Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Laura Legere

Reporter

Laura Legere is a freelance journalist based in Scranton. She was previously a staff writer for the Scranton Times-Tribune, where her reporting on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale won Best in Show from the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors as well as awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Inland Press Association and several state contests. She was a 2010 finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists. Laura was born and raised in Maine and holds degrees from Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

DEP proposes $2.3 million fine for 2008 gasoline spill from Sunoco pipeline

Signs mark a petroleum pipeline.

Hayden Irwin / Flickr

Signs mark a petroleum pipeline.

A 12,000-gallon gasoline spill from a ruptured pipeline in Westmoreland County in 2008 could cost Sunoco Logistics Partners more than $2.3 million in civil penalties from the state.

The Department of Environmental Protection filed a complaint Friday with the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board asking it to impose a fine of at least $2.38 million against Sunoco Logistics and its subsidiary Sunoco Pipeline.

The November 2008 spill in Murrysville contaminated Turtle Creek and killed nearly all of the aquatic life in a three-mile stretch of the waterway, triggered evacuations of homes and businesses, and shut down U.S. Route 22 for hours in the community 20 miles east of Pittsburgh. Mistakes during maintenance on the 8-inch interstate pipeline caused a plug to blow out, which “forced the gasoline to fountain twenty (20) to thirty (30) feet into the air” and rain “down onto and into nearby businesses, parking lots, and the surrounding soils and surfaces,” DEP said in its complaint. Federal pipeline regulators said the incident caused $1.1 million in property damage but no injuries.

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DEP fined oil and gas companies $2.5 million last year

A Seneca Resources well pad in the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY / WHYY

A Seneca Resources well pad in the Loyalsock State Forest.

Oil and gas companies were fined $2.5 million by Pennsylvania environmental regulators last year for violations at well sites and pipeline routes.

The 2013 total was the third highest in the three decades of oil and gas penalties the Department of Environmental Protection tracks in its public compliance report. Oil and gas companies were fined higher amounts only in 2010 ($2.7 million) and 2011 ($2.6 million), according to the database. (Tallying the fines in a different way through its fiscal report, DEP said the 2013 total was actually tied with 2011.)

Unlike recent years when high-profile spills, fires or methane migration cases attracted attention and hefty penalties, 2013 saw smaller but significant fines issued without fanfare to companies for violations that accumulated over years. Six of the 20 largest fines ever levied by DEP’s oil and gas program were handed out last year, but only one was among the ten largest.

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Pennsylvania shale production continued to grow in 2013

Metering equipment at a producing gas well in Susquehanna County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Metering equipment at a producing gas well in Susquehanna County.

Pennsylvania’s annual gas production swelled last year, with drilling companies pulling 3.1 trillion cubic feet of gas from the Marcellus Shale and other unconventional formations in 2013, according to new data released by the state.

The production data is reported by operators and is not verified before it is posted online by the Department of Environmental Protection.

During the last six months of 2013, Pennsylvania’s shale wells produced 1.7 trillion cubic feet of gas, or an average of 9.2 billion cubic feet per day – enough to satisfy about an eighth of the nation’s daily natural gas demand. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said last week that it expects total natural gas consumption to average 70.2 billion cubic feet per day in 2014.

“It’s an incredible journey we’ve taken in a short period of time,” says David Spigelmyer, President of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

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EPA approves waste disposal well in Clearfield County

A sign opposing a planned deep injection well sits on a lawn in Brady Township, Clearfield County

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A sign opposing a planned deep injection well sits on a lawn in Brady Township, Clearfield County

Federal environmental regulators issued a permit on Friday for an underground injection well in Clearfield County that will be used to dispose of oil and gas waste liquids.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the permit for Windfall Oil and Gas of Falls Creek, Pa. to build and operate a disposal well in Brady Township. The approval is the agency’s second in less than a month for injection wells in Pennsylvania. EPA issued a final permit to Seneca Resources on January 28 to operate a disposal well in Elk County.

The Brady Township injection well will pump fluids into a geologic layer about 7,300 feet underground known as the Huntersville Chert and Oriskany Sandstone, which has been tapped during decades of gas production, according to EPA records. Windfall will be limited to injecting a maximum of 30,000 barrels per month into the well.

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With fire out, crews move to cap wells at Greene County explosion site

A fire broke out on a Chevron natural gas well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County, Pa. early Tuesday morning. The flames extinguished themselves on Saturday afternoon.

Katie Colaneri/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A fire broke out on a Chevron natural gas well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County, Pa. early Tuesday morning. The flames extinguished themselves on Saturday afternoon.

The fire at a Greene County natural gas well pad extinguished itself on Saturday afternoon and is expected to stay out, allowing crews to move forward with plans to shut down the wells that were damaged by an explosion and fire last week, officials said today.

Chevron said in a statement Sunday evening that it couldn’t say what caused the flames to go out at the two wells that had been burning since February 11, but it noted that the wells are not releasing enough fuel to sustain a fire and a charred crane near the wells has cooled enough to keep the gas from reigniting.

The wells are now venting any gas they release, but they are flowing at a reduced rate because Chevron put a well at a separate pad nearby into production, decreasing some of the pressure underground, Scott Perry, the Department of Environmental Protection’s deputy secretary for oil and gas management, said.

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Study finds methane emissions are higher than government estimates

A gas production unit in Kingsley, Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A gas production unit in Kingsley, Susquehanna County.

Federal estimates significantly undercount the amount of methane emitted in the U.S. from leaking natural gas systems and other sources, according to a new study in the journal Science.

Researchers reviewed more than 200 studies of methane emissions in the U.S. and Canada published over 20 years and concluded that emissions are probably about 50 percent higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s official tally suggests.

Methane is more potent but shorter-lived than carbon dioxide, which is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities.

The authors, from universities, national laboratories, government agencies, and other organizations, found that even with the higher-than-estimated leak rates of methane, natural gas is better for the climate over 100 years than coal when burned to create electricity but likely worse for the climate than diesel when used to power trucks and buses.

“Fueling trucks and buses with natural gas may help local air quality and reduce oil imports, but it is not likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said lead author Adam Brandt, an assistant professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University. “Even running passenger cars on natural gas instead of gasoline is probably on the borderline in terms of climate.”

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New study details methane’s complexity in Northern Tier geology

A figure from Baldassare's paper in the AAPG Bulletin depicts gas pockets, or shows, throughout the subsurface in the Northern Tier.

Baldassare et al. / AAPG Bulletin

A figure from Fred Baldassare's paper in the AAPG Bulletin depicts gas pockets, or shows, throughout the subsurface in the Northern Tier.

Rural homeowners with sputtering faucets know that methane sometimes seeps into Pennsylvania groundwater naturally. Other times, the gas finds a path to drinking water supplies through flawed natural gas wells.

Telling the natural condition from the man-made one is a key task of regulators and companies investigating complaints of methane contamination in northeastern Pennsylvania, where the majority of drilling-related stray gas cases have originated in recent years. But how much can the gas found in a water well reveal about where it came from?

This week researchers released new findings, based on what they said is the largest published geochemistry database in the Appalachian basin, that detail the natural occurrence and distinctive features of methane tucked into the thousands of feet of rock between the surface and the Marcellus Shale in five Northern Tier counties.

The data, published in the Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, reinforce the common understanding of what methane trapped at different depths generally looks like. But the authors also found surprising exceptions where methane in shallower rock layers bore marks more often seen in Marcellus Shale methane, casting doubt on the use of some hallmarks to tell them apart.

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Broken pipe spills crude oil into Delaware River south of Philadelphia

The Monroe Energy refinery in Trainer, Pa.

U.S. EPA

The Monroe Energy refinery in Trainer, Pa.

Crews are cleaning up 1,000 gallons of crude oil that spilled into the Delaware River on Monday afternoon at a refinery in Delaware County.

The oil spilled into the river at around 1 p.m. when a pipe ruptured while crews were off-loading it at the Monroe Energy refinery in Trainer, the Department of Environmental Protection said. The spill happened about a mile south of the Commodore Barry Bridge, near the Delaware border.

Emergency responders from DEP, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies are monitoring the spill and helping to clean it up. The Coast Guard said crews deployed booms to contain the oil while responders used skimmers and vacuums to remove it from the water.

DEP said Monroe Energy reported the spill promptly and took steps to minimize environmental impacts.

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All sides weigh in on draft drilling rules

A drill rig in Susquehanna County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drill rig in Susquehanna County.

The Department of Environmental Protection has proposed 74 pages of revisions to the state’s oil and gas rules and speakers at a hearing on Monday night suggested edits on the draft.

People at the poles of the debate gathered at Tunkhannock High School in Wyoming County to call for an end to unconventional gas development or to urge DEP not to do anything that could slow or limit the industry’s rapid advance. Others in the divided room tried to speak for the center.

“We need compromise in the middle, which is what I think these proposed regulations represent,” said Wyoming County resident Kristin Landon, who told the panel of regulators that she lives within two miles of about 16 gas wells, a compressor station and a large water storage pond.

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AP: Drilling law decision leaves unsettled legal landscape

A drill rig rises above a farm in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Kim Paynter / WHYY/Newsworks.org

A drill rig rises above a farm in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Associated Press looked this weekend at some more of the potential business and legal consequences of the state Supreme Court’s month-old decision to strike down portions of the state’s drilling law.

The court ruled in favor of municipalities who challenged the law’s limits on local zoning of drilling operations. Now business groups whose interests are broader than natural gas drilling worry the decision might give municipalities more control over other kinds of development.

Some wonder whether any industry will ever be able to get the state’s help again in navigating municipalities’ planning and zoning rules.

“It’s a slippery slope here,” said David W. Patti, the president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council, whose members include Pennsylvania-American Water, United States Steel, Waste Management and Exelon. “It could be anything. Does this decision say we can’t have any rules at all, and municipalities are the final arbiters of all land use?”

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