Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Marie Cusick

Reporter

Marie Cusick is StateImpact Pennsylvania's Harrisburg reporter at WITF. Her work regularly takes her throughout the state covering Marcellus Shale natural gas production. Marie first began reporting on the gas boom in 2011 at WMHT (PBS/NPR) in Albany, New York. A native Pennsylvanian, she was born and raised in Lancaster and holds a degree in political science and French from Lebanon Valley College. In 2014 Marie was honored with a national Edward R. Murrow award for her coverage of Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry.

Friends and foes of gas industry converge on state Capitol

David Spigelmyer (left) heads the gas trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition. He testified Wednesday, along with Thad Hill, President and CEO of Calpine, a natural gas power company.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

David Spigelmyer (left) heads the gas trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition. He testified Wednesday before a joint Senate commitee, along with Thad Hill, President and CEO of Calpine, a major natural gas power company.

Two starkly different versions of reality were on display Wednesday morning at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

Inside the building, a joint hearing by Republicans from the Senate Majority Policy Committee and Environmental Resources and Energy Committee examined the economic benefits natural gas production has brought Pennsylvania– with skyrocketing production, tens of thousands of new jobs, and more than a billion dollars in impact fee revenue. Outside, environmental groups and concerned citizens railed against the industry’s harmful air emissions, which exacerbate global climate change and can contribute to localized health effects.

At the Senate hearing, David Spigelmyer, president of the gas trade group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, described the game-changing role the gas industry has played in Pennsylvania– noting the state has surged to become the number two producer of gas in the nation, after Texas, and attracted $10 billion in investment toward new or converted natural gas power plants.

“We are at a povitol moment in Pennsylvania,” says Spigelmyer, “We have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage our indigenous resources to create a manufacturing resurgence and that could drive our economy, provide job opportunities, and establish a stable tax base for generations.”

Thad Hill of Calpine Corporation– the nation’s largest generator of electricity from natural gas and geothermal resources– told lawmakers that competitive electric market policies are working, noting the shift away from the dominance by coal, toward more natural gas.

“My key message today is that the market-driven competitive electric sector here in Pennsylvania is on a path to transition,” says Hill. “From one supported by older, less efficient and more costly power plants to one supported by newer, more efficient, less expensive and cleaner natural gas plants.”

Protesters hold large black balloons symbolizing the methane pollution from Pennsylvania's oil and gas industry.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Protesters hold large black balloons symbolizing the methane pollution from Pennsylvania's oil and gas industry.

After the hearing, about 40 people gathered on the Capitol steps, holding up large black balloons to symbolize the methane pollution created by the oil and gas industry. Nadia Steinzor, of the environmental group Earthworks, said she was disappointed the Senate hearing only focused on the benefits of the gas boom.

“I think it’s a real shame they only hear from one side, and not from the folks who are actually living the in gas fields,” she says.

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State senate confirms McDonnell as environmental secretary

The state senate has confirmed Patrick McDonnell as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The state senate has confirmed Patrick McDonnell as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The state senate unanimously approved Governor Tom Wolf’s pick to head the state Department of Environmental Protection on Monday.

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell has been at the helm of the agency for nearly a year. He was appointed last May after the abrupt departure of his predecessor, John Quigley, who was ensnared in controversy over an angry email he sent to some environmental groups.

The cabinet position is undoubtedly one of the toughest jobs in Harrisburg, requiring the political skills needed to handle the often conflicting agendas of environmental groups, citizens, and the business community. The job has recently been marked with high turnover. McDonnell is the fifth person to lead the department in as many years.

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Senate advances controversial coal mining bill

 A state senate committee has approved a bill that targets an ongoing legal challenge over coal mining in a western Pa. state park.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A state senate committee has approved a bill that targets an ongoing legal challenge over coal mining in a western Pa. state park.

The state senate has advanced a bill that could upend an ongoing legal challenge by two environmental groups seeking to restrict coal mining beneath a western Pennsylvania state park.

With the backing of senate GOP leadership, SB 624 was approved by a committee Monday in an 8-4 party line vote. The measure takes aim at a pending court case, which was first brought three years ago by the Center for Coalfield Justice and Pennsylvania Sierra Club. The two environmental groups are challenging Consol Energy’s 3,000-acre Bailey Mine extension. They argue it would damage 14 streams in and around Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park.

Senate President Pro Tempore, Joe Scarnati (R- Jefferson) is the prime sponsor.

“I understand the environmental groups and their opposition to mining, their opposition to gas and oil extraction,” he says. “But Pennsylvania’s jobs and economy are built on this.”

SB 624 says that if the state Department of Environmental Protection approves an underground mining plan, it shall not be considered “presumptive evidence” the mine could cause pollution. In other words, any plan approved by state regulators would automatically be presumed to not cause permanent damage to streams.

Scarnati says the bill reaffirms what DEP has been doing for many years.

“To follow current law is not blazing a new trail here,” he says.

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Lawmaker wants pipeline protesters to pay for police, cleanup costs

Feb. 22, 2017: Refuse remained in the Dakota Access pipeline opponents' main protest camp as a fire burns in the background in southern North Dakota near Cannon Ball, N.D.

AP Photo/Blake Nicholson

Feb. 22, 2017: Refuse remained in the Dakota Access pipeline opponents' main protest camp as a fire burns in the background in southern North Dakota near Cannon Ball, N.D.

New pipelines designed to carry Pennsylvania’s shale gas have taken center stage in a controversy over climate change, private property rights, and the nation’s energy future.

Protests have emerged all over the country, including an encampment in Lancaster County, where activists hope to disrupt construction of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline–an interstate gas transmission line approved by federal regulators earlier this year.

After the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline last year led to millions of dollars in cleanup and law enforcement costs, Sen. Scott Martin (R- Lancaster) plans to introduce legislation soon that would shied the public from the costs associated with protests, and make the activists pick up the tab.

However, the move raises First Amendment issues and is part of a broader national trend among state legislators to curb or limit protesting.

Friday on WITF’s Smart Talk, we discuss this issue, and a new bill that would preemptively ban local governments in Pennsylvania from imposing bans or fees on plastic bags.

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Senate panel approves Wolf’s pick for environmental secretary

A state senate panel has given its approval to Patrick McDonnell, Governor Tom Wolf's pick to run the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A state Senate panel has given its approval to Patrick McDonnell, Governor Tom Wolf's pick to run the state Department of Environmental Protection.

A state Senate panel has unanimously approved Governor Tom Wolf’s choice to lead the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Patrick McDonnell has already been on the job for nearly a year, as DEP’s Acting Secretary. He was appointed after the abrupt departure of his predecessor, John Quigley, who was ensnared in controversy over an angry email he sent to some environmental groups. The cabinet position has been marked with high turnover. McDonnell is the fifth person to lead the department in as many years.

McDonnell has spent his entire career in state government. Most of his time has been at DEP– in the Office of Pollution Prevention and most recently as Policy Director. Before that, he worked for the state Public Utility Commission. His first job was an internship in the Governor’s Office of Administration. Continue Reading

EPA urges Pennsylvania to move faster on water safety issues

Water faucet

Eric Norris via Flickr: http://bit.ly/1ryPA8o

Federal regulators are urging Pennsylvania to act quickly to fix serious staffing shortfalls in the state’s safe drinking water program.

In December EPA sent Pennsylvania a letter warning its water program was so under-staffed it was failing to enforce federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards.

Pennsylvania responded by saying it planned to hike fees on public water systems. The DEP hopes the fees will raise $7.5 million to pay for 33 new inspectors. But that process could take up to two years. In an April 12 letter, EPA’s Region 3 office wrote back, saying it remains concerned that won’t be fast enough.

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Lawmakers mull support for nuclear industry

Three Mile Island

Joanne Casarro / WITF

Exelon's Three Mile Island plant outside Harrisburg.

State lawmakers have begun discussing ways to shore up Pennsylvania’s struggling nuclear power industry, while maintaining a reliable electric grid and low prices for consumers.

That was the focus of a meeting Wednesday of the new, bipartisn Nuclear Energy Caucus. As the drilling boom continues to flood the market with cheap gas and electricity demand has slowed, the nuclear industry is having trouble keeping up. Last year the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg didn’t clear an auction for the future sale of its electricity raising concerns it could shut down prematurely

The caucus is widely expected to push for some kind of legislation later this year to secure the future of Pennsylvania’s nuclear fleet. The state’s five plants produce about a third of its electricity.

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Northeast needs more gas pipelines, says new report

FILE: A liquefied natural gas tanker in Boston Harbor. The city continues to import natural gas from overseas, despite an abundant supply of gas from the nearby Marcellus Shale.

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, Files

FILE: A liquefied natural gas tanker in Boston Harbor. The city continues to import natural gas from overseas, despite the abundant nearby supply of gas in the Marcellus Shale.

A new report out this week from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argues the northeastern United States needs more natural gas pipelines.

If no new pipelines were built, it could cost the region over 78,000 jobs and $7.6 billion in GDP by the year 2020, the report finds. It is the fifth in a series of reports from the Chamber of Commerce, examining potential impacts of energy policies.

The new analysis focuses on New England, which has become increasingly reliant on natural gas for its electricity. At the same time, politicians and activist groups have sought to block expansions of pipeline infrastructure.

“Across the board, Northeast natural gas and electricity prices are significantly higher than the rest of the country across all sectors,” says the report. “While several factors play into this trend, the availability of natural gas supply into the region is one of the primary drivers.”

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State wants more oversight of gas industry hiring of women, minorities

A shale gas drilling rig in Washington, Pa.

AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam

A shale gas drilling rig in Washington, Pa.

Pennsylvania’s natural gas producers continue to have a hard time complying with a state law requiring they make attempts to hire women, minority, and veteran-owned businesses.

The state’s 2012 oil and gas law, known as Act 13, directs drillers to provide “maximum practicable contracting opportunities” to these kinds of companies, known as small diverse businesses. The law doesn’t set quotas, but it does require unconventional gas producers to respond to an annual state survey and use the Department of General Services’ (DGS) database to find certified small diverse businesses.

As StateImpact Pennsylvania has reported, in previous years, many gas companies ignored these requirements.

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