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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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Despite drilling slowdown, rents still high in fracking boomtowns

64-year-old Ramona DiMassimo stands outside her new apartment in Williamsport. The 40-unit complex for people living on low incomes was funded through gas drilling impact fees. Although she's happy to have a place to live, she says many other people are still struggling.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

64-year-old Ramona DiMassimo outside her new apartment in Williamsport. The 40 unit complex for people on low incomes was funded through Marcellus Shale impact fees. Although she's happy to have a home, she says many people are still struggling.

The nation’s fracking boom has brought new jobs and wealth to many rural communities. But the abrupt highs and lows of the oil and gas industry can sometimes feel like whiplash for small cities and towns.

When it comes to housing, some people have been left out in the cold as drillers moved in and pushed up prices.

It’s happened here in Pennsylvania and in other shale plays around the country.

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Climate Change: The engineer’s dilemma

Chris Crockett, deputy commissioner of planning and environmental services for the city of Philadelphia's water department stands by the Delaware river at high tide.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Chris Crockett, deputy commissioner of planning and environmental services for the city of Philadelphia's water department stands by the Delaware River at high tide.

This week ministers from 190 nations will be in Paris to hammer out a treaty to cut carbon dioxide emissions. It’s a geo-political gathering aimed at staving off the worst impacts of climate change – including sea level rise. Predictions of how high and how soon oceans will rise keep changing. And that leaves town planners and local officials with a dilemma. They are the ones responsible for protecting their cities from rising tides and hotter summers. But there’s no seat at the table for them in Paris, and likely no help.

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Gas leaks: A hidden culprit for dead trees

Gas safety consultant Bob Ackley stands next to a dead tree across from the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Gas safety consultant Bob Ackley stands next to a dead tree across from the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Street trees can be especially vulnerable to pests, disease, and lack of water. But it turns out a hidden culprit could also be killing trees — gas leaks.

Here’s something most people who work for gas companies know, when you want to sniff out a leak check for dead or dying vegetation. Evidence for this dates back to the mid-1800′s when naturalists documented the connection between street gas lamps and dying trees, says Nathan Phillips, a tree physiologist and professor at Boston University.

“The causal mechanisms are most likely, primarily, oxygen deprivation,” said Phillips.  ”Roots need oxygen to grow and maintain themselves, and natural gas has no oxygen.”

But tree lovers take comfort, there is at least one guy who has made it his mission to save the trees from gas leaks.

 

“I call him the urban naturalist because he understands the visible indicators above ground of what’s happenening below ground,” said Phillips. Continue Reading

Déjà vu all over again: why the shale gas tax keeps flaming out

GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai

Courtesy: Roxburynews.com

At a June 2015 press conference, GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai voiced his opposition to a severance tax while reading directly from a booklet of talking points prepared by EQT, a major drilling company near his home district in southwestern Pa.

Over the years, both Republicans and Democrats in Harrisburg have wanted to raise revenue by passing a severance tax on Marcellus Shale drillers. Polls have consistently shown a majority of Pennsylvania voters support it. Last year, the idea helped propel Democrat Tom Wolf into the governor’s mansion.

But now, as Wolf and the Republican-led legislature struggle to reach a budget deal after a nearly five-month long standoff, the severance tax is once again off the table.

The tax has been debated since the shale boom took off, so why hasn’t it happened?

There are two main reasons: lawmakers who loathe raising taxes– and lobbyists.

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Talking methane rules, oil trains on WITF’S Smart Talk

A Cabot Oil & Gas drill rig nestled into the landscape in Kingsley, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A Cabot Oil & Gas drill rig nestled into the landscape in Kingsley, Pa.

President Obama’s latest effort to stem climate change includes new rules to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. The administration cut methane leaks from this sector by 40 to 45 percent by the year 2025. Methane is the second most common greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S., accounting for 10 percent of the country’s contribution of climate-altering gases. It’s a potent greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.

StateImpact Pennsylvania and Allegheny Front reporter Reid Frazier spoke with WITF’s Scott LaMar about the impact of the new regulations on Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry and environment.

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Scarnati says natural gas tax would cost Pa. 250,000 jobs

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, at Gov. Wolf's budget address in March.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, at Gov. Wolf's budget address in March.

More than a month into a budget stalemate between Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-led state legislature, the governor and Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati continue to spar over whether to tax natural gas drillers.

Scarnati, speaking on WITF’s Smart Talk Wednesday morning, implied a natural gas severance tax would cost the state 250,000 jobs–a figure deemed “inaccurate” by a Penn State economist.

When asked by Smart Talk host Scott LaMar about state polls showing support for a severance tax, Scarnati replied:

“It depends on how you read the poll. If you want to put 250,000 people out of work, ask the poll on that question. How’s that going to fare in polling?”

When a surprised LaMar asked Scarnati to confirm the large job loss figure, he replied the state already has a severance tax in the form of an impact fee, which brings in more than $200 million a year. Then Scarnati settled on a more generalized job loss scenario.

“If you’re going to take the plan this governor has proposed, you will put people out of work. Unquestionable, you will put people out of work.”

But Tim Kelsey, a Penn State economist who studies the impact of the industry on the state’s economy, questioned Scarnati’s claim.

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Unmapped, unregulated maze of rural pipelines poses hidden risks

Crews weld a pipeline the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Crews weld a pipeline from a wellhead in the Loyalsock State Forest.

The Wolf Administration says Pennsylvania will be getting tens of thousands of miles of new pipelines over the next couple of decades. Recently we reported on how poorly mapped some of these pipelines are.  Many of those unmapped pipelines are also unregulated. These are rural gathering lines, or pipelines that take the gas from the wellhead to a larger transmission line, or gas processing facility.

DEP Secretary John Quigley told StateImpact that he expects the industry to add 20-25,000 miles of gathering lines. Most of those lines will be in rural areas, the so-called “class one” lines, which no state, federal or local authorities oversee.

The Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration is looking at changing those rules. Linda Daugherty, a deputy associate administrator for field operations at PHMSA, told a room full of pipeline safety workers at a conference back in 2013 that the agency has been working on new rules, but the process was slow.

“What keeps me up at night? Gathering lines,” said Daugherty. ”This worries me. There are a whole lot of gathering lines out there in Pennsylvania that are not regulated.”

 

Daugherty said the slow pace of federal regulatory change had the agency begging states to take action. But so far, Pennsylvania hasn’t been one of those states.

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Pipelines’ paths remain a risky mystery beneath our feet

This story began with a simple task: Let’s make a pipeline map!

Everyone wants to know where all the new Marcellus Shale gas pipelines are or will be. The new proposals have been piling up.  Many have poetic names like Atlantic Sunrise, Mariner East, and Bluestone. There got to to be so many they started to get numbers: Mariner East I, Mariner East II.

Here at StateImpact Pennsylvania, try as we might, we couldn’t keep track of them all in our heads. We also wanted to map all the smaller lines, and the lines that may have been there for decades, which everyone tends to forget about.

The Wolf Administration estimates that 30,000 more miles of new pipelines will be built in Pennsylvania within the next two decades. So, where will they be?

This map of interstate pipelines currently running through Susquehanna County is all that's available to the public on PHMSA's website.

screenshot / Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration.

This map of interstate pipelines currently running through Susquehanna County is all that's available to the public on PHMSA's website.

Pipeline companies know exactly the routes for all the pipelines they maintain or plan to build.  But  they aren’t required to share that information with public.

Instead they release vague maps with colorful lines swooshing across Pennsylvania, showing where a proposed line might go.

We spoke with our resident map maker, who told us that wasn’t good enough. She needed geospatial data, the kind of thing that in this high tech digital world means plotting the line along its actual path, instead of just drawing a line that approximates the path.

We took a look at all the plans submitted for new pipelines, but they were just drawings, without data. We checked with the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), which has a national map of the major interstate pipelines. But again, just a drawing, no geospatial data available to the public, and by the way, don’t even try to do a right-to-know request.  Interstate pipeline maps are exempt from that in this post-911 world.

Then we contacted Mark Smith, who runs a map-making company called Geospatial Corporation. We told him what we wanted to do: map the web of pipelines beneath our feet.  He laughed at us.

“Well, it’s not universally mapped,” said Smith. “In fact it’s probably the last piece of infrastructure out there that’s not mapped.”

Wait, this stuff is highly flammable right?

“Yes.”

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Project would bring 400,000 tons of drilling waste to Pa.’s ‘Grand Canyon’

The Pine Creek Gorge in Tioga County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Plans call for 400,000 tons of natural gas drilling waste to be placed on a steep embankment near a tributary to the Pine Creek Gorge in Tioga County. The gorge is often called the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

As Marcellus Shale gas drilling has proliferated, so has the amount of waste it generates. Last year in Pennsylvania, over two million tons of drill cuttings were sent to landfills.

Cuttings are the waste dirt and rock that comes up from drilling wells. The material contains naturally occurring radiation, heavy metals, and industrial chemicals.

Over the past three years, a Montgomery County waste disposal company has found a novel way to avoid landfills, by processing and recycling drill cuttings. But critics argue it’s simply a way to avoid regulations.

Now plans to put the gas waste next to one of the state’s most pristine waterways have sparked a backlash.

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