A natural gas drilling rig in Greene County, Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania officials say they’ve confirmed the state’s first fracking-related earthquakes took place last year in Lawrence County, northwest of Pittsburgh. As a result, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is stepping up its requirements for drilling in that part of the state, which is known for seismic activity.
In April 2016, Texas-based Hilcorp Energy Company was fracking a pair of wells in the Utica Shale near New Castle, Pennsylvania when seismic monitors nearby detected five tremors, measuring between 1.8 and 2.3 on the Richter scale. Quakes that small are too faint to be felt on the surface. But they were significant, if only because fracking-induced earthquakes had never been recorded in the state.
“At least within Pennsylvania, this is the first time that we have seen that sort of spatial and temporal correlation with [oil and gas] operator activity,” says Seth Pelepko, chief of well-plugging and subsurface activities for DEP’s oil and gas management program.
Veronica Coptis shows pictures of the reconstruction of Polen Run, a Greene County stream undermined by Consol Energy.
Among the first accomplishments of the new Congress was undoing a regulation barely one month old — the Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule.
The agency finalized the rule in December, in one of the Obama administration’s final acts. But using a law called the Congressional Review Act, the new Congress quickly voted to take back the new rule, which would have made it harder for mining companies to bury or discharge mining waste in streams.
Coal companies said the rule would have jeopardized their already struggling industry. But just how would it have affected mines? One clue can be found up a wooded ravine in Greene County.
In Ryerson Station State Park, Veronica Coptis, of the Center for Coalfield Justice, shows off a warm-water trout stream called Kent Run. It’s a typical western Pennsylvania run, coursing off a hillside through a hardwood forest.
“It’s really pristine,” Coptis says. “It’s a beautiful place — it’s even more gorgeous in the summer.”
The stream runs right above Consol Energy’s Bailey Mine, the largest producing underground mine in North America. Consol had planned to mine beneath Kent Run, but Coptis’ group — along with the Sierra Club — stopped that plan, at least for now. The groups appealed Consol’s mining permit, and a state environmental hearing board judge sided with them — blocking Consol from mining within 100 feet of the stream. The judge called the Department of Environmental Protection’s permitting process for the mine “arbitrary, capricious, inappropriate and unreasonable.”
Consol recently announced 200 miners would be temporarily laid off because of the order. In court records, the company said it stood to lose $15.3 million because of the decision, as it would have to leave 360,000 tons of coal in the ground.
President Trump is sending strong signals to pipeline companies that it’s all systems go. But those actions could also energize protesters.
Donald Trump’s public support of big pipeline projects is giving the industry a shot in the arm. But it still faces hurdles from state and local opposition, according to industry leaders.
On Tuesday, Trump signed executive orders to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and expedite environmental reviews on some projects. Keystone XL and Dakota Access both stalled under the Obama administration amid protest.
Trump’s executive orders could be good for those and other pipelines, but big multi-state projects also face headwinds from some state governments — and protesters. Alan Armstrong, CEO of the pipeline company Williams, warned the crowd at an industry conference in Pittsburgh Wednesday about getting too complacent.
“We’ve got an administration that’s supportive of our business today,” Armstrong told the audience. “We can be very thankful about announcements like we saw yesterday about DAPL and Keystone. But that is not changing the opposition we have at the local level, and we’re going to continue to see that and it may even enhance it.”
Chris Collins / Pa. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources
Ryerson Station State Park
A judge has ordered a halt to mining underneath a state park in Greene County. Environmental Hearing Board judge Steven C. Beckman issued the order Tuesday, regarding a Consol Energy plan to expand its Bailey mine complex beneath Ryerson Station State Park. Environmental groups had argued the plan would have damaged a high-quality stream in the park.
In December, Beckman temporarily blocked the permit while he heard testimony on the case, which centered on a state Department of Environmental Protection permit to allow Consol subsidiary CNX Coal Resources to mine beneath the park. The plan was to conduct longwall mining beneath Kent Run, potentially causing subsidence and the stream to flow into cracks opened up by mining.
Environmental groups argued that the DEP permit would have allowed the company to fix any damage to the stream by either pouring cement in the cracks or re-building the stream entirely.
Patrick Grenter, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, which challenged the permit along with the Sierra Club, says that would have irreparably damaged the stream.
Shell moved another step closer toward building its massive chemical plant near Pittsburgh. Supervisors in Potter Township approved the company’s conditional use permit to build an ethane cracker on the site of a former zinc smelter.
Supervisors voted 3-0 in favor of the permit. Shell needs the permit to build a plant that will make plastic from the region’s natural gas. The agreement includes provisions that Shell would limit and monitor light, traffic and noise at the plant.
Supervisors say they’ve spent years reviewing Shell’s plans, ever since the company announced it was considering the site in 2012.
“We began five years ago, doing our homework, and this has been a very carefully, and publicly conducted process, so I think we’ve more than satisfied our due diligence,” said Rebecca Matsco, chair of the township supervisors.
Workers prepare a site in Beaver County for Shell's multi-billion dollar ethane cracker.
On Thursday, activists asked state regulators to impose strict air and water pollution controls on Shell’s planned ethane cracker in Beaver County. They spoke at a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) hearing on the plant’s proposed air and water pollution permits.
Shell’s plant would take natural gas from the surrounding region and create polyethylene, a common plastic. But because the Pittsburgh region doesn’t meet federal air standards, Shell has to meet stricter clean air requirements.
The company needs to buy air pollution credits for three types of pollutants from other plants in the area that have closed down. One problem: It can’t find enough of these credits for a type of pollution known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These include hazardous air pollutants, which can cause cancer. VOCs also contribute to smog.
So Shell is offering the DEP a trade: It will buy more credits for another class of compounds—nitrogen oxides—in exchange for a smaller number of required VOC credits.
Potter Township supervisors hear testimony on the impacts of Shell's proposed ethane cracker. The facility would be built about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
On Tuesday night, township supervisors in Potter Township, about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, heard testimony on the impacts that Shell’s ethane cracker might have on their community.
The supervisors held a hearing on the company’s request for a conditional use permit from the township, a necessary step in the company’s plan to build a multi-billion dollar chemical plant on the banks of the Ohio River. The plant would make plastic out of the region’s natural gas.
Potter Township supervisors asked company officials about the lighting, traffic and noise the cracker is expected to create. Township Supervisor Earl Shamp asked Shell External Affairs Manager Chris Heitman whether the plant would give off odors.
Heitman said that unlike other ethane crackers on the Gulf Coast, the Potter Township site won’t emit many odors because it will use natural gas—not crude oil—as a base ingredient. Crude oil has a higher sulfur content than natural gas, he said. Read more from The Allegheny Front.
Testing at a Greene County stream once suspected of contamination shows it has “no radiation concern,” the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced Thursday.
In April 2014, tests taken by the state showed Ten Mile Creek had high levels of radium, a radioactive material that is naturally occurring. But in a study released in December 2015, the DEP said those tests produced “a false positive” and found the radium levels in the water to be safe. Tests taken this year confirmed the levels were within federal safety standards.
“All water samples were below the EPA drinking water limit of 5 picocuries per liter (pC/L) for radium-226 and radium-228,” the DEP said in a statement. “Any radiation that was detected was consistent with background levels for southwest Pennsylvania.”
First responders block the access to the area where a natural gas explosion at a pipeline burned one person and damaged houses on Friday, April 29, 2016, in Salem Township, Pa. The explosion caused flames to shoot above nearby treetops in the largely rural area, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, and prompted authorities to evacuate businesses nearby.
On the morning of April 29, a natural gas transmission line exploded in a field in Salem Township in western Pennsylvania. The blast was so powerful it ripped a 12-foot crater into the landscape, burned a section of the field with a quarter-mile radius and threw a 25-foot section of the 30-inch steel pipeline 100 feet away. At the time of the explosion, a 26-year-old man was in his house, a few hundred feet away. He was badly burned, and his home destroyed.
When local fire chief Bob Rosatti arrived at the scene, the flames were so hot, he had to stay in his truck.
“They were massive—I would say 300 feet at the least,” Rosatti says. “That was the biggest fireball I’d ever seen in my life. Thank god it was in a rural area. It could have been a lot worse if it had been in a more populous area.”
Investigators think external corrosion on the pipe is to blame for the blast. But they are still poring over a decade’s worth of pipe inspection reports to determine exactly what caused it.
The explosion comes as the federal government is undertaking a new effort to make gas transmission pipelines safer. It has become an even more urgent issue now that the country is building more pipelines, especially in the Northeast. The fracking boom in the Marcellus and Utica shales is a big reason for that. The Department of Energy predicts Pennsylvania and Ohio will nearly double their natural gas production by 2030. Read more at The Allegheny Front.