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.
Former Pennsylvania DEP Secretary John Quigley resigned last week following controversy over an email he sent to environmental advocacy groups, criticizing them for not pushing back against legislative efforts to stall or block environmental regulations.
“I’ve slept on this but can no longer hold back,” Quigley wrote. “Where the f*ck were you people yesterday? The House and Senate hold Russian show trials on vital environmental issues and there’s no pushback at all from the environmental community? Nobody bothering to insert themselves in the news cycle?”
Quigley sent the profanity-laced note to several environmental groups the day after state House and Senate panels voted to reject oil and gas regulations, which he had championed in his job at the helm of the state Department of Environmental Protection. The same day, a Senate committee had also approved a bill to give lawmakers more oversight in efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
DEP Secretary John Quigley resigned Friday afternoon, following controversy over an email he sent to environmental groups.
State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley resigned Friday afternoon, following several news reports about a controversial email he sent last month to environmental groups.
Governor Tom Wolf issued a statement thanking Quigley for his service, without offering any details about the nature of his departure.
“The email is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says a source close to the Wolf administration. “[Quigley] has no relationships with the legislature and has angered a lot of people within the administration. It’s a long line of things that have become a problem.”
Capitolwire first reported Thursday Quigley sent an email chastising the environmental groups for not doing enough to support DEP’s revised oil and gas regulations, as well as new federal clean air regulations. The drilling rules have faced stiff opposition from the industry and the Republican-led legislature.
DEP Director of Policy Patrick McDonnell will serve as Acting Secretary for the department.
Quigley did not immediately respond to requests to comment Friday afternoon.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced the first-ever federal standards Thursday aimed at curbing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. It’s part of the Obama administration’s broader plan to combat climate change.
Methane is the main component of natural gas, and it’s much more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. The EPA says new scientific data shows methane emissions are much higher than previously thought and nearly one-third of that pollution comes from the oil and gas sector.
Obama’s Climate Action Plan seeks to reduce methane emissions by 40-45% from 2012 levels by 2025. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy says the proposed standards will target both new and existing infrastructure.
“It will reduce air pollution that directly harms public health,” she told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “And it will make sure the oil and gas industry can continue to operate safely and responsibly.”
State lawmakers have repeatedly used a budget bill to funnel money to an industry-backed nonprofit for "independent research" on Marcellus Shale issues.
For the third time in as many years, $150,000 has been slipped into the state budget for “independent research” on Marcellus Shale issues. It’s intended for an industry-backed nonprofit called the Shale Alliance for Energy Research (SAFER PA).
As StateImpact Pennsylvania previously reported, SAFER PA received a $150,000 earmark two years ago to do Marcellus research for the state Department of Environmental Protection. This time the money is being funneled through the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).
In each instance, the sum was buried in the fiscal code, a companion piece of legislation to the budget. The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think-tank, recently flagged it as part of long list of earmarks.
“The fiscal code contains millions in earmarks described in language vague enough to stump any detective,” says James Paul, a senior policy analyst at the foundation. “When it comes to the use of public dollars, Pennsylvanians deserve more than a big question mark.”
For the second time in less than a month, a House committee has voted to block tougher regulations aimed at Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry. It’s the latest move in the ongoing battle over the rules between the Republican-led legislature and Governor Tom Wolf’s Democratic administration.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has been working to modernize the regulations for five years. Last month, a state commission gave its approval. On Tuesday the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee voted to disapprove of the regulations.
Rep. John Maher (R- Allegheny) chairs the committee, and says he has had trouble getting the Wolf administration to listen to his concerns, which include everything from correcting typos in the text of the regulations to questions about the legality of DEP’s procedure.
“Secretary Quigley seems as unprepared to entertain any constructive conversations as he has been since the day he was appointed,” says Maher.
First responders work the scene during a natural gas explosion in Westmoreland County Friday morning. The explosion, which burned 26-year-old James Baker, caused flames to shoot above nearby treetops in the largely rural Salem Township, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh.
James Baker was in his Westmoreland County home when a 30-inch interstate natural gas pipeline exploded around 8:30am Friday. His house was destroyed by the blast and about a dozen other homes in the area were evacuated. A GoFundMe page set up for Baker and his wife had already received close to $4,000 by Monday morning.
The explosion, which occurred on a 30-inch interstate natural gas pipeline, burned one person and caused flames to shoot above nearby treetops in the largely rural Salem Township, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. It prompted authorities to evacuate homes and businesses nearby.
A man has been taken to the hospital with serious burns after a 30-inch interstate natural gas transmission pipeline exploded next to his home in Westmoreland County. About a dozen homes have been evacuated and a quarter mile evacuation zone remains in place. Video from the scene shows a raging fire lighting up the early morning sky. First responders on the scene say the man did not come in direct contact with the flames, but it was the intense heat that scorched him and his home.
The explosion happened at around 8:30 am Friday morning, about 200 yards behind a home in Salem Township, which lies 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. It destroyed that home, torched a field and damaged several homes near by.
Richard Johnston was in his house a quarter mile away. He thought a jet airplane had crashed in the field across from his house.
“We heard a terrible explosion and looked out and saw the fireball all around the place. We grabbed our dog, grabbed our coat and ran,” he said. ”The heat was too great, you had to leave.”
“It was just fire…everywhere you looked,” he said. “Debris on fire blowing across the yard here.”
Johnston said it was so hot firefighters stayed in their truck and told him his house might have to burn down. As it happened, the house survived, but plastic latticework and siding melted on the side of the house facing the blaze.
Fire officials say the injured man’s home was completely destroyed by the flames. His name has not been released and his condition is unknown at this point. He was taken to UPMC Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh.
“It looks like a bomb went off. As far across my windshield as I could see was just a massive fireball,” Forbes Road Fire Chief Bob Rosatti told reporters at a news conference.
“While the fire was contained and gas was shut off—residual gas in the pipeline is continuing to burn,” says John Poister, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. “A quarter mile evacuation zone is being maintained until further notice.”
Four pipelines cross the field where the explosion occurred. A nearby gas storage injection well operated by Dominion has been shut in as a precaution, Poister said.
Johnston said he’d known the pipelines were there, but hadn’t paid them much thought.
“It enters your mind,” he said. “They’re there. I always knew that. I knew something like that’s possible.”
Creighton Welch is a spokesman for Houston-based Spectra Energy, which owns the Texas Eastern line. He tells StateImpact Pennsylvania he has limited information at this point, but the company has activated its emergency response plan.
“Our first concern is for the safety of the community, our employees, and any others who may be affected,” says Welch.
The federal Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration has jurisdiction over the interstate line and has sent an inspector to investigate the cause. Pipeline safety experts say it could be weeks before the cause is known.
PA One Call, the organization that coordinates safe digging near pipelines and underground utilities, reported that a contractor was scheduled to dig in the vicinity of the pipeline explosion this morning. Bill Kiger, executive director of PA One Call, told StateImpact that he doesn’t know if the contractor began the scheduled excavation today or not. Spectra Energy released a statement this afternoon confirming only one injured person. Kiger says the pipeline company is known for following the PA One Call rules.
“Spectra Energy is typically a good company to work with,” he said.
Over the past decade, Spectra has paid $403,142 in fines related to its Texas Eastern transmission system, according to data on PHMSA’s website.
In one case that’s still pending, regulators are seeking a $239,200 fine for a May 2014 incident in Greene County, where Spectra failed to administer required drug and alcohol testing for employees after a fire and accidental leak of 1,000 cubic feet of gas that caused $186,437 in property damage.
DEP regulators want to get better at tracking fine particulate air pollution from natural gas infrastructure, such as these compressor units in the Loyalsock State Forest.
State environmental regulators are planning a major expansion of air quality monitoring, which will be focused on Marcellus Shale natural gas infrastructure.
“We heard the concerns of shalefield residents, and we are responding,” John Quigley, head of the state Department of Environmental Protection said in a teleconference announcement Wednesday. “We have been looking at the need to close data gaps since the beginning of this administration.”
DEP will spend $1.56 million over the next five years to grow its current network of 27 monitoring sites. The department will add 10 new continuous sensors to track fine particulate matter in counties with a lot of Marcellus Shale development in the northern and southwestern parts of the state. Regulators say they will try to place monitors close to clusters of large natural gas compressor stations, which process and transport gas from wells through pipelines.
The bill provides $12 million in grants to expand access to natural gas.
Natural gas infrastructure projects are getting a $12 million boost in a budget bill Governor Tom Wolf has allowed to become law without his signature. The money shifts from the state’s Alternative Energy Investment Act and will be used as grants to hospitals, businesses, schools and local governments to expand access to natural gas.
The language is part of a broader bill known as the fiscal code–a companion piece of legislation to the state budget, which Wolf also allowed to become law last month. With this latest move, the state’s unprecedented budget impasse is finally over, two months before next year’s budget is due on July 1st.
GOP House spokesman Steve Miskin says legislative leaders have already begun talks with the Wolf administration.
“We obviously plan on an on-time budget,” he says. “Nobody wants to go through last year again– underscore, nobody.”
Wolf announced his intention to let the fiscal code become law in a press release late Friday afternoon.
“I look forward to coming together to reach a long-term solution to fix our deficit and to fund education at all levels,” he said. “I remain adamant that we must take additional steps to restore the cuts from the previous administration.”
Range Resources executive Terry Bossert has apologized for suggesting the company avoids putting gas wells near wealthy neighborhoods.
A senior executive at natural gas driller Range Resources has apologized for suggesting the company tries to avoid putting its wells near big houses, where residents may have the financial means to challenge them.
“Let me apologize as my attempt to interject dry sarcasm was clearly a mistake,” Bossert said in a statement released Thursday. ”We always work hard to create the biggest buffer between our operations and all residents.”
Bossert served as chief counsel for the state Department of Environmental Protection from 1995 through 1999. He said it is unfortunate that his “poor choice of words” would call into question his and the company’s commitment to working with people regardless of their economic means.