Energy. Environment. Economy.

EPA bans disposal of fracking waste water at public treatment plants

Waste Treatment Corporation in Warren, Pa.  faces legal action from regulators and an environmental group over discharges to the Allegheny River.

Courtesy of Clean Water Action

Waste Treatment Corporation in Warren, Pa. The EPA has banned oil and gas producers from using publicly owned treatment facilities to dispose of fracking waste.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has banned the disposal of hydraulic fracturing waste water at public sewage plants, formalizing a voluntary practice that removed most fracking waste from Pennsylvania plants starting in 2011.

The EPA on Monday finalized a rule that prevents operators from disposing of waste from unconventional oil & gas operations at publicly owned treatment works [POTW's].

The rule is designed to prevent the entry into public water systems of contaminants such as heavy metals, chemical additives and high concentrations of salt that are associated with fracking, and which public water systems are typically not equipped to treat. Continue Reading

Federal regulators get earful from pipeline opponents

Kim Kann

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

"This is a redistribution of my wealth directly into the pockets of Williams' executives and shareholders," says Kim Kann who lives along a proposed pipeline route."That is as un-American as it gets."

Federal regulators got an earful at an angry public meeting about a proposed natural gas pipeline in Lancaster County, which ended with the police showing up as protesters disrupted the proceeding.

About 350 people attended the meeting Monday night to give comments on the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline project to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Most of them were against the project.

The crowd repeatedly chanted, “Lancaster decides, not FERC! And Lancaster says ‘No!’”

After hours of public comments, pipeline opponents walked up on stage around 10:40pm and began singing, “Digging us a hole”– a song used to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline. No one was arrested.

“We wanted to try to control the message and let FERC know we will decide,” says pipeline opponent Tim Spiese.

The pipeline is being developed by Tulsa Oklahoma-based Williams Partners and has been in the works for over two years. It cleared a major hurdle from FERC last month, paving the way for the $3 billion expansion of the Transco pipeline system—which includes 10,000 miles of lines that move gas to utilities and power plants.

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As fiscal year ends, lawmakers weigh controversial energy and environmental bills


David Flores/ via Flickr creative commons license

As Pennsylvania's fiscal year ends there's a flurry of legislative activity around measures that could affect the energy industry and environmental issues.

Republican leaders in the Pennsylvania legislature are seeking approval of a clutch of bills that environmentalists say would dismantle protections against environmental damage by the state’s energy industry, make it harder for Pennsylvania to comply with the Obama plan to cut power-plant emissions, and hand more control over regulation to pro-industry lawmakers.

Industry groups and their allies say the measures are necessary to save jobs and protect Pennsylvania’s energy industry from over-reach by federal and state regulators.

Two of the bills passed a House committee and the full Senate this week. The votes come a few weeks after the departure in May of former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley, who environmentalists claim was forced to resign because he was too friendly to green causes.

Quigley has been replaced, at least temporarily, by Patrick McDonnell, a 19-year veteran of the DEP, who is seen as less likely to antagonize the energy industry, and perhaps the administration of Governor Tom Wolf, than his predecessor apparently did.

McDonnell told StateImpact Pennsylvania that he will seek the nomination, suggesting that he could become a permanent replacement for Quigley.

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In photos: the faces and places of the fracking boom

An unconventional drilling site is prepared in Butler County, Pennsylvania in the winter of 2014.

Scott Goldsmith

An unconventional drilling site is prepared in Butler County, Pennsylvania in the winter of 2014.

The story of the fracking boom in Pennsylvania and nearby states runs as an almost continuous narrative in the region’s press.

But covering the blow-by-blow of new drilling sites, protests, lawsuits and regulations is just one way to look at how fracking has changed the region. Back when unconventional natural gas drilling started gaining momentum, a group of photographers set out to gather a more personal perspective—by using photography to document the lives and landscapes that were being transformed by the drilling boom.

The Marcellus Shale Documentary Project has collected hundreds of images since, many of which are included in a new exhibition titled “An Expanded View.” Co-curator Laura Domencic says, in many ways, not much has changed since the project first started back in 2010: Health issues and the industrial footprint that fracking imposes on rural landscapes remain familiar themes.

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House panel approves measure to exempt conventional drillers from new regs

Dead vegetation around a conventional well site in Warren County indicates a possible brine spill.

PA Dept. of Environmental Protection

Dead vegetation around a conventional well site in Warren County indicates a possible brine spill.

A Pennsylvania House committee on Wednesday approved an amendment that would exempt conventional oil and gas activities from proposed regulations.

The House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee easily passed the amendment to SB 279, which creates a council to advise the Department of Environmental Protection on regulation to distinguish between conventional and unconventional oil and gas development.

The amendment, introduced late Tuesday by Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren) calls for the DEP’s proposed Chapter 78 regulations to be scrapped insofar as they apply to “conventional” oil and gas drilling, which is shallower than the “unconventional” Marcellus Shale development, which combines fracking with horizontal drilling to reach deeper deposits. Continue Reading

Acting environmental secretary expected to avoid ruffling feathers

Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell speaking at an event Tuesday in the Capitol Rotunda.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

"I'm just taking it one day at a time," says Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. "I'm hopeful I'll get the nomination."

Any secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection needs to combine technical and political skills to ensure air and water quality are being defended while navigating the often-conflicting agendas of the environmental and industrial communities.

Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell, a 19-year veteran of the department, took on what observers say is one of the state’s most challenging cabinet positions when he was named to replace John Quigley, who resigned on May 20 after only 16 months in office.

Quigley left following controversy over an angry email he sent to some environmental groups in April, which accused them of failing to exert a strong influence in Harrisburg. He sent it one day after lawmakers rejected new oil and gas regulations he had championed.

If Quigley, a former advocate with the environmental group PennFuture, seemed too close to the green community, observers expect his successor to chart a smoother course through the turbulent waters of Pennsylvania’s energy politics.

Rob Altenburg, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, and a former colleague of McDonnell’s at the DEP, said the new acting secretary has long experience of technical issues ranging from fracking to pipelines and carbon emissions, as well as of senior administrative roles such as budgeting, and is likely to take a less adversarial position than Quigley did.

“Secretary Quigley would probably be more predisposed to be very vocal on the issues,” says Altenburg. “He came from a background where, in addition to politics, he did quite a bit of advocacy whereas Patrick McDonnell is coming from a background of more government administration, so he will probably take a different approach.”

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Shell says giant ethane cracker plant will go ahead near Pittsburgh

Shell has given the final go-ahead for its ethane cracker in Beaver County.

AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Shell announced it will build a multi-billion dollar ethane cracker in Beaver County.

The oil giant Shell on Tuesday gave the final go-ahead for construction of a major petrochemical complex in western Pennsylvania where ethane from the Marcellus and Utica shales will be used to make ethylene for the manufacture of plastics.

The long-awaited multi-billion-dollar plant will be built in Potter Township, Beaver County, about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Shell said in a statement from its unit, Shell Chemical Appalachia LLC.

The location was chosen because of its proximity to gas supplies, creating shorter and more reliable supply chains than those for comparable facilities on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and because it will be within 700 miles of North American polyethylene customers, the company said. Continue Reading

Don’t frack the rich? Comment puts focus on environmental justice

Shirley and Bill Eakin stand in front of their water buffalo in their backyard in Washington County. The retired couple lives on about $27,000 a year. They haven't been able to drink their well water since gas drilling began eight years ago. Without conclusive evidence linking the gas development to the water problems, they have been buying their own and receiving donated bottled water.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Shirley and Bill Eakin of Washington County stand in front of their 2,500 gallon water buffalo. The couple lives on $27,000 a year and has not drank their well water since 2009. Without conclusive proof linking their water problems to the gas industry, they buy their own water and receive donated bottled water.

At a recent legal forum in Harrisburg, a prominent natural gas industry executive suggested his company tries to avoid drilling near rich people.

“I was infuriated when I heard it,” says Patrick Grenter, of the environmental advocacy group, the Center for Coalfield Justice. ”I was sitting with some colleagues and I said to them, ‘Did he really just say that?’”

Terry Bossert of Range Resources had suggested the company tries to avoid putting its wells near big houses where people may have the financial means to fight them. A few weeks later, after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette got wind of the remark, Bossert issued an apology.

He said he’d made a mistake by attempting to “interject dry sarcasm” at the event. Neither Bossert nor Range Resources would comment for this story.

But his remark put a renewed focus on the issue of environmental justice—meaning it’s often poor and marginalized communities who end up bearing the brunt of industrial development.

In Pennsylvania an Environmental Justice (EJ) zone is defined as a census tract where at least 20 percent of people live in poverty and/or at least 30 percent of the population is minority.

Grenter thinks that’s a good place to start.

“We do think those are two significant indicators that need to be valued,” he says. “But we think the discussion should be bigger.”

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Fellow Democrat blasts Wolf on environmental issues

Rep. Greg Vitali (D- Delaware) at a 2013 rally in the Capitol Rotunda. Vitali says he is "greatly disappointed" by Governor Tom Wolf's recent parting of the ways with his environmental secretary, John Quigley.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Rep. Greg Vitali (D- Delaware) at a 2013 rally in the Capitol Rotunda. Vitali says he is greatly disappointed by Governor Tom Wolf's recent parting of the ways with his environmental secretary, John Quigley.

One of the state legislature’s most vocal environmentalists is criticizing Governor Tom Wolf for failing to support tougher regulations for Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry.

The attack is coming a member of his own party—the minority chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, Rep. Greg Vitali (D- Delaware).

“You can’t expect continued support if you’re not sticking up for the environment,” Vitali says of the governor. “I don’t think the people remaining in Wolf’s top echelon really prioritize the environment.”

Vitali held a press conference Monday at the Capitol with other environmental supporters, and says he believes the pending regulations for the state’s conventional oil and gas drilling industry are now “on the chopping block.” He says so far, Wolf has refused to commit to supporting them.

Vitali also accuses the administration of lying about the recent sudden departure of John Quigley, who headed the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“With regard to Secretary Quigley, [Governor Wolf] has disappointed me greatly,” says Vitali.

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PennFuture urges township to scrap gas-drilling ordinance

PennFuture is challenging a local ordinance that allows gas rigs like this in all zoned districts.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

PennFuture is challenging a local ordinance that allows gas rigs like this in all zoned districts.

An environmental group is challenging a zoning ordinance that allows gas drilling throughout a southwest Pennsylvania township, arguing that the measure is unconstitutional, and violates a state Supreme Court ruling that struck down part of the state’s controversial Act 13 oil and gas law.

PennFuture says the ordinance by Mount Pleasant Township in Washington County violates the right to due process under the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions, and prevents residents from enjoying clean and air and water as required by the state Constitution, because it permits gas drilling in all seven zoned districts.

The environmental group sent a legal notice on May 27 to the township’s zoning hearing board, which approved Ordinance 105 Chapter 200 in 2006 after Pennsylvania’s first Marcellus Shale gas well was drilled in the township by Range Resources. Continue Reading

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