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Deepening the Delaware: Windfall or boondoggle?

U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D) speaks at a press conference regarding the dredging of the Delaware to increase shipping traffic to the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal.

Brad Larrison / WHYY

U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D) speaks at a press conference touting the benefits of the dredging the Delaware to increase shipping traffic to the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal. Philadelphia Congressman Bob Brady (D) stands to the left.

On a recent afternoon, local politicians and business leaders gathered at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia. Standing in front of a giant blue and white crane used to lift containers off cargo ships, U.S. Senator Bob Casey told reporters he’s confident Congress will approve the last chunk of federal funding needed to deepen the Delaware River’s shipping channel this year.

“It’s a great sense of satisfaction because it allows this region to be much more competitive and to chart its own course for the future,” said Casey.

That course for the future is the promise of lots of good-paying jobs. A controversial, $400 million project to deepen the Delaware River’s shipping channel will wrap up next year.

The project to dredge the river to a depth of 45 feet was held up for nearly three decades by state officials across the river in New Jersey and Delaware who didn’t think it was worth spending millions in taxpayer dollars, and by environmentalists worried about its impact on the Delaware River. Dredging proponents say it will be a boost to the local economy.

Dredging the Delaware has scientists worried about the impact of climate change

The Drillboat Apache sits in the Delaware River near Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. From December 2015 to March 2016, the crew on this boat was blasting rock outcroppings on the river bottom. It’s one of the last stages of a controversial project to deepen the river’s shipping channel by five feet.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The Drillboat Apache sits in the Delaware River near Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. From December 2015 to March 2016, the crew on this boat was blasting rock outcroppings on the river bottom. It’s one of the last stages of a controversial project to deepen the river’s shipping channel by five feet.

The Delaware River is getting deeper thanks to a joint federal and state effort to dredge the shipping channel to make way for larger boats. It’s the culmination of a multi-million dollar project stalled for years by doubts over economic benefits and fears of environmental damage.

In the long fought battle over dredging the Delaware, environmentalists lost. They were worried about a laundry list of potential impacts to the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, oysters, horseshoe crabs, as well as what to do with all the potentially hazardous muck dredged from the river bottom. But there is one impact nobody at the time was talking about — climate change. Six years after the first shovels started scooping up the riverbed, reporter Katie Colaneri takes a look at how the deepening project could impact the health of the river, which provides drinking water for 16 million people.

 

Click here for more on our series about dredging the Delaware.

Invoking power of eminent domain, gas industry runs roughshod over private property

Elise Gerhart stands with a protest sign by an area of tree-clearing on her parents land.

courtesy of Elise Gerhart

Elise Gerhart stands with a protest sign after Sunoco crews cleared her family land of trees. Gerhart sat in a white pine tree while the tree-clearing happened around her. A continuing court case could not stop the tree cutting.

Pipelines criss-cross the countryside and lie scattered beneath the urban landscape. They bring us water, natural gas, gasoline. What if someone came knocking on your door wanting to put one through your front yard? That’s exactly what is happening across Pennsylvania right now, as pipeline companies use eminent domain to secure land from uncooperative landowners.

Our story begins with 29-year-old Elise Gerhart, sitting up in a white pine tree, on a platform she built about 40 feet high on her parents land in Huntingdon County. Chain saws roared around her.

“This is my home, you know, I grew up here,” Gerhart shouts down from her perch. My parents owned this place five years before I was born.”

Down below police officers were guarding work crews and arresting her mother on her own land.

This is eminent domain in action. The idea that the government can take land for the public good. That’s why we, the public, get to enjoy national parks, and drive on highways. One of the earliest enforcement of eminent domain by the federal government was used to expand the Gettysburg National Military Park. Continue Reading

Despite legal limbo, Pennsylvania continues work on Clean Power Plan

Pennsylvania has decided to continue working on the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, even though it's in legal limbo.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

Pennsylvania has decided to continue working on the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, even though it's in legal limbo.

President Obama’s major climate change initiative, the Clean Power Plan, is currently in legal limbo as federal courts decide its fate.  But Governor Tom Wolf’s administration has decided to keep working on it anyway.

The goal of the Clean Power Plan is to cut emissions from existing power plants by about a third over the next 15 years. It would mean closing hundreds of coal-fired plants and shifting the grid to more renewable forms of energy. Each state is supposed to come up with its own path to accomplish this.

At a recent legislative hearing Rep. Jeff Pyle (R- Armstrong) lamented the decline of the state’s coal industry and the layoffs workers have faced.

“I come from western Pennsylvania and it’s just breaking our hearts to watch 300 men at a time get shut down, because our coal plants can’t meet the Clean Power Plan,” said Pyle. “I also noted smoke signals coming out of the [Wolf] administration said, ‘We’re gonna go ahead and comply with this, even though the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.’”

Actually, that didn’t happen. The plan has not been declared unconstitutional.

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Philly’s energy hub: A renaissance for the Delaware Valley or a pipe dream?

A view of the Sunoco facility in Marcus Hook, Delaware County. Business leaders want to use Marcellus Shale gas to power an industrial renaissance along the Delaware River.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A view of the Sunoco facility in Marcus Hook, Delaware County where Marcellus Shale ethane travels to via the Mariner East pipeline. Business leaders want to use Marcellus Shale gas to power an industrial renaissance along the Delaware River.

The Delaware River had at one time supported a thriving manufacturing hub. Now a group of Philadelphia area business leaders want to bring that back through the use of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas. But turning Philadelphia into an East Coast “energy hub” may not be so easy.

On the surface it looks simple. Pennsylvania has a lot of shale gas. But the gas is not selling at high prices right now, forcing producers to slow down. Phil Rinaldi is chair of the Philadelphia Energy Action Team and CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the largest refiner on the East Coast. He’s the visionary behind the city’s energy hub.

“The reserves in the Marcellus are enormous and they’re trapped there because the market doesn’t exist to take those molecules away at a reasonable price,” he said.

Rinaldi wants to connect all those idle shale gas molecules with Philadelphia’s idle industrial waterfront property. Those sites are already linked to rail lines, and in some cases pipelines.

“You really create a series of businesses that cascade into other businesses that cascade into other businesses,” he said. “So it’s a question of getting that momentum started. Take that Marcellus where you have reserves you measure in centuries, and just basically move that reserve here.” Continue Reading

Philadelphia’s shale boosters want more pipelines

Workers unload pipes at a staging area in Worthing, S.D., for the proposed 1,130-mile Dakota Access Pipeline that would stretch from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to a hub in Illinois.

Nati Harnik / AP Photo

Workers unload pipes at a staging area in Worthing, S.D., for the 1,130-mile Dakota Access Pipeline that would stretch from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to a hub in Illinois.

The Philadelphia Energy Action Team, a group of business interests organized as part of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, says the key to turning the city into an energy hub is getting more pipes in the ground. The group released their report on revitalizing the city’s economy using shale gas Wednesday morning. A goal of the effort is to double the amount of natural gas and natural gas liquids used in the tri-state region each year from the current 3 billion cubic feet a day.

The 60-page report, “A Pipeline for Growth,” is a detailed look at how the Delaware Valley, which includes Southeast Pennsylvania, northern Delaware, and South Jersey, can capitalize on the abundance of Marcellus Shale gas, including methane, ethane, butane, and propane.

“What the Energy Action Team is, is a civic coalition,” Action Team chair Phil Rinaldi told StateImpact. “It is not a commercial entity. It’s not building a pipeline or a factory. It’s trying to build the kind of political impetus for getting that done.” Continue Reading

Pa. Supreme Court weighs major gas drilling laws

Test technicians Charles Young and Ethan Eckard use joysticks and touch screens to operate a Schramm drilling rig in West Chester, Pa. The oil and gas industry provides approximately 30,000 direct jobs in Pennsylvania.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Test technicians Charles Young and Ethan Eckard use joysticks and touch screens to operate a Schramm drilling rig.

Decisions on two major gas drilling cases are now in the hands of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Oral arguments were heard Wednesday in Philadelphia. One case includes unresolved issues from the 2013 Supreme Court decision Robinson v. Commonwealth, the controversial and wide ranging environmental ruling that struck down parts of the state’s oil and gas law, Act 13. Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation v. Commonwealth involves drilling on state forest land, and whether the legislature can use the proceeds for the general fund, instead of environmental protection as set forth in the oil and gas lease fund.

A decision on the PEDF case could have widespread impacts on cases that weigh economic development against environmental protection. That’s because the argument against channeling money from the oil and gas lease fund to the general fund relies on the Environmental Rights Amendment, or Article 1, section 27 of the state constitution. Continue Reading

DEP wants upgrades: ‘We do not have Wi-Fi’

The state Department of Environmental Protection wants to get iPads in the hands of inspectors.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The state Department of Environmental Protection wants to make some upgrades, including getting Wi-Fi, iPads, and faster internet.

Throughout Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom, state environmental regulators have been behind-the-times when it comes to technology.

As head of the state Department of Environmental Protection, Secretary John Quigley often complains that gas workers get to carry iPads in the field, while his staff is stuck with paper and clipboards. One of his top priorities is to bring the agency into the twenty-first century.

Nearly a decade after Apple launched the iPhone, DEP staff is just now getting permission to add apps to their government-issued iPhones.

This is good news for Scott Perry, who heads the agency’s Oil and Gas bureau. He says for example, inspectors at gas sites can now use apps to help them with their jobs.

“So our folks could put decibel meters on their phones and understand if they’re dealing with a noise problem,” says Perry.

Sitting in his office on the top floor of the Rachel Carson Building (DEP’s Harrisburg headquarters), he sees more positive changes on the horizon.

“We’re looking at putting Wi-Fi in this building,” he says. “We do not have Wi-Fi.”

DEP Secretary John Quigley says no one ever pushed for it before.

“There has been such a turning away from technology over the last decade in the agency because of budget cuts,” he says. “Just relentless year-after-year budget cuts.”

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Drilling downturn hits Marcellus Shale industry hard

rig

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale industry has been struggling in the face of low commodity prices.

The sound of humming drill rigs has been tapering off lately. It’s been happening for a while, but this year, the industry is going through a particularly rough patch. Drillers are laying off workers and cutting spending in the face of low natural gas prices.

 

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Ten stories from 2015 worth hearing again

The Hunlock Creek Power station outside Wilkes-Barre used to run on coal, and now runs on natural gas. It's part of a broader shift going on in the power grid.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

UGI's Hunlock Creek Power Station outside Wilkes-Barre used to run on coal, but now uses natural gas. It's part of a broader shift going on in the power grid.

As the year winds down, we’re taking a look back at some of StateImpact Pennsylvania’s best radio reporting. From a shifting power grid, to a pipeline building boom, and the ongoing state budget battle, we covered a lot of ground on the airwaves in 2015.

Take another listen:

POWER GRID

In a power shift, gas closes in on ‘king coal’

In Pennsylvania when you flip on a light switch, odds are you’re burning coal. But as the fracking boom continues to unlock huge quantities of natural gas, the electric grid is changing. Power plants are increasingly turning to this lower-cost, cleaner-burning fossil fuel. The shift is being driven by both market forces and new regulations.

 

Measuring the climate trade-off between coal and natural gas

President Obama’s plan to combat climate change relies heavily on replacing coal with natural gas as a way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide electric power plants pour into the atmosphere. But natural gas comes with it’s own climate problems.

 

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