Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Judge cancels jury award to Dimock families; orders new trial

Dimock resident Scott Ely at a protest in 2012. A judge overturned a jury award for him and other Dimock plaintiffs.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Dimock resident Scott Ely at a protest in 2012. A judge overturned a jury award for him and other Dimock plaintiffs.

A federal judge on Friday struck down a jury’s award of more than $4 million to two Pennsylvania families who claimed their well water was contaminated by gas drilling, saying the award bore little or no relationship to the evidence presented at the 2016 trial.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin Carlson of the Middle District of Pennsylvania ordered a new trial of the case brought by the families in Dimock, led by Scott Ely, who said at the original trial that their water had been contaminated since 2008.

The verdict in March of 2016 was hailed as a major victory by critics of the gas industry, who argued that the rural community of Dimock was a poster child for the hazards of shale gas development.

But the judge, in a 58-page opinion released late Friday, reversed the award of $4.24 million against Cabot Oil & Gas which the jury determined had been negligent in its extraction of natural gas in the community. Continue Reading

PJM says more natural gas power generation would not hurt reliability

Grid operator says reliability of electric supply to facilities like this sub-station in Vermont would not be hurt by an expected increase in use of natural gas by generators.

Toby Talbot / AP Photo

Grid operator says reliability of electric supply to facilities like this sub-station in Vermont would not be hurt by an expected increase in use of natural gas by generators.

The reliability of electric power supply in the U.S. northeast and mid-Atlantic states would not be hurt if generators burned more natural gas and renewables or if the recent decline in coal and nuclear generation continues, the operator of the nation’s biggest electric grid said on Thursday.

PJM Interconnection, which operates the grid serving some 65 million people in 13 states, released a study on the impact of declining coal and nuclear power markets to electric reliability.

It concluded that the expected mix of fuels, including coal, natural gas and renewables, that generators are expected to use at least until 2021 will result in high reliability.

Some measures of reliability may drop with a projected future decline in the use of coal and nuclear but would not be hurt even if natural gas use surged as high as 86 percent of a generator’s portfolio, according to the report, titled “PJM’s Evolving Resource Mix and System Reliability.”

While the lack of diversity shown by a heavy reliance on natural gas would not hurt reliability, it could hurt resilience, or the system’s ability to withstand adverse events like big storms, the report said.

It found there were limits to the amount of wind and solar that can be used for reliable generation. “Significant” increases in the use of those two renewables would hurt reliability but generators could still use “unprecedented” amounts of the fuels as long as the rest of their mix came from reliable sources, the report said. Continue Reading

DRBC considers new fish rule to mark gains in water quality

The Delaware River near Morrisville, Pa.: Could water quality see further gains under a DRBC proposal to boost fish populations?

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

The Delaware River near Morrisville, Pa.: Could water quality see further gains under a DRBC proposal to boost fish populations?

Water quality in the Delaware River estuary has improved over the last few decades to the point where regulators are considering adding the breeding of fish to a list of designated “uses” for that section of the river.

The Delaware River Basin Commission will hold a public hearing on April 6 to discuss its proposal to include fish propagation in the official uses of a 38-mile tidal stretch of the river between Philadelphia and Trenton.

The river’s current uses, as defined by the commission in 1967, are limited to the “maintenance” or survival of resident fish, and the passage of migratory fish, both reflecting the low levels of dissolved oxygen and a heavy load of pollution that characterized the river in past decades.

Since then, pollution has declined from industry, sewers, and so-called non-point sources such as lawn runoff, allowing oxygen levels to rise, and helping fish populations recover. Continue Reading

State sues townships that tried to ban injection wells

FILE: Residents packed a 2014 Highland Township supervisors' meeting on injection wells.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvvania

(FILE PHOTO): Residents packed a 2014 Highland Township supervisors' meeting on injection wells.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is suing two rural townships that attempted to block underground disposal wells for oil and gas wastewater.

On Monday DEP approved two new injection well permits in Highland Township, Elk County, and Grant Township, Indiana County. In its public announcement, the agency didn’t mention it was filing a lawsuit against the townships the same day.

DEP spokesman Neil Shader says the department isn’t trying to retaliate against the townships, rather it wants the court to rule on what takes precedence– state law, or the townships’ home rule charters, which explicitly ban injection wells.

“We filed the petitions to get clarity,” says Shader. “We’re just really targeting these specific parts of their home rule charters that deal with the underground injection wells.”

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In Pennsylvania, Trump’s climate order met with anger and relief

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, third from left, and Vice President Mike Pence, right, is applauded as he hold up the signed Energy Independence Executive Order, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at EPA headquarters in Washington.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, third from left, and Vice President Mike Pence, right, is applauded as he hold up the signed Energy Independence Executive Order, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at EPA headquarters in Washington.

Governor Tom Wolf’s administration says it is still committed to combating climate change in Pennsylvania, despite an executive order signed Tuesday by President Donald Trump aimed at undoing the Clean Power Plan– the signature climate initiative of the Obama administration.

Department of Environmental Protection Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell called Trump’s action “disappointing,” saying the state is already experiencing the effects of climate change.

“The changing climate is the most significant environmental threat facing the world, and emissions from the United States are a significant cause,” McDonnell says in a statement. “Pennsylvania has already experienced a long-term warming of nearly two degrees over the past century, and this trend is expected to accelerate. Ignoring the problem will only make conditions worse for our communities and economy and environment in the future.”

The Clean Power Plan sought to reduce U.S. emissions by 30 percent by 2030. States were told to craft plans to hit their own specific targets. As the nation’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide and fifth-largest coal producer, Pennsylvania would have had to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 32 percent.

Trump’s executive order does not address the 2015 Paris climate accord– a landmark agreement by the world’s governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the president is seeking to unwind other Obama-era climate initiatives including a recent federal moratorium on coal leasing, and a measure requiring federal agencies to consider climate change within their rule-making processes. Trump also wants to examine the “social cost of carbon”– which places a dollar amount on carbon emissions.

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Environmental justice will be focus of statewide ‘listening tour’

A natural gas rig in Washington, Pa.

AAP Photo/Michael Rubinkam

A natural gas rig in Washington, Pa.

Environmental regulators are launching a statewide “listening tour” next month, focused on environmental justice.

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. The idea is to protect people in marginalized communities, who often get stuck with a disproportionate share of industrial development in their backyards.

“We want to move beyond just the census tract boundaries and make sure we’re really considering the needs of people and the role of public participation,” Carl Jones, director of DEP’s Office of Environmental Justice said in a statement. “We want to ensure that communities and regulated entities are connected and communicating.”

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Wagner keynotes for natural gas advocates in Harrisburg

Scott Wagner, a Republican state senator from York County and owner of trash hauling firm Penn Waste, is running for governor. (FILE)

AP Photo/Marc Levy

Scott Wagner, a Republican state senator from York County and owner of trash hauling firm Penn Waste, is running for governor. (FILE)

Over a dozen county commissioners from Pennsylvania’s northern tier are working to organize around an issue that directly impacts their constituents: natural gas drilling.

Organizers said Harrisburg often neglects the interests of its more far-flung counties. They described their keynote speaker as someone who’s gone against that trend– York County Republican senator and gubernatorial hopeful, Scott Wagner, has supported natural gas drilling since he was elected.

Wagner noted repeatedly that this wasn’t a campaign event, though that didn’t stop a few speakers from remarking that it would be nice to have a governor who would reduce regulations on the gas industry.

Amid his calls to get pipelines flowing, Wagner did take the opportunity to lay out some policy proposals–and try out some catchphrases.

“There’s a huge difference between an active environmentalist and an environmental activist,” he said, using a line he reiterated multiple times. “I love the outdoors, I grew up around the outdoors, I love fishing–I am in favor of drilling on state lands.”

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Pennsylvania OKs new injection wells for oil and gas wastewater

FILE: Oil-field workers tend to American Energy-Woodford's Judge South well in November 2014 well shortly after the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered it temporarily shut-in.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

FILE PHOTO: Oil-field workers tend to American Energy-Woodford's Judge South well in November 2014 well shortly after the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered it temporarily shut-in.

Pennsylvania environmental regulators have approved two new underground injection wells to take in wastewater from the oil and gas industry.

Pennsylvania already has six active injection wells, according to Scott Perry, who runs the Office of Oil and Gas Management at the state Department of Environmental Protection. He says new injection wells are needed as gas drilling activity has slowed. In busier times, the wastewater was often reused in the next well.

“Pennsylvania has been leading the nation, if not the world, in recycling flowback water,” says Perry.

The two new injection wells will be operated by different companies. Seneca Resources will have a well in Elk County, and another will be run by Pennsylvania General Energy Company in Indiana County. Both have faced significant pushback from the local municipalities.

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Judge throws out challenge to DRBC authority over gas drilling in basin

Opponents of any plans to  drill for natural gas in the Delaware River basin welcomed a judge's defense of the DRBC's authority to regulate oil and gas development.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Opponents of any plans to drill for natural gas in the Delaware River basin welcomed a judge's defense of the DRBC's authority to regulate oil and gas development.

A federal judge dismissed a challenge to the Delaware River Basin Commission’s right to regulate oil and gas development in the region.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Mariani on Thursday threw out a lawsuit by a group of Wayne County landowners who said the commission, an interstate regulator, lacks the authority to review and approve natural gas facilities on land owned by the group. Continue Reading

Amid criticism, utility regulator walks back ‘jihad’ remark

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson.

Pa. PUC

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson.

One of Pennsylvania’s top utility regulators is walking back controversial remarks he made about pipeline opponents at a gas industry conference this week.

Speaking at the Upstream PA conference Tuesday, state Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson said people opposing pipeline projects are engaged in a “jihad” to keep natural gas from reaching new markets.

He now says using the word was inappropriate.

“I used the word “jihad” while characterizing the actions of individuals who have engaged in threatening or disruptive behavior: interrupting public meetings, preventing officials from speaking, harassing federal and state regulators along with their families, and otherwise attempting to halt the public discussion about important infrastructure projects,” Powelson writes in an emailed statement. “In retrospect, that was an inappropriate choice of words.”

Powelson is reportedly being considered by President Donald Trump for an appointment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has oversight of interstate energy projects. Last year activists showed up at FERC commissioners homes to protest their approvals of pipelines.

On Thursday, Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council called for Powelson’s resignation.

“Mr. Powelson used a racially charged term, ‘jihad,’ to not only appeal to the natural gas representatives in the audience, but also to the Trump administration which he is hoping to work for as a commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” Clean Air Council executive director Joe Minott said in a statement.

“It is just unacceptable that a regulator would have such disregard for public concern,” says Minott.

Others echoed similar concerns and accused Powelson of bias.

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