Pennsylvania

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DEP gives gas industry group $150,000 grant to study drilling

Drilling waste at a natural gas site in Tioga County. The DEP has given an industry-backed nonprofit $150,000 grant to study the effects of drilling.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

Drilling waste at a natural gas site in Tioga County. The DEP has given an industry-backed nonprofit $150,000 grant to study the effects of drilling, including its waste.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has awarded a $150,000 non-competitive grant to an industry-backed nonprofit organization. The money was allocated in last year’s state budget specifically for “independent research regarding natural gas drilling.”

As StateImpact Pennsylvania previously reported, the grant recipient is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit called the Shale Alliance for Energy Research (SAFER PA). It formed in 2013 as a partnership between industry and academia. Its board has three representatives from Pennsylvania universities and five members from the oil and gas industry.

Other groups were not able to compete for the grant money because the DEP said SAFER PA is “the only known research organization that is comprised of both private and public entities … with a specific focus of conducting scientific research and development of shale related projects.”

SAFER PA has never published any research. The DEP has not responded to repeated inquiries about the grant.

Barry Kauffman, of the nonpartisan government reform group Common Cause PA, finds the deal concerning.

“There are many, many qualified organizations with good research credentials that could produce unbiased research—or certainly more balanced research—than an entity heavily dominated by the industry which it contends to take a look at,” he says.

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Industry documents show effort to hide health impacts of benzene

A new report out today by the Center for Public Integrity details how workers exposed to the cancer causing chemical benzene, get little support from their employers. CPI gained access to documents from court cases across the country, which show how companies try to debunk the science linking benzene to cancer. More from CPI:

Taken together, the documents — put in context by interviews with dozens of lawyers, scientists, academics, regulators and industry representatives — depict a “research strategy” built on dubious motives, close corporate oversight and painstaking public relations. They comprise an industry playbook to counteract growing evidence of benzene’s toxic effects, which continue to command the attention of federal and state regulators and be fiercely debated in court.

Several occupations come with an exposure risk of benzene, including steel workers, refinery workers and gas station attendants.  A recently published peer-reviewed study in the journal Environmental Health found high levels of benzene near some natural gas production sites.

Court battles make revenue from new leases in state parks, forests ‘unlikely’

A drilling convoy heads through the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY/Newsworks

A drilling convoy heads through the Loyalsock State Forest.

Pennsylvania won’t be able to rely on revenue from new natural gas leases on state lands to help plug a nearly $2 billion shortfall, according to the state’s top budget official.

Secretary Charles Zogby laid out Pennsylvania’s financial woes at a briefing Wednesday, noting some of the one-time stopgaps in Governor Tom Corbett’s $29 billion budget will not come to fruition. Among them is Corbett’s plan to raise $95 million by expanding natural gas leasing in state parks and forests which is facing two simultaneous Commonwealth Court battles.

“With that matter tied up in the courts, it’s very much unlikely that we will see that resolved in time for this fiscal year to be accounted in our spending plans,” Zogby said.

Corbett, a Republican, lifted a Rendell-era moratorium on new leasing in May, calling for a restrictive approach to drilling in state parks and forests that would not create new surface disturbances.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed a direct challenge to Corbett’s order in October. A separate lawsuit, filed in 2012 by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation challenges the Governor’s authority to lease that land and to use the proceeds for the general fund. After a series of hearings, the case is now in the hands of seven Commonwealth Court judges and Governor-elect Tom Wolf.

Wolf, a Democrat, has said he supports maintaining a moratorium on new leasing in state parks and forests. He also campaigned on passing a 5 percent severance tax on gas drilling to generate additional revenue. However, that plan could face fierce opposition from the state’s Republican legislature.

correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly named the plaintiff organization as the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Fund, in fact it is the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation.

Feds approve pipeline to bring Marcellus gas to New York, New England

The dotted black circle shows the gas supply area in Susquehanna County. The red line is the proposed path of the Constitution Pipeline.

COURTESY: FERC

The dotted black circle shows the gas supply area in Susquehanna County. The red line is the proposed path of the Constitution Pipeline.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given the green light to a proposed interstate pipeline that would bring Marcellus Shale natural gas to markets in New York and New England, provided it meets certain environmental conditions.

The Constitution project involves building 124 miles of new 30-inch-diameter pipeline, connecting gas production in Susquehanna County to existing transmission lines in New York. It would be operated by subsidiaries of Williams Partners, Cabot Oil and Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas, and WGL Holdings.

In an Environmental Impact Statement released in October, FERC determined the pipeline would have some limited, but adverse environmental impacts. The commission is requiring Constitution’s operators to submit numerous mitigation plans before construction to avoid impacts to sensitive areas and wildlife.

The project will also need final permits from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Williams spokesman Chris Stockton said construction could begin by the end of the first quarter of 2015 and the pipeline could come online by the end of next year.

However, that timeline could prove to be overly optimistic if environmental groups and landowners in upstate New York opposing the pipeline decide to challenge these permits in court.

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Shale bubble burst on the horizon? New report questions government’s rosy forecast

A Cabot Oil and Gas rig in Susquehanna County, which sits on one of the most productive "sweet spots" in the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A Cabot Oil and Gas rig in Susquehanna County, which sits on one of the most productive "sweet spots" in the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation.

Marcellus Shale production could peak in just five years, plateau, and then tail off quickly, according to new research by a team of petroleum engineers at the University of Texas. The UT forecast is significantly less optimistic than recent reports issued by the Energy Information Administration, a government agency. The research is reported today in Nature

The University of Texas forecast relies on a more detailed analysis, and accounts for a subset of wells that are large producers in each shale play. These “sweet spots” are not consistent across the board and shale gas production among the big four plays, including the Marcellus, is expected to level out in 2020. In contrast, the EIA forecasts a shale gas plateau in 2040. More from Nature:

The results are “bad news”, says Tad Patzek, head of the University of Texas at Austin’s department of petroleum and geosystems engineering, and a member of the team that is conducting the in-depth analyses. With companies trying to extract shale gas as fast as possible and export significant quantities, he argues, “we’re setting ourselves up for a major fiasco”.

That could have repercussions well beyond the United States. If US natural-gas production falls, plans to export large amounts overseas could fizzle. And nations hoping to tap their own shale formations may reconsider. “If it begins to look as if it’s going to end in tears in the United States, that would certainly have an impact on the enthusiasm in different parts of the world,” says economist Paul Stevens of Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

Bursting shale bubble predictions are not new. But the article may be the first to compare the government’s analysis of data with academic results.

“What we found surprising is that the best academic estimates that are being done today are more pessimistic than the best information used by the U.S. government,” said Rich Monastersky, an editor for Nature.

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Cabot Oil and Gas fined $120,000 for explosion and spill

A Cabot fracking site in Harford Township, Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A Cabot fracking site in Harford Township, Susquehanna County.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has fined Cabot Oil & Gas $120,000 for a storage tank explosion and spill.

The incident occurred January 11 at the Reynolds well pad in Jessup Township, Susquehanna County.

“This was a serious incident that injured an employee and resulted in a spill of approximately 2,835 gallons of production fluid from a 21,000-gallon storage tank,” DEP Director of District Oil and Gas Operations John Ryder said in a statement. “Some of this fluid escaped containment and impacted soil off the well pad.”

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Indiana County township claims ecosystem has legal rights

clearfield county

Courtesy of Marianne Atkinson

The Irvin deep injection well in Clearfield County is operated by Exco Resources.

A battle over personhood is brewing in the tiny rural community of Grant Township in western Pennsylvania’s Indiana County. And that fight is now in the courts, where a federal judge will have to decide whether the “personhood” of an ecosystem trumps the “personhood” of a corporation.

Back in June, Grant Township banned frack water disposal wells. This came about three months after the Environmental Protection Agency approved a project by Pennsylvania General Energy Company to turn a former producing gas well, into a disposal well. Instead of drawing out gas, the company wants to inject waste water from its other oil and gas operations into the underground space now empty from the well’s prior production. Residents say they worry that the disposal well will leak the waste into the Little Mahonig watershed, and contaminate their drinking water supply.

In August PGE filed a federal lawsuit to reverse the ban, arguing the ordinance unconstitutionally strips the company of its rights. But residents are pushing a novel legal strategy. In a filing this month, attorneys for the community argue the Little Mahonig ecosystem itself has rights, and deserves standing with the courts. Recognition that corporations have legal standing, and therefore “personhood” in the eyes of the courts has a long history in the United States. But this may be the first time any court in Pennsylvania has had to decide whether an ecosystem has similar legal protections. The motion filed in November by attorneys representing Grant Township argues that nature is not simply property that can be owned, but that it has its own rights to “exist and flourish.” Continue Reading

Report: lack of inspectors leaves gas line oversight to utilities

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review analyzed data on distribution lines that deliver natural gas directly to consumers, and found a lack of regulatory oversight. The task of tracking leaks and problems often falls to the utilities which own and operate the lines.

Read the full report from the Tribune-Review here:

A Tribune-Review investigation found that state and federal regulators employ far too few inspectors — about 500 total — to cover the country’s 1.3 million miles of mains that distribute natural gas directly to customers. Nearly 500,000 leaks were reported on those lines last year.

The federal government has 135 inspectors responsible not only for those customer distribution lines but high-pressure, interstate transmission lines. Texas leads the nation with 48 inspectors; California is second with 35. But some states, like Delaware and North Dakota, have just one or two inspectors.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which regulates about 48,000 miles of gas mains, has 12 inspectors.

 

Environmentalists sing ‘climate carols’ to support Obama’s carbon plan

Members of the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia sing a "climate carol" to express their support of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

Kimberly Paynter/NewsWorks/WHYY

Members of the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia sing a "climate carol" to express their support of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

“You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why.  Climate Change is coming to town.”

Today is the last day to comment on the Obama administration’s proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Given the season, members of the Clean Air Council, PennFuture, Physicians for Social Responsibility and other groups are shelving the usual sober arguments and singing their support of the controversial plan.

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Supreme Court agrees to hear arguments over Obama’s “war on coal”

The Homer City Generating Station, Homer City, Pa.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

The Homer City Generating Station, Homer City, Pa.

The Supreme Court will consider a challenge to the Obama Administration’s new rules on mercury emissions from power plants. Tuesday’s decision by the high court came just a day before the EPA announced new rules to control smog. The mercury rules were first imposed by the Clinton Administration, and then reversed under President Bush. The rules were revived by Obama in 2012. The coal industry has pointed to the limits on mercury, along with other regulations aimed at reducing smog, ozone and other air pollutants as a “war on coal.” Industry, utilities and 21 states, including Pennsylvania, have sued to stop the mercury rules, which will cause some coal burning plants to shut down. The issue is over costs. More from USA Today:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld that action last year, ruling that the government did not have to consider costs until it sets specific emission levels, and that it did not have to decide on each air pollutant separately. The regulation sweeps in other pollutants, such as acid gases, that are not considered as dangerous as mercury.

But that 2-1 ruling came with a dissent from Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who said the EPA should have considered the estimated $9.6 billion annual cost. Industry briefs claim the potential benefit from reduced pollution is roughly half that amount.

“The extraordinary costs of EPA’s rule will be borne by consumers of electricity – i.e. everyone in the nation – causing a significant nationwide economic impact in exchange for relatively little public health benefit,” the states wrote in their appeal. The EPA had estimated that the regulations would raise the average consumer’s monthly electricity bill by $3 to $4.

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