Pennsylvania

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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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In a power shift, natural 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.

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As gas boom cuts into forests, scientists study how to put it back together

 

In the seven years since Marcellus Shale gas companies began working in Pennsylvania’s state forests, none of the nearly 1,700 affected acres has been fully restored and put back the way it was before drilling began.

Now state foresters and Penn State scientists are trying to plan for the future and help gas companies figure out the best ways to clean up after themselves.

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More pollution flowing into Chesapeake Bay than expected

Lisa Graybeal is a third generation dairy farmer in Lancaster County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Lisa Graybeal is a third generation dairy farmer in Lancaster County.

After decades of work and billions of dollars spent, a massive effort is still underway to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. In 2010, Pennsylvania and other states in the watershed began a new plan to restore the health of the bay—with the goal to fully implement pollution reduction practices by the year 2025.

But new data shows more nitrogen and sediment is running off into the bay than previously expected.

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Philadelphia’s mayoral race has candidates talking shale gas

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest oil refining complex on the Eastern seaboard. Half of all Bakken Crude traveling across the country by rail ends up at the PES plant.

Nat Hamilton/WHYY

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest oil refining complex on the Eastern seaboard. Half of all Bakken Crude traveling across the country by rail ends up at the PES plant.

On Thursday evening business leaders and local politicians gathered at Drexel University in Philadelphia to talk about exporting Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas from the Port of Philadelphia, and got an earful from activists. But the export terminal is just one idea inside of a larger vision to turn Philadelphia into an “energy hub,” an issue that continues to come up in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary race.

So, what is an energy hub?

Here’s what the energy hub aims to do in a nut shell.

Take advantage of all that abundant Marcellus Shale gas flowing out of wells in the northeast and southwest parts of the state, places like Susquehanna County, or Washington County. Send all that gas to Philadelphia, instead of spreading it out to places like New York or Canada, or the Gulf Coast.

And once all those billions of molecules of gas get to Philly, turn them into trillions of dollars.

To do that, say the hub’s boosters, simply use cheap gas to power new factories, turn that cheap gas into plastics, or liquefy it and sell it abroad for lots of money.

And yes, create good jobs.

The energy hub’s most powerful advocate is Phil Rinaldi. Rinaldi runs Philadelphia Energy Solutions. That’s the company bringing in all that crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota across the state, inching along the city’s railroad tracks in black tank cars.

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Are Marcellus drillers cheating the state? Agencies take a closer look

Pennsylvania has leased thousands of acres of public land for Marcellus Shale drilling. Now that the gas is flowing, the money is too. But state agencies are taking a closer look at whether they're getting paid properly.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

Pennsylvania has leased thousands of acres of public land for Marcellus Shale drilling. Now that the gas is flowing, so is the money. But state agencies are taking a closer look at whether they're being paid properly.

People who leased their land for Marcellus Shale drilling have been complaining for several years that some companies are cheating them out of gas royalty money.

It turns out the commonwealth of Pennsylvania is having the same problem. But the issue is so complex and convoluted, the state doesn’t even know how much money it’s owed.

“It’s complicated”

Gas drilling on state-owned land has sent hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties to Harrisburg. Private landowners have received millions more. But some companies have been accused of underpaying. Royalty disputes have led to several class action lawsuits and an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general’s office.

Towanda-based attorney Chris Jones says his clients don’t understand why the state hasn’t done more to protect them.

“Many times we’re being asked, ‘How come the state isn’t doing anything? How come there isn’t anything to stop what the gas companies are doing with our royalties–with our money?’”

Pennsylvania has its own problems– specifically two agencies managing drilling on public land: the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Game Commission.

“We’ve been conducting investigations for some time now,” DCNR chief counsel Richard Morrison told StateImpact Pennsylvania in January. “It’s an internal process. It’s complicated and will take some time.”

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Towns take on gas industry, at their own peril

Protestors of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline link arms before they are arrested by police for trespassing on private property in Conestoga, Pa.

COURTESY OF MICHELLE JOHNSEN

Protesters of the Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline link arms before they are arrested in Conestoga, Pa in January. They later pleaded guilty to trespassing charges.

Local governments all over the country are trying stop the surge in oil and gas development by embracing a novel legal tactic–community-based rights ordinances. It’s a strategy that carries risks.

In rural Conestoga Township, Lancaster County concerned residents want to stop a $3 billion interstate gas pipeline from coming through their community. Oklahoma-based Williams Partners Atlantic Sunrise project is one many proposed pipelines in Pennsylvania facing intense opposition. If approved, it would cut through 10 counties and carry Marcellus Shale gas as far south as Alabama.

As Williams prepares its formal application for federal regulators, Conestoga Township residents are fighting for more local control.

 

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Preparing for the worst, Delco first responders simulate oil train accident

Delaware County EMS personal try to find a way to get their vehicles to the site of an oil train incident during a practice run.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Delaware County EMS personal try to find a way to get their vehicles to the site of an oil train incident during a practice run.

The increasing number of rail cars carrying crude oil through Pennsylvania means a rising risk of accidents. Recent derailments caused trains to explode and incinerate areas along tracks in Illinois and West Virginia, threatening waterways. So far, Pennsylvania has been lucky. Within the past year and a half, oil trains traveling through the state derailed in Philadelphia, Vandergrift and McKeesport, but none of them exploded.

Back in the sumer of 2013, that wasn’t the case in the Quebec village of Lac Megantic, where an oil train crash killed 47 people. Five bodies were never recovered, having been incinerated.

Nationwide, oil train traffic has increased 4000 percent since 2008. And Philadelphia is a top destination for these trains, which haul millions of gallons of volatile crude oil from the Bakken Shale fields in North Dakota to area refineries each week. With the increase in oil train traffic from North Dakota, the Department of Transportation predicts an average of 10 of these trains will derail each year.

 

While activists and politicians push Philadelphia’s emergency planning operation to disclose their response plans, neighboring Delaware County has forged ahead with practice runs.

About 150 first responders, from local, state, and federal agencies gathered at the Lazaretto Ballroom in Tinicum Township Delaware County last week. The training exercise was for this new danger – crude-by-rail shipments. The room was full of uniformed first responders from some of Delaware County’s 80 separate volunteer fire companies. Continue Reading

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.

 

 

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is also a powerful greenhouse gas, which can be 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide within twenty years.  And with so many opportunities for unburnt methane to escape on its way from the wellhead to the power plant, those leaks could offset any benefits from burning natural gas instead of coal. Scientists have just begun to try to measure those leaks. One team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, spends their days chasing methane plumes. Continue Reading

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