Energy. Environment. Economy.

Reid Frazier, The Allegheny Front

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Abundant supplies of Marcellus Shale gas could lead to more chemical plants

Will Pennsylvania attract more massive ethane cracker plants like this one, now under construction near Pittsburgh?

Reid Frazier / The Allegheny Front

The construction site in Beaver County for Shell's new ethane cracker. Industry leaders say this could be the first of many built in the Marcellus Shale region.

Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracker in Beaver County could be the first of several large chemical plants in the region, petrochemical industry leaders and observers said at a conference in Pittsburgh Monday. That’s because there’s enough ethane being produced in the region to provide the chemical industry with the raw material without any additional drilling.

“It’s very difficult to hide the secret,” said Warren Wilczewski, a U.S. Energy Information Administration economist who attended the conference. In the Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia region, production has grown almost 10-fold since 2011, Wilczewski said.  “By our calculations, you could easily have another two or three world-scale crackers.”

Shell’s cracker will use ethane, a byproduct of natural gas drilling, to make the building blocks of plastics. Currently, the region’s ethane is sent to chemical plants in the Gulf Coast, Ontario, and Europe. But whatever ethane can’t get sold to plastics manufacturers is “rejected”, or mixed in with the gas that supplies homes and businesses for heating and cooking. For more, please visit The Allegheny Front.

Trump touts new Pa. coal mine, but rebound in doubt

Matt Owens, the safety manager for the Acosta Deep mine says he's happy to be back at work.

Reid Frazier / The Allegheny Front

Matt Owens, the safety manager for the Acosta Deep mine watches over preparations for the opening of the metallurgical coal mine.

When President Trump announced the U.S. was pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, he said he was doing it to protect American workers. He gave a shout out to the coal industry, and a surprise mention to the Acosta Deep mine in Somerset County.

“A big opening of a brand, new mine. It’s unheard of. For many, many years that hasn’t happened,” Trump said.

The mine, owned by Canonsburg-based Corsa Coal Corp., received a $3 million grant from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, a fund the state gives to “regional economic, cultural, civic, recreational, and historical improvement projects.” The Governor’s office says it will create 100 direct, and 500 indirect jobs.

The Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier explains why this mine is opening up, while others have shut down. And why, although it may be a beacon of hope for the coal mining community, it’s not a harbinger of the future of coal. Read more at The Allegheny Front.

Pennsylvania confirms first fracking-related earthquakes

A natural gas drilling rig in Greene County, Pennsylvania.

Mark Schmerling via FracTracker Alliance

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.

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Congress axed a rule to protect streams from coal pollution. Here’s what that means for Pennsylvania

Veronica Coptis shows pictures of the reconstruction of Polen Run, a Greene County stream undermined by Consol Energy.

Reid Frazier / The Allegheny Front

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.

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Trump gives pipeline industry a boost, but leaders warn against complacency

President Trump is sending strong signals to pipeline companies that it’s all systems go. But those actions could also energize protesters.

AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

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.”

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Mining permit in state park halted by judge

Ryerson Station State Park

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.

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Beaver County township green-lights ethane cracker

Shell cracker beaver co

Reid Frazier / The Allegheny Front

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.

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Shell proposes bargain to meet pollution targets for ethane cracker

Workers prepare a site in Beaver County for Shell's multi-billion dollar ethane cracker.

Reid Frazier / The Allegheny Front

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.

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Shell asks for local support for chemical plant

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.

Reid Frazier / Allegheny Front

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.

DEP says Greene County stream poses ‘no radiation concern’

Ten Mile Creek

Reid Frazier/ 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.”

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