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New York’s heralded fracking ban isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Roz Gitt from Warwick, New York, protests outside of the natural gas refinery in Wawayanda.

Kimberly Painter / WHYY

Roz Gitt from Warwick, New York, protests in front of the construction site for the new CPV natural gas plant in Wawayanda. The plant would run on Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale gas.

In 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a bold statement by banning hydraulic fracturing in the Empire State, declaring alongside his health commissioner that “no child should live near” a shale-gas well because of its potential harm.

The governor’s proclamation made him a hero among environmentalists and persona non grata in the oil and gas industry. Energy in Depth, an industry-funded website, criticized Cuomo for basing the moratorium on dubious science “to kowtow to Yoko Ono, Mark Ruffalo, and all of the environmental pressure groups in New York.”

In truth, though, the picture is murkier, and Cuomo’s ban is less than absolute. Moratorium notwithstanding, New York is still reaping the rewards of fracking, importing shale gas from neighboring Pennsylvania and preparing to process it in a mammoth power plant under construction 65 miles northwest of New York City.

Listen: New York bans fracking but gobbles up Pennsylvania’s shale gas, Susan Phillips, StateImpact Pennsylvania.

“It goes to the heart of the apparent irony that New York State would say, ‘No shale gas coming out,’ but we’re allowing any amount of shale gas into the state,” said Anthony Ingraffea, an engineer at Cornell University whose work has tied fracking to various environmental ills, including climate change. By his calculations, drillers outside the state would have to tap 130 wells each year, on average, to supply the plant with enough gas to operate. That translates into thousands of fracked wells over the 40-year lifetime typical for such a facility. Continue Reading

Severance tax could be close, but it doesn’t mean what it used to

Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state in the country without a severance tax. It’s been a hot topic in Harrisburg for nearly a decade. Now, as the year winds down, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and Republican legislators look like they might get a deal done on a modest severance tax.

Capitol Reporter Katie Meyer and StateImpact Pennsylvania reporter Marie Cusick have more on how this is all playing out.

Take a listen:

Special report: How the U.S. Government Hid Fracking’s Risks to Drinking Water

 

The two wells drilled on Bryan Latkanich’s property are among 1,655 that have been hydraulically fractured in Washington County since 2004.

Credit: Anna Belle Peevey

The two wells drilled on Bryan Latkanich’s property are among 1,655 that have been hydraulically fractured in Washington County since 2004. Latkanich is one of more than 4,000 Pennsylvania residents who have filed complaints with DEP, wondering if gas drilling impacted their water. Only 284 cases have been linked.

Most mornings, when his 7-year-old son Ryan gets up for school at 6:55, Bryan Latkanich is still awake from the night before, looking online for another home in some part of Pennsylvania with good schools and good water.

Six years ago, Latkanich signed on to let an energy company tap natural gas beneath his property by pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock formations, a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Soon after, Latkanich’s well water got a metallic taste, he developed stomach problems, and his son one day emerged from a bath covered in bleeding sores. More recently, Ryan became incontinent.

Listen: Life under the Halliburton loophole, Susan Phillips, StateImpact Pennsylvania

Testing by state regulators and a researcher at nearby Duquesne University showed the well water had deteriorated since gas extraction started but no proof of the cause. The state recently began another round of testing. Continue Reading

Big power plant ignites political fight in small Pennsylvania town

A wave of new gas-fired power plants is hitting the nation, with uncertain implications for the climate. The local consequences can be just as thorny.

Lackawanna Energy Center

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

At 1,485 megawatts the Lackawanna Energy Center is one of the largest natural gas power plants in the works nationwide.

JESSUP—The biggest new natural-gas power plant in a state awash with them is taking shape on a mountain ridge overlooking the community it cleaved apart.

First came questions about pollution and property values. Lawyers and public-records requests followed. Now this borough of 4,500, where it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that everybody knows everybody, is embroiled in a full-out political revolt.

Pro-plant incumbents up for election this year — two council members and the mayor — were booted in the May primary. A ticket organized by plant opponents boasts five people on the ballot in next week’s general election — candidates for all the open council seats and even school board director, which shows just how far the fault lines over the Lackawanna Energy Center extend. Relationships have been upended. Mistrust in local government has surged.

“It’s like a raw nerve,” said Ellen Nielsen, president of the school board.

Pennsylvania has long been a power-plant colossus, exporting electricity to other states because it makes more than it uses — historically with coal and nuclear. The Jessup plant is at the vanguard of a new boom fueled by the state’s plentiful natural gas.

Only Texas has more planned gas-fired generation in the queue, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Energy firms have proposed over 40 gas-fired projects in Pennsylvania since 2011, including in Jessup’s neighbor Archbald. Fourteen are under construction or operating. At 1,485 megawatts, Jessup’s Lackawanna Energy Center is one of the largest in the works nationwide, according to EIA data — part of a dramatic coast-to-coast expansion of gas-fired plants.

Developers have proposed more than 40 gas-fired power plants in Pennsylvania since 2011, spread around the state. Red icons on the map represent small projects using internal combustion engines. The plant-shaped orange icons represent larger, combined-cycle turbine projects. (Map by WITF’s Tom Downing.)

Map tiles by Stamen Design, under CC BY 3.0.

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How revoking the Clean Power Plan will impact Pennsylvania

Homer City Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Western Pennsylvania. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

Homer City Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Western Pennsylvania. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced Monday the EPA will formally propose to revoke the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s regulation for carbon dioxide from the electricity sector.

The decision could impact what kind of sources Pennsylvania uses to make electricity for decades to come.

The Clean Power Plan was the Obama EPA’s attempt to lower the electric sector’s greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide (CO2), by an estimated 32 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. Power generation accounts for about a third of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, which scientists say is the leading cause of global warming.

The plan gave states specific targets for reducing CO2. Pennsylvania’s target was a 33 percent reduction in emissions by the year 2030.

Former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection secretary John Quigley said the state was on the way to meeting the preliminary goals set under the plan, because it’s using more natural gas, and less coal. But he says revoking the Clean Power Plan could set the state back in ramping up renewable energy like wind and solar. Continue Reading

House assigns blame as budget talks crash; Wolf draws “line in the sand”

House Republican Leader Dave Reed blamed the Democratic caucus for the breakdown of negotiations. Democrats blamed the House Republicans.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

House Republican Leader Dave Reed blamed the Democratic caucus for the breakdown of negotiations. Democrats blamed the House Republicans.

The latest push to finish Pennsylvania’s late, unbalanced budget has melted down.

After several false starts, talks between House Democrats and Republicans dissolved into fights Wednesday over who’s at fault for the chamber’s inability to find consensus on a tax package.

Meanwhile Governor Tom Wolf declared himself “done” playing games, and unexpectedly announced he’ll balance a portion of the budget himself, by borrowing against future revenue from the state-controlled liquor industry.

Among the failures over the last three days of negotiations were Republican-proposed bills to tax warehouses and the hotel industry.

GOP Majority Leader Dave Reed blamed the letdown on a lack of Democratic votes–which he claimed amount to a betrayal by Democratic leaders, and by extension, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.

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Q&A: Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy discusses Pruitt, WOTUS, and Clean Power Plan

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at the National Press Club luncheon in Washington, Monday, Nov. 21, 2016.

Jose Luis Magana / AP Photo

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at the National Press Club luncheon in Washington, Monday, Nov. 21, 2016.

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says she’s not sad or depressed by the pronouncements now coming from the new administration on rolling back environmental protections. “I am filled with great hope for a number of reasons,” she said. “The core values that created EPA and led it to a really bipartisan support all of its 47 years of existence, still remains.”

McCarthy served as Obama’s EPA chief, replacing Lisa Jackson in 2013, and leading the efforts to tackle climate change. She spoke at the University of Pennsylvania this week. She was there to receive the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy’s annual Carnot prize and sat down for an interview with StateImpact Pennsylvania.

The morning of the interview, the New York Times published a story detailing the daily calendar of current EPA Administer Scott Pruitt, which showed he spends most of his time meeting and dining with industry executives, and virtually no time with public health and environmental advocates. We asked for her reaction to the story.

McCarthy: Well, I just know that I think the most important thing that I felt going into EPA was that the EPA is a public health agency. We have a responsibility to look at how we move the mission of environmental protection forward in a way that delivers clean air and water and land and a stable climate. And so it was my job, I felt, to sort of learn the issues, to sit down with the career staff, understand the history of the law, sit down with the scientists, understand the science, and then make the best policy judgments I could make after doing an enormous outreach, not just with the people who agreed with me, but to those that I didn’t agree and who wouldn’t agree with me, and with the business community as well as environmental constituents. That’s the job of government. Not simply to sit down with your own base and think big thoughts and have them congratulate you.

  Continue Reading

Philadelphia works to bring solar energy costs down to earth

Patrick Whittaker of Solar States installs solar panels on the roof of a home in Bryn Mawr.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Patrick Whittaker of Solar States installs solar panels on the roof of a home in Bryn Mawr.

Anthony LoCicero, a 33-year-old structural engineer raised in South Jersey, has been flirting with the idea of installing solar panels on his three-bedroom brick townhouse in South Philadelphia since he bought it, seven years ago.

“Something about it just sounds like the right thing to do in general, right?” LoCicero said.  “But it just never made financial sense.”

Although the price of solar panels has been dropping over the last five years, the cost of installing a solar system capable of producing most of the energy consumed by a Philadelphia row house still ranges between $10,000 to $30,000 — depending on the amount of energy consumed and the size of the house. But a city-wide solar program, with the goal of installing solar panels on 500 city rooftops by 2018, is currently offering below-market rates and other benefits, to entice homeowners.

“It was surprisingly inexpensive, I was pleasantly surprised,” LoCicero said after meeting with one of the three solar installers participating in Solarize Philly, a company called Solar by Kiss.

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Conflicting decisions on pipelines frustrate industry, landowners

Holleran

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Hundreds of Cathy Holleran's maple trees were cut down, through the use of eminent domain, for an interstate natural gas pipeline that's now stalled.

In March 2016, workers for one of the nation’s largest natural gas pipeline companies cut down a large swath of maple trees in Susquehanna County–a rural patch of northeastern Pennsylvania. A video shot by an activist shows the trees crashing down as chainsaws buzz.

Cathy Holleran was powerless to stop it. At the time, she was tapping the trees for her family’s maple syrup business, but the pipeline company condemned her land using the power of eminent domain.

Armed U.S. Marshals

Driving around a year-and-a half later, she’s still in disbelief. A court order had prevented her from interfering, and law enforcement officers came to protect the pipeline workers.

“We had to stay completely away. They brought armed U.S. Marshals with assault rifles and Pennsylvania State Police, and had guys walking all over property in bullet proof vests,” Holleran recalls. “I mean, really! We’re making syrup. What are we going to do? Are we going to go attack these guys?”

Walking through her property on a recent soggy September afternoon, Holleran finds tree stumps hidden beneath shoulder-high weeds.

“This used to all be woods– as thick as that,” she says, gesturing to a cluster of remaining trees.

By her count, she lost more than 550 maples, “I went through with my camera and took pictures from every angle and counted them by hand to make sure I was accurate.”

She says her family’s maple syrup business has been cut in half. But the real shame of it all, Holleran adds, is this may all have been for nothing.

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Pa. House narrowly passes a tax-free budget funding plan

House Democrats and Republicans held an intense Rules Committee hearing on the bill before sending it to the full floor. It saw several more hours of debate there.

Katie Meyer / WITF

House Democrats and Republicans held an intense Rules Committee hearing on the bill before sending it to the full floor. It saw several more hours of debate there.

The state House of Representatives has narrowly voted to move a budget plan built largely on one-time fund transfers.

Although it represents the first action on the overdue budget in well over a month, it’s unclear how much it’ll move the needle toward a resolution.

The Senate and the administration of Governor Tom Wolf both support a very different plan that raises several taxes–something the House majority wants to avoid completely.

Committee debate on the funding plan wasn’t just a study in contrasting ideologies between Democrats and Republicans–it was a study in contrasting facts.

House Democrats, like Minority Leader Frank Dermody, insist there needs to be more recurring revenue to balance the structural deficit (a budget shortfall that recurs year after year due to underfunding).

“There is no free lunch,” Dermody told his GOP colleagues in a committee meeting. “There’s no way out of this with smoke and mirrors, double-counting revenue and not coming up with real revenue. That can’t be done anymore.”

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