding drilling that will not create new surface disturbances.

So what exactly does that mean?

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) defines surface disturbance as, “the long-term conversion of forest to a non-forest use.” In other words, cutting down trees and moving earth.

Corbett’s executive order allows companies to work underground– extracting gas horizontally from wells located on adjacent private land or in areas of state forests where leases already exist.

DCNR is seeking $3,000 per acre in upfront bonus payments, plus an 18 percent royalty on gas production. The department hasn’t revealed the specific tracts of land it hopes to lease, but it does have a list of nominations.

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DEP increases gas well permit fees

A natural gas drilling site in Susquehanna County.

Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania

A natural gas drilling site in Susquehanna County.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is raising the permit fees gas companies pay for unconventional wells.

The increase will raise an additional $4.7 million in revenue, which will be used to hire more staff in DEP’s office of Oil and Gas Management.

“Under the Corbett administration, there has been a strategic, proactive approach to the oversight of this industry,” DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo said in a statement. “The efforts to date have been unprecedented, and this fee increase will give us the ability to continue to grow and strengthen our program along with the growing industry.”

Gas industry trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, supports the increase.

“We’ve done so over the course of the past several years and certainly support this increase as well,” says spokesman Travis Windle. “We don’t believe taxpayers should be responsible these costs.”

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Citing train derailments, Casey beats the drum for federal appropriations bill

A CSX unit train delivers a load of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to a refinery in South Philadelphia.


A CSX unit train delivers a load of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to a refinery in South Philadelphia.

Citing three recent train derailments in Pennsylvania, Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Casey is beating the drum for a federal appropriations bill he says would help make shipping hazardous materials like crude oil safer.

The bill would fund the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, including the related agencies that oversee the nation’s highways and railroads.

Casey says it includes $3 million for track inspections and funds to hire 20 new rail and hazardous materials inspectors.

“It’s hard to believe you even have to legislate on that,” Casey said on a call with reporters. “They should be readily available, should be funded every year. There shouldn’t be any question you have enough inspectors.”

Casey says the bill would compliment a number of voluntary actions taken by the railroads earlier this year following a slew of accidents involving trains carrying oil and other hazardous materials, including derailments in Philadelphia, Vandergrift and McKeesport. These accidents have been the fallout of a nationwide increase in rail traffic resulting from the oil and gas boom. According to the railroads, as many as eight trains hauling crude oil move through Pennsylvania to refineries on the East Coast every day.

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Corbett announces $12.5 million in renewable energy grants

wind turbine

vaxomatic via Flickr

Governor Corbett announced $12.5 million dollars will be available for grants and loans to fund renewable energy projects around the state.

The grants will financed by the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority for solar, wind, hydropower, and biomass projects.

Funding will also be available for alternative energy fuels, manufacturing, and research.

“This funding is an opportunity for companies, municipalities, schools and organizations to deploy alternative energy projects or construct new facilities related to alternative fuels,” Corbett said in a statement.

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Pipeline route revised to avoid Lancaster County nature preserves

In response to public criticism, a company seeking to build a new natural gas pipeline through parts of north and central Pennsylvania has proposed changes to part of the route to avoid several nature preserves in Lancaster County.

More than 1,000 people turned out to Millersville University Wednesday night for a public meeting hosted by Oklahoma-based Williams Partners. The company is seeking to transport natural gas from Pennsylvania to markets along the Eastern Seaboard as part of its $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise expansion project.

It’s part of a larger effort to rearrange the flow of gas pipeline systems southward to accommodate the rapid growth of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Williams operates the Transco system which has over 10,000 miles of existing pipeline moving gas to other businesses like utility companies and power plants.

Spokesman Chris Stockton says Williams is revising its plans to keep off the Lancaster County Conservancy’s Tucquan Glen and Shenk’s Ferry preserves.

“We’ve actually developed a route that avoids those areas now,” he says. “It is a direct result of the feedback we’ve heard so far.”

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Corbett, Wolf talk environment, energy during first joint appearance

Governor Tom Corbett (left) and Democratic Candidate for Governor, Tom Wolf (right) both made remarks at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) presentation of the Windsor award to Senator Edwin Erickson (center).

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Governor Tom Corbett (left) and Democratic Candidate for Governor, Tom Wolf (right) both made remarks at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) presentation of the Windsor award to Senator Edwin Erickson (center).

Republican Governor Tom Corbett and his Democratic challenger Tom Wolf shared a podium Wednesday night. The event, hosted by an environmental group at the Crystal Tea Room in Philadelphia, was their first joint appearance on the campaign trail.

Both candidates were careful to keep their distance, even during a photo op orchestrated by their hosts, the nonprofit Pennsylvania Environmental Council. After an award ceremony for State Senator Edwin Erickson (R-Delaware) came the speeches and the campaign jabs.

Republican Governor Tom Corbett spoke first, recalling his days as a Boy Scout in the 1960s before the environmental movement began.

“I want you to think about how much the environment has changed in that amount of time,” he said.

Corbett praised his administration for how it has handled the Marcellus Shale boom by striking the right balance between economic development and environmental conservation.

“We need to be able to provide jobs, we need manufacturing, but we also need to be able to rely on the environment,” he said. “We need to be able to rely on our regulators.”

With the governor and members of his cabinet sitting just feet away, Democrat Tom Wolf vowed to hire what he called “qualified individuals” to run the state’s environmental agencies.

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Legal challenges could delay Sunoco natural gas liquids pipeline

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports legal challenges could delay a project to move natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale in western Pennsylvania to Marcus Hook.

Sunoco Logistics has asked the state’s Public Utility Commission to declare its Mariner East pipeline a public utility, thus allowing the company to sidestep local zoning laws to build pump and valve stations along the pipeline’s 300-mile route.

Several groups, including environmental organizations, have filed formal objections with the PUC opposing Sunoco’s claims that it is a public utility corporation.

More from the Inquirer:

Sunoco’s application now will go through a full-blown legal proceeding before the PUC and raises the chance that a project viewed by Gov. Corbett and business leaders as a key to channeling Marcellus Shale products to the Philadelphia area may not begin operations by the end of the year, Sunoco’s target date.

A hearing before the five-member PUC “will not happen by the end of the summer,” said Jennifer Kocher, the PUC’s spokeswoman. And any PUC decision could be further delayed by appeals to the Commonwealth Court.

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