Energy. Environment. Economy.

Reporter’s Notebook: Tracing the tracks of the oil trains

An oil train moves through the University Village neighborhood of Chicago. The trains pass through Chicago on their way to East Coast refineries.

Trudy E. Bell

An oil train passes apartments in the University Village neighborhood of Chicago. The trains travel through Chicago on their way to East Coast refineries like those in Philadelphia and South Jersey.

Driving south on Lakeshore Drive through the Lakeview section of Chicago, it’s easy to ignore the city’s role in industrial transport. Lake Michigan looks placid and blue. People are riding their bikes along the shore, or strolling, or picnicking. It’s a pleasant, sunny Sunday evening after a long hard winter. Chicagoans bustle through new parks and grand museums. But keep going, and avoid google maps’ efforts to divert you to the highway, and it’s soon obvious how this place serves as the nation’s bottleneck for oil trains.

Chuck Quirmbach, a seasoned public radio reporter from Wisconsin, served as my chauffeur and tour guide, pointing out old and new, like the city’s Millennium Park.

“Don’t know why they built that,” he said, adding that the city had plenty of other nearby parks.

Quirmbach, with his head of thick white hair usually framed by a pair of headphones, microphone in hand, is one of those reporters who has probably covered every kind of story imaginable. And he’s still curious. We stay on route 41, which takes us through the South Side, hugging Lake Michigan. But the green spaces along the lake soon give way to industry young and old. Or new parks interspersed with old decaying industry. At one point we drive by thick masonry walls, abandoned to weed trees, another form of greening. Continue Reading

Public health advocates push for Marcellus Shale registry


Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

More than seven years into the drilling boom, health advocates continue to push the state to track drilling-related complaints.

Public health advocates continue to urge the state to do a better job of tracking health complaints related to natural gas development. The state Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection are discussing ways to work together to better monitor Marcellus Shale related health issues. But so far, there’s no money for those efforts.

Governor Wolf has proposed $100,000 to the health department in his budget plan, but it’s not guaranteed to make it through the legislature. Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley says he takes the issue seriously.

“If that doesn’t pass, we’ll have to look for Plan B. This is an issue that’s not going away,” he says. “There are questions. They need to be dealt with in a transparent way.”

Health advocates say $100,000 is not enough money to fund a health registry, but they’re encouraged the state is taking steps to investigate complaints.

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Wolf urges railroads to adopt oil train safety measures

This Feb. 17, 2015 file photo shows a crew member walking near the scene of a train derailment near Mount Carbon, W.Va.

Chris Tilley / AP Photo

This Feb. 17, 2015 file photo shows a crew member walking near the scene of a train derailment near Mount Carbon, West Virginia.

Governor Wolf is urging rail companies shipping crude oil through Pennsylvania to adopt voluntary safety measures to help prevent the risk of accidents.

It’s estimated that 60-70 trains carrying oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale travel through Pennsylvania each week to East Coast refineries like Philadelphia Energy Solutions. The state has seen four oil train derailments since January 2014, but none have led to the explosions or loss of life seen elsewhere.

On Tuesday, Wolf sent a letter to Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation, urging the companies to adopt the measures, which include slower speeds in highly populated areas. The governor has also hired University of Delaware professor and rail safety expert Dr. Allan Zarembski for a three-month stint to evaluate risks and provide policy recommendations.

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Study: Lower than expected air pollutants detected at Marcellus drilling sites

A Bradford County drilling rig

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A Bradford County drill rig.

An article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, published today, says measurements of air pollution from Marcellus drilling and transportation sites in Bradford and Sullivan counties were lower than the researchers expected. The study, “Atmosphere Emission Characterization of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Development Sites,” also reports levels of methane emissions were higher than those indicated in previous research.

Peter DeCarlo is assistant professor in the civil, architecture and engineering department at Drexel University and lead researcher on the report.

“We had seen a lot of data from other natural gas or oil development areas and we had seen pretty high levels of pollutants,” said DeCarlo. “So we went in expecting to see similar things in the Marcellus. The geology in the region is different in that [it produces] a lot of natural gas but we didn’t see a lot of the air quality pollutants that we expected.”

The researchers used a more sophisticated measuring technique than is typically available to researchers or regulators such as those at the Department of Environmental Protection. The researchers used tracers to track the plume of emissions in order to measure levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.

“We did very fast measurements over large spacial areas and downwind of the gas sites,” said DeCarlo. Continue Reading

Wolf nominates EQT executive to Public Utility Commission

Governor Wolf has nominated EQT executive Andrew Place to the state Public Utility Commission.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Governor Wolf has nominated EQT executive Andrew Place to the state Public Utility Commission.

Governor Wolf has chosen EQT executive Andrew Place to serve as a commissioner on the state Public Utility Commission.

Place is currently the corporate director for energy and environmental policy at EQT, where he focuses on Marcellus Shale natural gas development. Before joining the gas company in 2011, he worked on environmental issues for Carnegie Mellon University and the state Department of Environmental Protection. He replaces PUC commissioner James Cawley, whose term expired in March.

“Andrew Place brings the knowledge and expertise to help advance my vision for the PUC,” Wolf said in a statement. “We must ensure there is a balance between consumers and utilities. We also have to develop Pennsylvania’s abundance of energy resources to make sure we have the infrastructure to support the natural gas and other energy industries.”

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Case challenges township’s right to change zoning in favor of gas development

A natural gas rig in the Tioga State Forest. Critics of a zoning change in Middlesex Township fear more rigs like this will be built in previously residential areas.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

A natural gas rig in the Tioga State Forest. Critics of a zoning change in Middlesex Township fear more rigs like this will be built in previously residential areas.

Local rights to zone for oil and gas development in Pennsylvania are being tested by a Butler County case in which plaintiffs claim a township has acted unconstitutionally by failing to protect residents from the effects of a sharp increase in industrial activity.

Middlesex Township, about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh, approved an ordinance in August last year that allows industrial development on about 90 percent of its land area, up from about 30 percent before the ordinance was passed.

The measure has been challenged by two environmental groups, Clean Air Council and Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and four township residents, partly on grounds that it violates citizens’ rights to health and safety under Article 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The plaintiffs also argue that Ordinance 127 violates the state Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment, under which government has a responsibility to maintain environmental quality for its citizens.

The challenge, which will be reviewed at the township’s Zoning Hearing Board on Wednesday, May 27, attempts to build on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s landmark Robinson Township ruling in December 2013 that, among other things, established local responsibility to zone in a way that protects the health and safety of local residents.

In the Robinson ruling, the court ruled as unconstitutional three parts of Act 13, Pennsylvania’s wide-ranging 2012 gas law, which pre-empted municipalities’ ability to set their own zoning for oil & gas development; required local ordinances to allow for “reasonable” oil and gas development, and gave gas companies the right to obtain waivers of state rules designed to keep wells and rigs a certain distance from natural water sources. Continue Reading

Fracktivist faces 6 felony charges for recording lawyer


Marie Cusick/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Vera Scroggins has been in a high-profile legal battle with a gas driller and now faces felony charges for an unrelated incident.

Anti-fracking activist Vera Scroggins has been charged with six felonies for violating Pennsylvania’s wiretapping laws by recording a Montrose lawyer and his secretary without their permission.

The charges stem from a 2013 incident in which Scroggins was denied an application to have her anti-fracking group participate in the town’s Fourth of July parade.

According to a criminal complaint filed this week, Scroggins and fellow activist Craig Stevens went to the office of the parade chair, attorney Laurence Kelly, in June 2013 seeking an application to participate. Kelly and his secretary said they were unaware they were being recorded until the end of the conversation.

“I have a 3 minute, 20 second video talking to him,” says Scroggins. “He refused to let us in the parade and said we’re too controversial because we’re anti-fracking. He said, ‘You’re recording this without my permission. It’s against the law.’”

Kelly did not respond to requests to comment. Scroggins says her video camera was visible during the entire exchange.

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New LNG plant planned for Northeast Pennsylvania

UGI Energy Services has announced plans to build a new $60 million liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Meshoppen, Wyoming County. It will help meet peak demand for gas during cold days, and service emerging markets for LNG, like truck fleets, drill rigs, and industrial sites.

The plant will take locally produced natural gas– in its gaseous form– and cool it down to -260 degrees Fahrenheit, converting it into a liquid that can be stored and used as a transportation fuel.

“This is really more geared towards those growing markets,” says UGI spokesman Matt Dutzman. “That’s the reason why we’re building it. You’ll see heavy-duty trucks convert from diesel to natural gas. We currently serve UPS in Harrisburg and Mechanicsburg.”

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What’s in those tank cars near the Amtrak derailment?

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Patrick Semansky / AP

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia with tank cars in the background. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

News footage of the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia Tuesday night shows nearby tank cars that look similar to the rail cars carrying crude oil or other hazardous material across the country each day. In aerial photos, it looks as if the Amtrak train, traveling at 100 miles an hour, nearly missed creating an even greater catastrophe, if it had struck an oil train, say, or a train carrying chlorine gas. Residents quickly took to twitter, wondering about the content of those tank cars, and whether it was hazardous.

“This could be just one more in a litany of near misses,” said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, an activist group working to ban oil trains.

Conrail spokesman John Enright confirmed on Thursday that the nearby tanker cars did not contain flammable crude oil or ethanol. But he wouldn’t say what was in those cars, only that some cars in the yard were empty, and others weren’t.

But it wouldn’t be far-fetched for a passenger rail car to collide with an oil train, dozens of oil trains run through the state on their way to Philadelphia and South Jersey refineries each week. In fact, Norfolk Southern runs oil trains on a track that crosses above Amtrak lines, close to the derailment. Bakken crude oil from North Dakota crosses those lines daily, traveling across the Delaware river, and down to refineries in South Jersey. WHYY reporter Tom MacDonald says he saw the black tankers about 50 yards from the derailed Amtrak train. Oil trains frequently run parallel to commuter rail lines throughout the city.

But it’s still unclear what is in those tank cars sitting near the Amtrak crash site. Continue Reading

Energy industry invests in Philly mayor’s race

Protestors opposed hydraulic fracturing march past City Hall, from outside a Marcellus Shale industry conference, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, in Philadelphia.  Gov. Tom Corbett on Thursday attacked anti-drilling activists as the "unreasoning opposition" who accept the nation can land a space vehicle on Mars but don't believe energy companies can safely harvest gas a mile under the earth's surface. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Protestors opposed to natural gas drilling rally in front of Philadelphia City Hall during the industry conference in September, 2012.

Since Marcellus Shale development boomed, Philadelphia has been a thorn in the side of the gas industry. The city has not seen many of the economic benefits that places like Williamsport, or Pittsburgh have. And it tends to be home to well-organized, experienced environmental groups used to taking on powerful adversaries.

When the industry invited Mayor Michael Nutter to speak at its annual convention in Philadelphia, Shale Insight, back in the fall of 2012, he chided them, as protestors chanted outside.

“Many of us are deeply concerned about water quality in our watershed,” Nutter told the assembled industry executives. “There is no economic opportunity for which jeopardizing our water quality is acceptable.”

Earlier that year, when the state legislature was about to vote on new oil and gas legislation, including the impact fee, Republican leaders and gas drilling proponents like Joe Scarnati had to strong arm members of the Philadelphia delegation into voting for it. Scarnati threatened to leave the city out in the cold when it came to revenue generated by gas drilling. Continue Reading

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