FERC, called a ‘rubber stamp’ by critics, begins policy review for approval of natural gas pipelines

In a 2-1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission failed properly quantify greenhouse gas emissions linked to a pipeline expansion project in the southeastern U.S.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

In a 2-1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission failed properly quantify greenhouse gas emissions linked to a pipeline expansion project in the southeastern U.S.

The federal government has opened a review on whether its policies governing approval of interstate natural-gas pipelines should be revamped, an issue often raised by critics of the rapid expansion of industry infrastructure in New Jersey.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week launched an inquiry into whether its policies, unchanged since 1999, dealing with its oversight of pipelines ought to be updated.

The decision comes amid concerns raised by pipeline opponents about the current policy, including how the agency decides if a pipeline is needed and whether enough weight is given to the environmental impact of a new project. It also is expected to seek input on policies regarding eminent domain, which allow private land to be acquired through condemnation proceedings.

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Sunoco says testing is done and Mariner East 1 is safe; state officials say slow down

Workers and contractors for Sunoco Pipeline have been investigating geological conditions behind homes at Lisa Drive, West Whiteland Township, Chester County where the company has been drilling for construction of the Mariner East 2 and 2X pipelines. The company offered to relocate residents of the five homes whose yards are crossed by the pipeline right of way.

Jon Hurdle / StateImpact PA

Workers and contractors for Sunoco Pipeline have been investigating geological conditions behind homes at Lisa Drive, West Whiteland Township, Chester County after sinkholes developed during drilling for construction of the Mariner East 2 and 2X pipelines. Regulators shut down the nearby Mariner East 1 pipeline because of potential danger related to the sinkholes, and ordered Sunoco to perform new testing to ensure that pipeline's safety before the company can resume its operation.

More than a month after the Mariner East 1 pipeline was shut down over safety concerns, representatives for Sunoco say they’ve found no problems, and that they’re looking forward to getting the natural gas liquids pipeline running again.

But state officials say they’re not making any decisions to put the Mariner East 1 back in service yet.

Problems with the pipeline began late last year when a rash of sinkholes opened nearby. In early March, the state Public Utility Commission ordered that it be shut down.

The concern, they said, is that the unstable ground, plus nearby construction on the Mariner East 2 pipeline, could be a threat to public safety. PUC Chairman Gladys Brown ordered Sunoco to inspect Mariner East 1 in the area of where the sinkholes formed, then shut down the line while it studied geological conditions. It would then submit its findings for approval by PUC inspectors.

Now, Sunoco is saying it has finished testing the area, and has found there is no safety issue.

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Proposed bill takes ‘principled position’: By 2050, Pennsylvania should use only renewable energy

Wind turbines along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Courtesy: Pennsylvania Turnpike Comission

Wind turbines along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

A bipartisan group of state legislators want Pennsylvania to aim for 100 percent renewable energy by the middle of this century.

Identical bills introduced in the House and Senate would create a new task force and a center for clean energy excellence, with the goal of having all of Pennsylvania’s needs met by renewable energy by the year 2050. The aim is to avert the worst effects of climate change.

David Masur of the advocacy group PennEnvironment is backing measure, but he acknowledges it’s unlikely to pass the GOP-led legislature anytime soon.

“I don’t think the proposal will get done this session,” he said. “But every great social change movement, to tackle any major problem, has been when someone takes the principled position and starts that conversation.”

Spokespeople for the House and Senate Republican caucuses did not respond to requests for comment on the bills.

At a news conference Wednesday, Rep. Christopher Rabb (D- Philadelphia) said Pennsylvania has a moral responsibility to address global warming. He is the prime sponsor of the House bill, which includes 32 other Democratic co-sponsors and one Republican.

“The vast majority of scientists agree: climate change is real. And you don’t have to be a scientist to notice its effects,” Rabb said. “We’ve seen so many weather extremes in recent years, including hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Maria. Those last three all happened just last year.”

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Dynamite disappears from Atlantic Sunrise worksite; ATF is trying to find it

Construction of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline in Lancaster County.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Construction of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline in Lancaster County.

Update, 10:24 a.m. April 19: Authorities now say that 704 pounds of explosives were stolen. The Lebanon Daily News reported that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said an inventory confirmed that 16 cases of dynamite were taken. Each case holds 40 sticks of dynamite that weigh 1.1 pounds each.

 The ATF increased its reward offer to $20,000 for information leading to recovery of the explosives or an arrest.

Reported previously: Authorities are searching for explosives that were stolen last weekend from an Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline worksite in Lancaster County.

More than 600 pounds of dynamite disappeared from a locked truck trailer in Marietta, along with 400 blasting caps, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Gregory General Contracting Company reported the theft to authorities on Monday after security at the site discovered the trailer door open with the locks missing.

Atlantic Sunrise developer Williams said the incident took place at a storage yard operated by a contractor. The pipeline project is under construction to bring natural gas from northeastern Pennsylvania to markets across the Mid-Atlantic and southeastern United States. The pipeline will run through 10 counties: Columbia, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Clinton and Lycoming.

ATF Special Agent Charlene Hennessy said the bureau is working on leads provided by the public to find the explosives and the people responsible. Continue Reading

Sunoco proposes changes to Mariner East 2 construction in Chester County; DEP sets public hearing

Residents of Chester County’s West Whiteland Township on Monday pressed pipeline regulators for answers on Sunoco’s Mariner East construction after it produced sink holes behind some local homes.

Jon Hurdle

In March, residents of Chester County’s West Whiteland Township pressed pipeline regulators for answers on Sunoco’s Mariner East construction after it produced sink holes behind some local homes.

 

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection will hold a public hearing on plans by Sunoco Pipeline to modify its construction of the controversial Mariner East pipelines at two sites in Chester County’s West Whiteland Township.

The DEP said Monday that Sunoco proposes to change its construction method for the pipelines from horizontal directional drilling (HDD) to a conventional bore at one site and from HDD to a combination of conventional bore, open trench and HDD at the other sit

The changes would mean “major modifications” to the company’s permits under the DEP’s Chapter 105 water obstruction and Chapter 102 erosion control regulations, and so require DEP approval after a public hearing, the department said in a statement.

The meeting will be held on April 30 from 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm at the EN Peirce Middle School in West Chester. The DEP also extended a public-comment period from April 21 until May 11.

The statement said one of the affected sites is on East Swedesford Road, where the local water utility, Aqua America, has raised concerns about a well at Hillside Drive. The other location is along North Pottstown Pike, where the new work plan has been prompted by hydrogeological analysis and seismic testing, DEP said. Sunoco submitted both plans last October.

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Five takeaways from StateImpact’s forum on gas royalties

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StateImpact Pennsylvania hosted an educational forum Monday in Towanda, Bradford County to examine how Pennsylvania and other major energy-producing states are dealing with disputes of oil and gas royalties.

Many Pennsylvania mineral owners have complained they are not being paid fairly. The controversy has led to class action lawsuits and ongoing litigation by the state Attorney General’s Office. Landowners have accused gas companies of abuses including charging exorbitant fees, misreporting the sale price of gas and volume produced, and failing to adhere to lease language.

Much of the issue revolves around so-called “post production costs”, which are the expenses gas companies incur when they move and process gas from wells to the market. These costs can be passed along to landowners and show up as deductions from monthly royalty checks.

Speakers during the two-hour event at Towanda Area High School included Owen L. Anderson, a professor and distinguished oil and gas scholar at the University of Texas, Jackie Root, the head of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Royalty Owners, and David Fine, an attorney with K&L Gates in Harrisburg who represented two gas companies in a state court ruling about royalties that was favorable to the industry.

Here are a few takeaways: Continue Reading

After alert on Russian hacking, a renewed focus on protecting U.S. power grid

A view of the PJM  control room. The grid operator, based outside Philadelphia is the nation's largest.

courtesy of PJM

A view of the PJM control room. The grid operator, based outside Philadelphia is the nation's largest.

The joint alert from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security last month warning that Russia was hacking into critical U.S. energy infrastructure came as no surprise to the nation’s largest grid operator, PJM Interconnection.

“You will never stop people from trying to get into your systems. That isn’t even something we try to do.” said PJM Chief Information Officer, Tom O’Brien. “People will always try to get into your systems. The question is, what controls do you have to not allow them to penetrate? And how do you respond in the event they actually do get into your system?”

PJM is the regional transmission organization for 65 million people, covering 13 states, including Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C.

On a rainy day in early April, about 10 people were working inside PJM’s main control center, outside Philadelphia, closely monitoring floor-to-ceiling digital displays showing real-time information from the electric power sector throughout PJM’s territory in the mid-Atlantic and parts of the midwest.

Donnie Bielak, a reliability engineering manager, was overseeing things from his office, perched one floor up.

“This is a very large, orchestrated effort that goes unnoticed most of the time,” Bielak said. “That’s a good thing.”

But the industry certainly did take notice in late 2015 and early 2016, when hackers successfully disrupted power to the Ukrainian grid. The outages lasted a few hours and affected about 225,000 customers. It was the first publicly-known case of a cyber attack causing major disruptions to a power grid. It was widely blamed on Russia.

One of the many lessons of the Ukraine attacks was a reminder to people who work on critical infrastructure to keep an eye out for odd communications.

“A very large percentage of entry points to attacks are coming through emails,” O’Brien said. “That’s why PJM, as well as many others, have aggressive phishing campaigns. We’re training our employees.”

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FirstEnergy: If feds don’t help us, more power plants will close. Trump’s thinking about it

FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield plant in Shippingport, Pa. PHOTO: AP/Keith Srakocic

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File

FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield plant in Shippingport, Pa.

Losing millions of dollars a year at its power plants, Ohio-based FirstEnergy has asked the Trump administration for help. Though it may have the president’s ear, it’s unclear how much President Trump can do to help the company’s struggling coal and nuclear plants.

FirstEnergy, which filed for bankruptcy last month, and plans to close three nuclear plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio, wants Energy Secretary Rick Perry to declare a “202-C” grid emergency, and make customers in Pennsylvania and surrounding states pay more for electricity from nuclear and coal.

Otherwise, it says more plants will close.

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Bill would roll back standards on conventional oil and gas drillers

Kimberly Paynter/Newsworks.org

Conventional drilling, unlike drilling for the Marcellus Shale, does not go as deep into the ground.

A new bill in the state senate seeks to roll back environmental requirements on Pennsylvania’s conventional oil and gas industry, alleviating what its sponsor calls the “unbearable burden” of tougher standards targeted at larger, Marcellus Shale drillers.

The measure marks the latest move in a protracted legal and political battle over how to regulate the state’s oil and gas industry. SB 1088 was introduced in March by Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R- Butler) and is now before the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Conventional operators tend to be smaller companies that drill shallower oil and gas wells. They have long complained they’ve been unfairly thrust into a regulatory scheme targeted at major corporations that drill deeper, Marcellus wells.

In 2012 the state passed Act 13, a major overhaul of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas law. At the time, the law had not seen significant changes since 1984, despite technological advances in the industry. Act 13 placed new environmental requirements on both conventional and Marcellus drillers.

Environmental groups say the proposed standards in SB 1088 are in some ways weaker than Pennsylvania’s original 1984 Oil and Gas Act.

“There’s a lot of problems with the current language we see,” said Rob Altenburg, of the environmental group PennFuture. “We have an environmental rights amendment in the state constitution that requires the state government to act as a trustee for natural resources. This bill really disregards that provision, almost entirely.”

In a letter Wednesday to the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, the Environmental Defense Fund and Pennsylvania Environmental Council called SB 1088 a “wholesale weakening of necessary protection standards … that are accepted common practice in the industry and other oil and gas producing states.”

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Pipeline opponents offer their own $10k reward for information on Mariner East vandalism

Pipeline workers probe the ground on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township where sinkholes have developed as a result of the Mariner East 2 construction. Vandalism to pipeline construction equipment has garnered two separate $10,000 rewards.

Jon Hurdle / StateImpact PA

Pipeline workers probe the ground on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township where sinkholes have developed as a result of the Mariner East 2 construction. Vandalism to pipeline construction equipment nearby has garnered two separate $10,000 rewards.

Two separate $10,000 rewards are now offered for information on who vandalized a backhoe and bulldozer last week in West Whiteland Township, Chester County. The damaged construction equipment belongs to Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners, which is building the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline through the township.

Sunoco announced its $10,000 reward last week, and pointed the finger at environmental activists. This week, the Middletown Coalition of Community Safety, a group critical of the Mariner East pipelines, has offered its own $10,000 reward, positing the damage could have been self-inflicted by Sunoco to “change the conversation” about the pipeline. Neither group has direct evidence for their competing claims. Continue Reading

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