Pennsylvania

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Federal court dismisses suit charging FERC with bias

Twenty-four protesters were arrested for blocking a public passageway outside the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July, 2014.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Twenty-four protesters were arrested for blocking a public passageway outside the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July, 2014.

A federal court has thrown out a case brought by environmentalists that charged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission with bias in pipeline cases. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network filed a federal lawsuit last year, alleging FERC favored industry in disputed pipeline cases. On Wednesday, District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that while DRN had standing to bring the suit, she dismissed the claim that FERC is structurally biased based on its source of funding.

The lawsuit, brought by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and its director, Maya van Rossum, asserted that FERC is incapable of making objective decisions regarding pipeline projects because its funding, set by Congress, is recovered by fees imposed on the industries it regulates, including pipeline companies. DRN argued that “the Commission is insulated from Congressional budgetary oversight,” and therefore, deprives individuals opposed to new pipelines of their 5th amendment right to due process.

But Judge Chutkan rejected that argument, saying that FERC itself and its commissioners do not benefit from individual pipeline projects. Continue Reading

New online tool will track oil and gas operations

A natural gas site in Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

A natural gas site in Susquehanna County.

Pennsylvania has launched a new online tool to make it easier for the public to review documents submitted by the unconventional oil and gas industry. The change is part of a broader push from the Department of Environmental Protection to upgrade its technological capabilities. Last month, the agency’s oil and gas inspectors received iPads, after years using paper and clipboards.

The new electronic document submission tool allows the public to quickly search for documents related to oil and gas operations, including well records and waste reports. The department says 26 operators have already electronically filed close to 900 documents.

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EPA Region 3 union rep says Trump’s proposed cuts would hurt public health

Gary Morton, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local which represents EPA workers, joins protesters outside the agency's Center City offices.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Gary Morton, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local which represents EPA workers, joins protesters outside the agency's Center City offices.

The union representing employees with the Environmental Protection Agency says President Trump’s proposed cuts to the agency would risk public health. The administration is proposing to slash the EPA’s budget by 31 percent. That would include eliminating more than 3,000 jobs at the agency.

Gary Morton is president of AFGE local 3631, which represents EPA employees working on the ground in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and D.C. Morton says morale took a hit when staff members heard about the proposed cuts.

“It was devastating, it was extremely devastating to morale,” Morton said, speaking outside of EPA Region 3 headquarters in downtown Philadelphia on Tuesday. “The proposals as they are will not allow us to protect human health and the environment.” Continue Reading

Pennsylvania could support four more ethane crackers, report says

Will Pennsylvania attract more massive ethane cracker plants like this one, now under construction near Pittsburgh?

Reid Frazier / The Allegheny Front

The construction site for Shell's ethane cracker in western Pennsylvania. A new report says Pennsylvania could support four more similar facilities.

Pennsylvania has the capacity to attract up to four more ethane cracker plants because of its abundant reserves of natural gas liquids (NGLs) and its proximity to major markets for plastics feedstock, a report released by Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said on Tuesday.

The report from the consultant IHS Markit projects that more petrochemical companies could decide to invest in Pennsylvania, following the lead of Shell Chemicals which is building the state’s first ethane cracker plant in western Pennsylvania to take advantage of NGLs from the nearby Marcellus and Utica Shales.

The need to develop the supply of NGLs from shale beds could also draw investment of $2.7 billion to $3.7 billion, the report said. Continue Reading

Utility regulator slams pipeline opponents

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson hopes to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

One of Pennsylvania’s top utility regulators says people opposing pipeline projects are engaged in a “jihad” to keep natural gas from reaching new markets.

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson was speaking to gas industry representatives Tuesday at the Upstream PA conference in State College.

“The jihad has begun,” he told the audience. “At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission groups actually show up at commissioners homes to make sure we don’t get this gas to market. How irresponsible is that?”

Powelson, a Republican, has served on the PUC since 2008. He’s reportedly being considered by the Trump administration for an appointment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The independent agency oversees the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil. It’s supposed to have five commissioners, but following a resignation last month, it only has two — not enough for the required quorum to make decisions.

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Philadelphia schools announce plan to cut energy bills in half

Emily Schapira, executive director of the Philadelphia Energy Authority, talks to reporters in front of an old boiler in the basement of Lankenau High School, an example of the kinds of improvements that could be made under the Energy Pilot Project.

Emma Lee/WHYY

Emily Schapira, executive director of the Philadelphia Energy Authority, talks to reporters in front of an old boiler in the basement of Lankenau High School, an example of the kinds of improvements that could be made under the Energy Pilot Project.

Philadelphia school officials have come up with a plan to use energy efficiency projects to chip away at $4.5 billion in outstanding repairs.

By replacing old boilers, roofs, lighting and other systems with new, more efficient ones, the district said it could save $600 million over the next 20 years and cut its energy bills in half.

This project is part of a larger plan announced by City Council President Darrell Clarke last year to invest $1 billion in public and private dollars in energy efficiency upgrades in all city-owned buildings and public schools, as well as 25,000 low- to-moderate-income homes and 2,500 small businesses. Continue Reading

Federal judge rejects permits challenge in new setback to Constitution Pipeline

In this Thursday, Feb. 26 photo, a ribbon tied to a stake on Kernan family property marks the proposed path of the Constitution Pipeline in Harpersfield, N.Y. The developer of a 124-mile-long pipeline to bring Marcellus Shale gas from Pennsylvania to New York City and New England is using both carrot and stick to achieve its goals.

Mike Groll / AP Photo

In this file photo, a ribbon tied to a stake on Kernan family property marks the proposed path of the Constitution Pipeline in Harpersfield, N.Y. A federal judge has rejected the latest challenge by the company to build the pipeline.

A federal judge dealt the latest blow to the planned Constitution Pipeline when he rejected the builder’s argument that it would be injured by having to obtain certain state permits to construct the natural gas pipeline from Northeast Pennsylvania to New York State.

Judge Norman Mordue of the Northern District of New York said the Constitution Pipeline Company failed to show injury from the permit requirements on water crossings, excavations and related activities, even though the state has yet to decide whether to issue them.

“Constitution has not plausibly pleaded injury in fact … it has not pleaded either actual injury or a threatened injury,” the judge wrote in a 15-page opinion issued Thursday. “Constitution merely alleges possible future injury.”

He said the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has not refused to issue the permits. Rather, he said, the state has simply not acted on them, and so the company could not argue that it had been injured by the lack of permits.

“A finding of injury to Constitution arising from NYSDEC’s inaction would be based on a speculative chain of possibilities that may never occur,” the judge wrote. Continue Reading

Trump’s EPA cuts would endanger Pennsylvanians, says environmental chief

The Trump administration wants to drastically reduce the size of the Environmental Protection Agency.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Trump administration wants to drastically reduce the size of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The state’s top environmental regulator is warning his federal counterpart that proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency would have an “immediate and devastating effect” in Pennsylvania.

On Thursday the Trump administration released a budget blueprint which seeks to cut roughly a third of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget – some $2.6 billion.

In a sharply-worded letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Acting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell describes the cuts as showing, “the Trump administration’s disregard for its responsibility to protect the health and safety of American citizens.”

The DEP relies on the federal government for about a third of its funding. Much of the state’s work involves enforcing federal environmental laws, like the Safe Drinking Water Act. The department is already strained by significant staffing shortages, and has seen its state funding decline by 40 percent over the past decade.

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DRBC says it’s still weighing gas drilling rules, but no decision on the horizon

Delaware Riverkeeper Maya Van Rossum encourages students to make their careers in clean energy.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

In this file photo, the Delaware Riverkeeper's Maya van Rossum speaks at a fracking protest.Van Rossum says she's worried the Delaware River Basin Commission could issue new gas drilling regulations, which would reverse a de-facto moratorium.

The Delaware River Basin Commission is continuing to examine rules that might allow natural gas drilling in the basin but it isn’t close to a decision, and would submit any plans for a new rule on the issue to public comment, the federal government’s representative on the commission said Wednesday.

Lt. Col. Michael Bliss of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers read a statement to the commission’s quarterly business meeting, saying that commission staff have devoted “extensive time and effort” to evaluating rules that might allow the commission to lift a de-facto moratorium on shale development in the four-state watershed. Continue Reading

DEP staffer behind contested mining permit had worked for coal company

Ryerson Station State Park

Courtesy: Center for Coalfield Justice

Late last year the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved a controversial coal permit under Ryerson Station State Park. The DEP staffer who reviewed the permit used data he'd collected on behalf of the coal company in his decision to approve it.

A judge has raised concerns over how the state Department of Environmental Protection handled a controversial mining permit under a western Pennsylvania state park. Court records show the agency’s approval of the Consol Energy permit partially relied on data collected by a DEP staffer who had previously done consulting work for Consol.

Two environmental groups challenged the permit allowing Consol to mine under a stream in a Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park late last year. In a rare move, the state Environmental Hearing Board sided with the groups.

In his opinion, Judge Steven Beckman questions the role of Jeffery Thomas, a licensed professional geologist with DEP’s California District Mining Office. Before joining DEP in July 2015, Thomas testified he’d worked for Moody & Associates environmental consulting firm for 11 years. Some of his work there was on behalf of Consol’s Bailey Mine. Thomas then said he used data he’d collected as a consultant to later evaluate Consol’s permit application to DEP for that same mine.

Judge Beckman notes he found it “extremely surprising” DEP management allowed this situation to occur.

“It is inherently difficult to be fully objective in reviewing data that you collected on behalf of a permit applicant,” writes Beckman. “We question the wisdom of assigning a department employee to review his own data collected on behalf of a permit applicant, as part of the process of determining whether to issue a permit.”

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