Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Commonwealth Court takes up issue of drilling in state parks and forests

A sign posted in Susquehannock state forest, which makes up part of the most "climate resilient" land on the East Coast..

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A sign posted in Susquehannock state forest, where land has been leased for gas drilling.

The fate of expanded natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s parks and forests is now in the hands of seven Commonwealth Court Judges. Governor Tom Corbett wants to lease 25,000 acres of additional state land to drillers in order to raise $95 million to plug a hole in the 2014-2015 fiscal year’s $29.1 billion budget. The Commonwealth’s seven judge panel heard arguments Wednesday from an environmental attorney challenging the Governor’s authority to lease that land, and to use the proceeds for the general fund.

Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation Attorney John Childe says both current Governor Tom Corbett, and former Governor Ed Rendell, violated the state constitution by disregarding the environmental impacts of drilling on state parks and forests.  Childe’s case hinges upon the state constitution’s environmental rights amendment. The environmental rights amendment became relevant for the first time earlier this year when the Supreme Court upheld challenges to the state’s new oil and gas law in Robinson Township v. Commonwealth. Childe says the amendment clearly puts ownership of the state’s parks and forests in the hands of Pennsylvania citizens, not the governor or general assembly.

“The constitution describes basic rights for the people that are not to be impaired by other governmental decisions,” Childe told StateImpact outside the courtroom. “It’s the same as the right to freedom of religion.”

A total of 700,000 acres of state forest land is available to oil and gas drillers. Under the direction of Governor Rendell, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources leased 132,000 acres. (Not all of the mineral rights are under state control. About 315,000 acres of state forest land lies above natural gas deposits owned by private leaseholders.) The leases occurred despite opposition from DCNR’s leadership. Just before leaving office, Rendell then issued an executive order placing a moratorium on future leases.

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Report: police sharing intelligence on activists with gas industry

Protesters outside a gas industry trade conference in Philadelphia last year.

Kim Paynter/ WHYY

Protesters outside a gas industry trade conference in Philadelphia last year. According to the Pittsburgh City Paper, a private security firm watching them sent an update to the Pennsylvania State Police.

According to the Pittsburgh City Paper, state and federal law enforcement have joined in an intelligence-sharing network with the oil and gas industry to follow the activities of environmental activists.

The paper cites documents it obtained showing a state trooper giving a presentation to industry representatives with photographs of several anti-fracking groups.

According to the article, the same trooper visited the homes of activist Wendy Lee, a Bloomsburg University professor, and crossed state lines to visit the home of Jeremy Alderson, publisher of the No Frack Almanac, at his home outside Ithaca, New York.

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DEP seeks record fine against gas driller as AG files criminal charges

Pennsylvania regulators are seeking a record $4.5 million fine against EQT Corp. for a major leak from an impoundment pond in Tioga County, the Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday in a news release. The announcement comes one week after the state Attorney General’s office filed criminal charges against the company for the same incident.

In May 2012, EQT estimates between 300 and 500 gallons of “flowback fluid” – the liquid that comes back out of the ground after a well has been fracked – seeped out of an impoundment pond at a well site in Duncan Township. Flowback contains high levels of salts, heavy metals and some naturally occurring radioactive materials.

DEP inspectors found the fluid had polluted soil, as well as nearby groundwater seeps and waterways – including Rock Run, a high quality, wild trout stream. Trees and shrubs along the path of the spill were also damaged.

EQT “has not been cooperative”

According to the DEP, the impoundment was supposed to contain six million gallons of fresh water. Instead, the agency says EQT used the pit to store flowback without a permission from the department and without the required safeguards to prevent leaks.

Acting Secretary Dana Aunkst said in a statement the company “has not been cooperative” during the state’s investigation. The agency has filed a complaint with the state Environmental Hearing Board, alleging EQT violated Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law.

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Bill would have PA lawmakers approve Obama’s carbon reduction plan

The stacks of the Homer City Generating Station in Homer City, Pa.

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

The stacks of the Homer City Generating Station in Homer City, Pa.

A bill that would allow legislators to weigh in on a federally mandated plan to cut carbon emissions may see a final vote before lawmakers end this year’s session. President Obama’s new climate change plan set a goal for Pennsylvania to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent by 2030. The EPA left it up to the states to decide how to reach their targets. In Pennsylvania’s case, the state Department of Environmental Protection develops plans to meet EPA mandated rules. But state representative Pam Snyder, a Democrat from the southwestern corner of the state, wants lawmakers to approve the carbon reduction plan crafted by DEP before it gets submitted to the EPA.

The House has already approved HB 2354, and today the Senate’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee gave it a thumb’s up. Rep. Snyder says she worries Obama’s efforts to cut carbon emissions would include shutting down coal generated electricity plants, hurting the coal mining communities she represents. In the legislative memo for HB 2354, she writes that any plan that goes to the EPA for approval must go through the legislature first.

“In short, my legislation would make clear that the people who were elected to govern Pennsylvania will have the final say on what happens – not unelected, unaccountable regulators.  While EPA managed to develop this rule without Congressional authorization, the Pennsylvania General Assembly will be the final arbiter of how the Commonwealth approaches greenhouse gas regulation.”

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Pa. must release Bakken crude oil train shipment information

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

NAT HAMILTON/WHYY NEWS

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

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, or PEMA, must release details about rail shipments of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. That’s the word today from the state Office of Open Records.

In May, federal transportation officials ordered railroads to report to state emergency planners the estimated number of Bakken crude shipments expected to travel through counties each week. Three newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review, requested the reports from PEMA in June.

More from the Associated Press:

Friday’s order came after railroads had argued the information should be kept secret. Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation cited potential security risks and business confidentiality.

But the open records office said the information was neither proprietary nor likely to endanger public safety if released. The railroads were given 30 days to appeal.

DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo resigns amid lewd email scandal

DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo (left) resigned from his office today.   Dana Aunkst (right) will now serve as Acting Secretary. Here, the two testify at the department's senate budget hearing in Harrisburg.

Marie Cusick

DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo (center) resigned from his post today. Dana Aunkst (right) will now serve as Acting Secretary. On the left is Deputy Secretary Jeff Logan. Here, the three testify at the department's senate budget hearing in Harrisburg in February.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Chris Abruzzo has resigned his position, according to a statement issued by Governor Tom Corbett. The resignation is effective immediately. It comes amidst a scandal involving several top Corbett officials exchanging lewd emails.

Abruzzo is one of eight Corbett appointees recently named by the Attorney General’s office as having sent or received pornographic emails on state computers. Some of the emails were shown to reporters, but the information was released without details as to who sent what to whom.

In a letter to Gov. Corbett, Abruzzo says he doesn’t remember the emails but accepts “full responsibility for any lack of judgement I may have exhibited in 2009.” At that time, Abruzzo worked under Corbett in the Attorney General’s office leading the Drug Strike Force. Current Attorney General Kathleen Kane says Abruzzo and others exchanged the lewd emails between 2008 and 2012, while Corbett served as AG.

In the letter, Abruzzo says he has not reviewed the emails Attorney General Kane has shown to reporters, but decided to resign because the issue has become a distraction.

“..it is my concern that these assertions have become a distraction from the great record of this administration; a record that has held the line on taxes for Pennsylvania families, invested the most state dollars for basic education in the history of the state, and put hard-working Pennsylvanians back to work.”

With the election just a month away, Corbett faces a tough fight against his challenger Democrat Tom Wolf. Continue Reading

PUC rejects judges’ decision, orders hearings on Sunoco Logistics pipeline

The Public Utility Commission has ordered more hearings on Sunoco Logistics’ request to bypass local zoning to build structures for facilities along its 300-mile natural gas liquids pipeline.

In a 4-1 vote Thursday, the PUC rejected a recommendation from its administrative law judges to dismiss the petition because the company is not a public utility. The commission argues Sunoco Logistics and its Mariner East project are the product of a merger between two pipeline companies that had public utility status since the 1930s.

At issue now is whether the buildings that would shelter the pump and valve control stations should be exempt from local zoning laws — not the facilities themselves.

“To answer this question, we must decide whether it is in the convenience or welfare of the public for Sunoco to enclose the planned facilities with walls and roofs, even if those enclosures may conflict with local zoning ordnances,” Commissioners Pamela Witmer and John Coleman wrote in their motion.

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Enviros threaten to sue over sewage spills in Valley Forge trout stream

Owen Owens, a founder of the Valley Forge chapter of Trout Unlimited, speaks at a press conference announcing the group's intent to sue over sewage spills into Valley Creek.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Owen Owens, a founder of the Valley Forge chapter of Trout Unlimited, speaks at a press conference announcing the group's intent to sue over sewage spills into Valley Creek.

Two environmental groups are threatening to sue a Chester County township over multiple sewer line breaks near Valley Forge National Historical Park that polluted a prized trout stream.

A major rupture in March shut down the park for nearly two days. Between four and five million gallons of raw sewage flowed into Valley Creek when Tredyffrin Township officials shut down a nearby pump station to make repairs. The same sewer line has broken two other times since 2012.

PennEnvironment and Trout Unlimited say the township and its municipal authority violated the federal Clean Water Act during these three incidents. An attorney representing the groups sent a letter to Tredyffrin officials this week to give the required 60-day notice before filing suit in federal court.

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Gas industry nervously awaits outcome of governor’s race

Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Spigelmyer

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

"If there's a change-- and the electorate will determine that-- we'll work with Governor Wolf," says David Spigelmyer, president of the gas industry trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition."But today our administration is a Corbett administration, and we've worked hard to make sure we have rigor to our rules in Pennsylvania."

When members of Pennsylvania’s largest gas industry trade group got together for their annual conference last week they were a bit worried.

Why?

Anyone paying attention to voter polls or listening to the rhetoric coming out of Harrisburg knows there is the very real possibility of two major changes for the gas industry— a new Democrat in the governor’s mansion and a new tax on gas production.

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At 74, the Pennsylvania Turnpike looks to the future of fueling

Workers spread concrete by hand in Somerset, Pa. during construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1939.

Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission

Workers spread concrete by hand in Somerset, Pa. during construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1939.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike turns 74 years old today. The vast majority of the roughly 190 million drivers who travel the toll road every year rely on gasoline for fuel just as they did when it first opened on October 1, 1940.

This week, StateImpact Pennsylvania has been taking a journey across the turnpike, exploring the state’s energy past and present and a future that may be shaped by efforts to fight climate change and cut down on greenhouse gases. Click here to see our story map.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, about one-third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the transportation sector, ranking second behind power plants. Yet, cars that run on natural gas, electricity and other lower-carbon alternatives haven’t become mainstream.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is trying to offer new options – in part, to lower its own carbon footprint, but also because the state is offering millions of dollars in grants to create new markets for alternative fuels.

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