Energy. Environment. Economy.

Wolf’s budget proposal plus renewed private investment could give solar a boost

n this undated photo provided by Tami and Randy Wilson, solar panels are installed on the Harrisburg, Pa. home of the Wilson's. When their utility announced a 30 to 40 percent rate increase, the Wilsons installed solar panels which provided their 1,500 square foot ranch home with all of its needs. Between the monthly utility savings, government subsidies, solar renewable energy certificates and carbon credits, the Wilson's expect to pay off their $58,000 solar system in six years.

Tami and Randy Wilson / AP Photo

In this undated photo, solar panels are installed on the Harrisburg, Pa. home of Tami and Randy Wilson.

Solar energy has taken a back seat to shale gas in Pennsylvania in recent years. But it’s getting renewed attention, thanks in part to a proposal from Governor Tom Wolf and new legislation aimed at funding the lapsed Pennsylvania Sunshine Solar, a rebate program for homeowners and small businesses. Investment from a large solar service provider could also bring more of this renewable energy, plus jobs, to southeastern Pennsylvania.

More than 33,000 Pennsylvania homes get their power from the sun, yet the state lags behind its neighbors in New York, New Jersey and Ohio, according to nonprofit The Solar Foundation. It doesn’t fare much better when it comes to jobs in this sector, offering just 2,800 compared to more than 7,000 in both New York and New Jersey.

State Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware) said making this alternative energy more of a priority demands a two-fold approach: Relaunch Sunshine Solar and up the percentage of energy that companies like PECO must provide from renewable sources. “The Pennsylvania requirement is low relative to other states,” Vitali said. “Increasing our Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard would help.”

Vitali introduced House Bill 100 in February that would raise renewable energy requirements from 8 percent to 15 percent by 2023. He also authored House Bill 200, which puts $25 million a year toward Pennsylvania Sunshine Solar. Continue Reading

Wolf’s environmental chief questioned on gas tax, new drilling rules

Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley took questions from lawmakers at a House budget hearing Wednesday.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley took questions from lawmakers at a House budget hearing Wednesday.

Governor Wolf’s pick to head the state Department of Environmental Protection spent much of Wednesday afternoon defending the new administration’s proposed gas drilling policies at a state House budget hearing in Harrisburg.

John Maher (R- Allegheny) began by questioning acting DEP Secretary John Quigley about why the administration quickly disbanded the agency’s Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board (TAB).

Shortly after dismissing the board, the agency issued new, more stringent draft regulations for the oil and gas industry. A newly formed TAB is scheduled to meet next week to review the changes for Marcellus drillers. Maher asked Quigley who the TAB members are and questioned whether they’d have enough time to review the rules.

Quigley said he wasn’t sure who the new members are.

“You’ve talked many times about integrity and transparency,” said Maher, who was recently appointed chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy committee. “What I’ve seen in this case doesn’t exhibit either.”

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Pennsylvania DEP trying to forge new strategy for pipelines

Crews weld a pipeline the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Crews weld a new pipeline in the Loyalsock State Forest.

John Quigley, Acting Secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection, says he wants to try to incorporate planning strategies for what some say is now a maddening and chaotic rush to build new natural gas pipelines across every county in Pennsylvania.

“We’re not under any illusion to reduce impact to zero,” Quigley told StateImpact. “There’s going to be impact but are there opportunities to plan smarter? Share rights of way for example? Can companies work together to optimize development? I don’t know the answers to those questions but I think they’re worth asking.”

Quigley says he wants to get the pipeline companies, and local authorities to sit down together at the table and start a conversation. It would be completely voluntary. That’s because states don’t have authority when it comes to large interstate pipeline construction. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, makes decisions on pipelines. Rules and regulations are set by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, or PHMSA. But Quigley says the companies so far have responded enthusiastically. Grassroots opposition to new pipeline projects has reached a fevered pitch in some parts of the state, in part due to the fact that local authorities have little to no impact on the projects and local residents have expressed frustration with trying to influence the FERC process.

“We’re not contemplating any additional regulatory action or regulatory grab,” said Quigley. “This is about having a conversation to see if we can facilitate this whole development process in a way that makes sense for everybody.” Continue Reading

Large reserve of Utica Shale gas could lie beneath state forest land

Marcellus Shale wells flare in Tioga County. When a test well is drilled and there are no pipelines to carry the gas, the gas is burned.

Scott Detrow/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Marcellus Shale wells flare in Tioga County. When a test well is drilled and there are no pipelines to carry the gas, the gas is burned off and then the well is shut in.

Tapping the Utica Shale in north central Pennsylvania could become the state’s next natural gas drilling boom, at least once the pipelines get built. Seneca Resources has announced the successful completion of a well on state forest land in Tioga County. Seneca, a subsidiary of National Fuel Gas Company, says its test well generated 22.7 million cubic feet of natural gas daily.

National Fuel Gas Company CEO and President Ronald J. Tanski praised the results in a release, saying the development could lead to more Utica Shale gas drilling on state forest lands in Tioga County and other parts of the state.

“This well, along with wells drilled by other operators in the area, have de-risked the Utica potential of our 10,000 acres on DCNR Tract 007. We estimate resource potential on this tract alone of approximately 1 trillion cubic feet. With these strong results in hand our team is evaluating options to develop this acreage in the next few years, depending on local gas prices and pipeline take-away capacity. We have additional Utica potential not only in Tioga County, but across much of our large Pennsylvania acreage position. Our next Utica exploration well is planned for fiscal 2016.”

One trillion cubic feet is a lot of untapped natural gas. But right now, that test well is shut in because there’s no pipeline infrastructure in that part of the state to take it to market. Tioga County is one of the most remote parts of Pennsylvania, and includes the prized “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” popular with hikers and campers. The 10,493 acres of forest land where the Seneca test well lies was leased to the gas producer by the Rendell Administration back in 2010 for $48,530,125. So far, that DCNR lease has not seen much development.

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With new draft rules, DEP steps up oversight of drilling waste

Impoundment pond

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

An impoundment pond in the Tiadaghton State Forest.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is planning to increase its oversight of oil and gas drilling waste.

The department issued new draft regulations which would ban the use of temporary waste storage pits and require drillers to either shut down or upgrade large centralized wastewater impoundment ponds.

The waste rules are among other changes to DEP’s Chapter 78 oil and gas regulations, which have been in development since 2011. In December 2013, the process was opened up for public comment. The department held nine public hearings around the state and received more than 24,000 comments.

Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley says the revised regulations will be opened up for another 30-day comment period later this spring. He expects the rules to be finalized by 2016.

“Our goal is to be thoughtful, deliberate, and transparent,” Quigley told reporters on a telephone press conference Monday. “This is not an end point but a beginning for discussion.”

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Sunoco backs down in pipeline zoning fight

This graphic shows Sunoco's two natural gas liquids pipelines, the Mariner East 1 and the proposed Mariner East 2.

Courtesy: Sunoco Logistics

This graphic shows Sunoco's two natural gas liquids pipelines: the existing Mariner East 1 (blue) and the proposed Mariner East 2 (red).

Philadelphia-based Sunoco Logistics has withdrawn a request with the state Public Utility Commission to circumvent local zoning in order to build pump and valve structures along its 300- mile Mariner East 1 natural gas liquids pipeline.

Late last year Mariner 1 partially came online, and it’s already shipping propane across the state. Approximately 15 pump and valve control structures are needed along the route to keep the liquids flowing. These facilities faced a backlash from environmental groups and communities that were upset Sunoco attempted to bypass local zoning. In October the PUC affirmed the company has “public utility” status and the pipeline is not subject to zoning– however the structures housing its pump stations could be subject to zoning.

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Pipeline opponents target Drexel University

A natural gas pipeline runs through Lycoming County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A natural gas pipeline runs through Lycoming County.

Academics are now getting caught up in mounting opposition to Pennsylvania’s pipeline building boom. Twenty local anti-fracking and pipeline opposition groups have signed off on a letter calling on Drexel University to distance itself from an economic analysis of the PennEast pipeline published by the Philadelphia-based Econsult and Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business. The groups say the study is more of a marketing ploy than an objective academic treatise.

Their letter is addressed to Drexel University president John Fry:

“This analysis provides a distorted economic analysis of the PennEast Pipeline project that demeans your institution and damages your credibility as an academic institution interested in providing good quality training and education to students seeking to secure a high quality and credible economic education.”

A consortium of companies behind the proposed PennEast pipeline commissioned the study, which found the project would generate $1.62 billion for the Pennsylvania and New Jersey economies during the construction phase. It also projects design and construction of the pipeline would support 12,160 jobs and pay about $740 million in wages. Econsult released a similar analysis several weeks ago, projecting $4.2 billion in economic benefits for Pennsylvania from the Mariner East pipeline project. Continue Reading

Wolf’s budget would restore bulk of funding for Delaware River Basin Commission

A view of the Delaware River from Morrisville, Pa.

Kim Paynter / WHYY

A view of the Delaware River from Morrisville, Pa.

In a reverse from the previous administration’s budget, Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed plan would restore much of Pennsylvania’s share of funding to the Delaware River Basin Commission. Former governor Tom Corbett had slashed in half Pennsylvania’s contribution to the multi-state commission in last year’s budget. Corbett cut the DRBC’s funding while maintaining funds to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. Some speculated that the move was retribution for the DRBC’s continued moratorium on natural gas drilling in Pike and Wayne counties, which lie within the commission’s jurisdiction. Corbett was unsuccessful in convincing other members of the DRBC to lift the moratorium on gas drilling in the basin.

Wolf’s budget proposal includes $750,000 for the DRBC, a 73 percent increase over last year’s funding.

“We welcomed the news because it means we’re heading in the right direction from what we experienced the previous year,” DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert told StateImpact. “But that’s still subject to the legislature.”

The Delaware River Basin Commission oversees water quality for the length of the Delaware river, and until New York Gov. Cuomo’s decision to ban fracking, the DRBC stood as one of the most cautious regulatory bodies when it comes to shale gas drilling. It’s governed by a compact signed back in 1961 by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government to protect the drinking water supplies for millions of residents of those states dependent on the river. Continue Reading

Under Wolf plan, conservation agency will still rely on gas royalties

A natural gas rig in the Tioga State Forest. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources manages drilling on public land and has become increasingly reliant on gas royalty money in recent years.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

A natural gas rig in the Tioga State Forest. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has become increasingly reliant on gas royalty money in recent years.

Under the budget proposal Governor Wolf unveiled Tuesday, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will continue to rely heavily on natural gas royalty money to fund its general operating expenses.

“Over the past few years, we saw a significant reduction in the amount of our budget supported by the General Fund,” says DCNR spokeswoman Chris Novak. “As that number went down, our draw from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund went up significantly.”

The Oil and Gas Lease Fund is supported by drilling royalty money. Wolf’s budget would make the department slightly less reliant the fund, but it would still make up over a third of its $342.6 million proposed budget.

Novak says DCNR’s dependence on royalty money makes its budget less stable.

“This is a first step to reverse that direction,” she says of Wolf’s plan. “We are restoring $20 million from the General Fund.”

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Wolf budget includes $100K for Marcellus Shale health registry

In his budget plan unveiled Tuesday, Governor Wolf proposed a $100,000 funding increase to the state Department of Health to create a registry to monitor people who live near natural gas drilling sites.

After New York State banned fracking late last year, citing public health concerns, Wolf said he planned to create a registry to monitor health complaints in Pennsylvania. States with significant oil and gas development handle public health issues differently. Colorado currently maintains an online public database of drilling-related complaints.

Public health advocates are encouraged by Wolf’s plan, but say $100,000 is not nearly enough money. Dr. Ruth McDermott-Levy teaches public health at Villanova University.

“It’s seed money to get a health registry started,” she says. “But to consider the long term health impacts, then more money is going to need to be committed.”

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health said details about how the registry would work have not been determined yet.

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