Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Marie Cusick

Reporter

Marie Cusick is a reporter with StateImpact Pennsylvania and WITF in Harrisburg. She joined WITF from Albany, New York where she worked as a multimedia reporter for WMHT. Her work was broadcast by public stations across New York as part of the Innovation Trail— a reporting collaborative among six stations. She appeared regularly on WMHT’s award-winning, statewide public affairs TV show, New York NOW. She also traveled throughout the state to cover some of New York’s biggest stories, including the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy in New York City in 2012, and the debate over New York’s moratorium on fracking. Marie was born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and has previously worked as a reporter and anchor for television stations in Lancaster and Casper, Wyoming. Marie holds a degree in political science and French from Lebanon Valley College.

Wolf says he would ‘restore trust’ in health department drilling policies

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf says he will work to restore public trust in how the state handles health complaints related to gas drilling.

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf says he would "put a premium on transparency" in how the state handles health complaints related to gas drilling.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf says he wants to restore public trust in the state Department of Health. The agency was recently accused by former employees of having policies aimed at muzzling its workers on the issue of natural gas drilling.

As StateImpact Pennsylvania has previously reported, two retired state health department workers claim employees were instructed not to respond to phone calls from people who complained about natural gas operations.

In 2012, employees were sent a list of 19 drilling-related “buzzwords” and directed to forward phone calls from people who used those words to the Bureau of Epidemiology. Employees were also required to fill out a permission form and get high-level approval before attending any meetings on topics related to Marcellus Shale development.

While campaigning Wednesday in Chambersburg, Wolf wouldn’t weigh in on specific policies supported by public health advocates– such as increasing funding to the department or creating a public registry of drilling-related complaints.

But he said if he’s elected, he would work to make the department more accountable.

“The idea is to make people actually trust their government—look to government for answers–not to think that we’re alien and the enemy,” he said. “With the Department of Health and throughout my administration I would put a premium on transparency.”

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Industry group promotes new ‘good neighbor’ policies for drillers

cabot_frack_site15

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

The nations largest oil and gas trade group has unveiled a new set of community relations guidelines–aimed at improving interactions between drillers and the people who live near hydraulic fracturing sites.

The American Petroleum Institute released the 9-page document today, calling it a set of “good neighbor” policies.

In a telephone press conference Wednesday with reporters, API’s New York State spokeswoman Karen Moreau repudiated questions about whether the industry has been too slow in responding to public concerns about the boom in shale development and the safety of hydraulic fracturing.

“I spend a great deal of my time traveling across New York focusing on this very subject,” she said. “We don’t take a page out of the playbook of radical environmental groups who are not held to the same standards.”

The new policies come just over a week after New York State’s highest court upheld the right of towns there to ban fracking operations.

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Governor’s office denies involvement with health department drilling policies

A spokesman for Gov. Corbett said the governor's office was not involved in the Department of Health's policies on handling drilling-related health complaints.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A spokesman for Gov. Corbett said the governor's office was not involved in the Department of Health's policies on handling drilling-related health complaints.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Governor Tom Corbett refused to answer questions about allegations state health department employees were silenced on the issue of natural gas development.

A StateImpact Pennsylvania investigation has revealed that in 2012, employees were sent a list of drilling-related “buzzwords” as part of a guidance for how to handle drilling-related health complaints. The words and phrases included drilling, fracking, Marcellus Shale, skin rash, and cancer cluster. The list was accompanied by instructions to send complaints to the Bureau of Epidemiology.

Two department staffers — now retired, but active when the guidance was sent out — said employees were also instructed orally not to discuss symptoms and other information with callers who mentioned words or phrases on the list. The retired workers claim they were also told not to personally to return phone calls from people who used the words.

Documents obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania also show that starting in 2011, community health employees were required to get high-level permission to attend meetings and forums on Marcellus Shale topics.

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New gas well regulations slipped into budget bill

Natural gas wells in Springville Township, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Natural gas wells in Springville Township, Pa.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports state Republican leaders have inserted controversial last-minute language to one of the budget bills that would change how Pennsylvania’s natural gas wells are regulated.

The bill requires state regulators to distinguish between two types of oil and gas wells– conventional, shallow wells, and deeper modern unconventional shale wells.

From the Inquirer:

Environmental groups say inserting the language into the fiscal code is tantamount to circumventing the legislative process, including debate on the floor.

They also say they object to the fact that the proposed language does not make it clear what the new regulations would be for traditional shallow wells.

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New York’s highest court allows towns to ban fracking

A fracking site in Harford Township, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A fracking site in Harford Township, Pa.

New York State’s highest court ruled today that towns are allowed to ban hydraulic fracturing within their borders.

From the New York Times:

The two towns at the center of the case – Dryden, in rural Tompkins County, and Middlefield, in Otsego County – amended their zoning laws in recent years to ban fracking, on the basis that it would threaten the health, the environment and, in Middlefield’s case, the “rural character” of the community.

Subsequently, an energy company that had acquired oil and gas leases in Dryden and a dairy farm in Middlefield that had leased land to a gas drilling company filed legal complaints, arguing that the town ordinances were pre-empted by state oil and gas law.

On Monday, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed a lower-court ruling rejecting that argument, and found that the towns did indeed have the authority to ban fracking through land use regulations.

The seven-judge panel was split 5 to 2 on the case. The majority, in its decision, made clear that it was not ruling on the benefits or risks of fracking, simply on a question of the division of power between state and local governments.

Shale gas development has been on hold in New York since 2008 when the state began an ongoing environmental review process.

Earlier this year the head of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation told reporters he believes it’s “extremely unlikely” his agency would issue permits before 2015. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has remained largely silent on the issue, saying he will allow science to decide the matter.

Over the years, the state has missed a series of self-imposed deadlines to finalize its environmental review.

Legislators seeking an extra $20 million from forest leasing

A gas well pad in the Tiadaghton State Forest.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A gas well pad in the Tiadaghton State Forest.

State legislators are looking to expand gas leasing of public parks and forests to raise more revenue in an effort close this year’s budget gap.

Lawmakers are set to vote on a $29.1 billion spending plan today that anticipates $95 million in revenue from leasing more public land to drillers– that’s $20 million more than Governor Corbett proposed in his executive budget.

Corbett was seeking to lease about 25,000 acres. Under the latest version of the budget, the total may exceed 31,000 acres.

In May Corbett issued an executive order which bars companies from creating new surface disturbances. It instead allows drillers to extract gas horizontally from wells located on adjacent private land or in areas of state forests where leases already exist.

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Royalties bill on the back burner until fall

A controversial bill aimed a limiting gas companies from withholding royalty money from landowners will be set aside until the fall legislative session.

House Bill 1684 would limit the practice of charging landowners for post-production costs– the expenses associated with processing and transporting natural gas.

Rep. Garth Everett (R- Lycoming) is the prime sponsor of the bill. He says House leadership told him the measure is on the back burner.

“They just said it’s not going to be a top priority for them right now, and I understand that. We have got the budget to do.”

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Corbett administration won’t ‘rule out’ gas tax this year

Tom Corbett

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

"I don't like a severance tax," Corbett said at a press conference today in Harrisburg. However, his budget secretary says the administration has not ruled it out as a way to raise revenue.

With mounting pressure to find new revenue in the face of an estimated $1.4 billion budget gap this year, the Corbett administration is signaling it may be open to levying a new extraction tax on Pennsylvania’s natural gas operators.

At a press conference in Harrisburg today, Corbett said he still doesn’t like the idea of taxing gas production, but he’s open to raising revenue and imposing new taxes if the legislature deals with one of his top priorities– pension reform.

Corbett wants to replace the state’s public pension system with a less costly hybrid 401(k)-style program for future hires.

“Right now we have a 50 billion dollar problem,” he said, referring to pension obligations. “We have to deal with that if you want me to even consider dealing with revenue. I’m not going to say revenue is a severance tax or any other type. Let’s deal with the cost driver first.”

Corbett says he is willing to miss the legally-mandated June 30th budget deadline in order to get a deal done, noting that Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley has already cancelled a planned family cruise.

Speaking with reporters after the press conference, Corbett’s Budget Secretary, Charles Zogby, was clear that raising taxes on drillers is still on the table.

“There’s multiple options we can look at,” he said. “I’m not ruling out a severance tax.”

Legislators from both parties have been proposing various gas tax bills.

Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House Republicans, says a tax is something, “we’re not advocating right now,” but added, “I know a lot of people are advocating it, so I gather it’s on the table.”

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Survey: public distrusts gas industry and anti-fracking film, Gasland

A new study shows the public views both the natural gas industry and the anti-fracking film, Gasland, as among the least trustworthy sources of information when it comes to hydraulic fracturing.

According to a paper published last month in Energy Research and Social Science, people are more likely to trust information from university professors, environmental groups, newspapers, and landowner groups.

Regulatory agencies ranked fifth in trustworthiness among the eight possible choices. They were followed by cooperative extensions and the natural gas industry.

Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox.

Linh Do via Flickr

Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox. The Oscar-nominated film was ranked by survey respondents as the least trustworthy source of information on fracking.

The 2010 film, Gasland, came in last place.

Although newspapers were ranked as the number one source of information, they came in third for trustworthiness– behind professors and environmental groups.

The results come from telephone and mail surveys conducted during the summer of 2012 of people who live in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region. The paper was a collaboration among researchers from Sam Houston State University in Texas, Penn State University, and Texas A&M.

“There’s so much information in the media from so many different stakeholders,” says lead author Gene Theodori of Sam Houston State. “The general population is just trying to sort through all this information.”

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Do not disturb: what can drillers do with new forest leases?

 flares in Tioga county

Scott Detrow/StateImpact Pennsylvania

The Corbett administration is preparing to lease approximately 25,000 acres of public park and forest land to raise $75 million for this year’s budget.

Last month, Corbett issued an executive order overturning a 2010 state moratorium on new oil and gas leasing of public land. The administration has called it a restrictive approach to expanding drilling that will not create new surface disturbances.

So what exactly does that mean?

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) defines surface disturbance as, “the long-term conversion of forest to a non-forest use.” In other words, cutting down trees and moving earth.

Corbett’s executive order allows companies to work underground– extracting gas horizontally from wells located on adjacent private land or in areas of state forests where leases already exist.

DCNR is seeking $3,000 per acre in upfront bonus payments, plus an 18 percent royalty on gas production. The department hasn’t revealed the specific tracts of land it hopes to lease, but it does have a list of nominations.

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