Archive for the 'FrackTrack' Category
So, for those of you who were curious about how Governor Tom Corbett plans to proceed with regard to the Rendell Administration’s moratorium on Marcellus Shale drilling in certain state parks and forests, you now have something close to concrete information. This is from an AP story published Tuesday:
Calling it redundant, the Corbett administration on Saturday killed the policy, which had been written in October under former Gov. Ed Rendell.
But that’s misleading: Corbet hasn’t repealed October’s much-discussed moratorium on Marcellus Shale drilling in certain state parks and forests; he moved “to quietly rescind a recent state policy to minimize the impact of natural gas drilling on public state park and state forest land where the state doesn’t own subsurface mineral rights drew considerable and perhaps unwanted attention.” Which is a slightly different policy.
Does that clarify things for you? Even if it doesn’t, the distinction between the two similar policies — and between “repeal” and “quietly rescind” — might not even matter.
In yesterday’s Inquirer, a Corbet spokesman said the administration wants to get rid of the moratorium, too:
Spokesman Kevin Harley said the governor believes there should be drilling on publicly held lands, and called former Gov. Ed Rendell’s moratorium a political move made on the heels of the legislature’s failure to enact a tax on natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale formation.
So if you’re planning on doing any camping in Pa. state parks, now may be the time to do it.
For more background, check out Isaiah Thompson’s cover story about Ed Rendell’s “plot to pillage Pennsylvania’s forests, consequences be damned,” and, more recently, his post about why the moratorium is mostly meaningless anyway.
Over the weekend, I received an email from some anti-fracking activists alerting me to two incidents of spilled fracking materials which, although different, share at least a few things in common: they invovled discharge of unknown amounts of unknown concentrations of toxic materials; they went entirely unobserved by the companies responsible; and they appear to have resulted from distubringly inept practices.
Dateline Lycoming, Co., PA: About two weeks ago, a DEP inspector visited a hydraulic fracturing well pad maintained by XTO Energy to find a valve on a wastewater tank open and spewing watsewater, some 13,000 gallons of it (according to the company), straight into the ground. The inspector was able to close the valve himself/herself.
According to the Department of Environmental Protection, a local tributary was impacted as well as a freshwater spring.
The company has yet to explain why the valve was open.
Dateline Hughesville, PA: In early October, local police were alerted to reports of a truck carrying fracking fluids β not wastewater, apparently, but raw chemicals β that was leaking.
In an article in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette β the only paper in Pennsylvania to cover the incident, as far as we can tell βΒ local police chief Jason Gill said the spill might extend “35 or 40 miles.”
As to what, exactly, had been spilled, no one seemed to know. “It’s not hazardous at al,” assured police chief Gill, “until it mixes with water.”
According to Gill, the “freak accident” resulted when a strap holding in place several 100-gallon containers of chemicals broke lose and punctured one of the containers.
Sounds like a pretty strong container, doesn’t it?
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Pennsylvania State Police announced yesterday that a crackdown on trucks hauling wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations yielded the following results: of 1,175 trucks inspected, 1,057 were found to be violating state laws.
To put it another way: 89.96% of all Marcellus Shale wastewater trucks were breaking the law and, until yesterday, getting away with it.
It gets better:
207 trucks had violations severe enough that they were removed from service.
52 drivers were removed from service.
The most common problems, says yesterday’s press release, were “unsecured loads and inoperable vehicle lights and lamps”β not exactly comforting, considering that these trucks “loads” are highly-toxic (and possibly radioactive) water.
Fracktrack is CP’s ongoing coverage of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania. For updates, bookmark this link or join our Google Group to receive email notifications.
At a press conference in Penn Treaty Park yesterday, Governor Rendell signed an executive order placing a moratorium on leasing more state forest land for natural gas drilling.
This author did readers the disservice of calling the event “a huge victory for environmental groups.” That is simply not the case.
In fact, Rendell’s order marks a largely-symbolic act, delivered too late to make much of a difference and only after the governor himself authorized several leases of state forest for drilling, over repeated warnings from his own forestry officials to the potential impact to Pennsylvania’s award-winning forests of doing so.
(In fact, after being warned against leasing a proposed 40,000 acres of forest in 2009, Rendell doubled the request to the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, asking for 80,000 acres instead).
Rendell’s power to enforce this executive order ends the moment he ceases to be an executive β I think we’ve got about 80 days.
Efforts to impose a meaningful moratorium on further forest leasing have to happen in the state legislature, where a small core of environmentally-minded legislators β among them Democratic House representatives Greg Vitali (above, far left) and Dave Levdansky β have fought a so-far losing battle to protect the sensitive forest land that hasn’t been leased.
The key part of this equation is a decades-old provision in state law known as the Oil and gas Lease Fund, masterminded by longtime forest steward Maurice Goddard who is legendary for reviving Pennsylvania’s forests during his tenure from coal and gas industry-devastated wastelands to some of the most expansive forests east of the Mississippi.
The law said this: if you lease forest land for oil & gas exploration, you put the profits of the lease back into the forests. The law not only allowed forest stewards to balance competing interests in the forests, but β most importantly β prevented the governor and legislature from using the state’s forests as one big, green slush fund for their own budgets.
That precedent held for more than fifty years until, under Rendell’s leadership, it was broken: last year, the state legislature raided the Oil & Gas Lease Fund for the state budget β largely in order to plug the hole left by Rendell himself when he backed down on imposing the tax on gas production that now, as a lame duck governor, he finds himself begging from a legislature with its eyes on the next executive.
What’s more, an obscure provision in the FY09-10 fiscal code imposed a cap on the amount of money the DCNR may take in from gas royalties β effectively stealing for the state money that was suppoed to be earmarked for conservation, recreation, and new projects.
As DCNR’s budget gets slashed year after year, the agency, rather than using the proceeds of gas drilling in its own forests for the restoration or expansion of forestland elsewhere, is increasingly forced to use that money just to fund its basic operations.
In a few words: the DCNR is increasingly becoming dependent on hand-outs from the legislature, whose members increasingly demand forest land for drilling as a condition for those hand-outs. If nothing changes, those charged with protecting our forests will increasingly be forced to sell them off.
Without new laws in place this β more than any moratorium β will be Rendell’s lasting environmental legacy.
According to several sources, Governor Rendell is preparing to sign an executive order imposing a moratorium on further leasing of state forest land for Marcellus Shale gas drilling at a rally at Penn Treaty Park in Philadelphia tomorrow afternoon.
The Governor’s press office would not comment but told CP to expect a press advisory about the event within the hour.
This announcement marks a huge victory for environmental groups and so-called Green Dog legislators, and an about-face by the governor, who β as CP reported in an online series entitled “The Marcellus Memos” and feature story, “Drill Baby Drill,” β pointedly ignored the advice of former Department of Conservation and Natural Resources secretary Michael DiBerardinis, who warned that further leasing of state forest:
“will damage our State Forest landscape. It would scar the economic, scenic, ecological, and recreational values of the forest β especially the most wild and remote areas of our state in the Pennsylvania Wilds. Your years of work and investments in rural economic revitalization through outdoor experiences in the Pennsylvania Wilds could be erased.”
(Rendell did, however, heed the advice of senior aide K. Scott Roy to hold off on imposing a tax on natural gas extraction; Roy promptly quit to work for the gas industry.)
Current DCNR Secretary John Quigley has since voiced similar warnings. Recently, DCNR published a study of the impact of current and further leasing on state forest land, emphasizing that any further leasing would cut into protected and sensitive forest land:
Using an example from Northern Pa., the report shows how this piece of state forest looks after you subtract land already leased, and land which cannot be leased without posting serious threats to the sustainability of the forest:
An email obtained by City Paper suggests collaboration between the state Department of Homeland Security and gas drilling interests.
The email, authored by Pennsylvania Homeland Security chief James Powers, was written in apparent error: addressed to a participant in anti-drilling forums, the letter indicates that Powers mistakenly mistook its recipient for someone associated with pro-drilling interests.
In the email (full text below), Powers warns against distributing information gathered by the Pa. DHS on anti-drilling activities, saying that: “We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies.”
The “support” he speaks of consists at least partly of confidential updates on anti-drilling activists and activities. A report yesterday evening by nonprofit investigative journalism outfit Pro Publica broke the news that the Pennsylvania Dept. of Homeland Security included in its regular newsletter, the Pennsylvania Intelligence Bulletin, descriptions of various activities and gatherings of activists opposed to gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
Included in a list entitled “Dates of interest” are a series of local meetings about gas drilling issues β a drilling ordinance in Cranberry County, a hearing in Damascus, Pa. on zoning regulations β as well as the recent screening in Philadelphia of the “controversial Gasland movie,” a documentary by filmmaker Josh Fox on the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.
City Paper emailed Mr. Powers to confirm authenticity of the email and was contacted instead by Governor Rendell’s chief spokesman Gary Tuma, who acknowledged that the email was authentic and said that the Pa. Dept. of Homeland Security was sharing such information with certain local interests β including gas drilling companies β because of “recent acts of vandalism” against drilling operations.
“There have been five acts of vandalism against Marcellus Shale drilling facilities,” in the last two weeks, he said, “including two of which involved firearms … shotguns fired at equipment.”
A third incident involved theft, he said after being asked for details, and the other two were “minor incidents.”
Tuma added that “There have been peaceful protests related to MS drilling by people who oppose drilling and the increased amount of drilling β certainly no one is trying to restrict the rights of peaceful protest conducted within the parameters of the first amendment.”
Asked whether there have been any protests that were not peaceful, Mr. Tuma acknowledged, “There have not been any that I’m aware of.”
The full text of the email appears below:
For Your Information & Situational Awareness
Just a short note of clarification regarding the intent of the PIB. The information provided to you via the PIB is not for dissemination in the public domain. As indicated in the caveats on the first page, the PIB is solely meant for owners/operators & security personnel associated with our critical infrastructure & key resources.
Although an internet forum is certainly a great way to spread the word and receive input from forum participants, it’s still in the public domain and thus be accessed by both pro and anti-natural gas drilling folks.
Please assist us in keeping the information provided in the PIB to those having a valid need-to-know; it should only be disseminated via closed communications systems.
Thanks for your support. We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies.
James F. Powers, Jr. | Director
Office of Homeland Security
2605 Interstate Drive | Suite 380
Harrisburg, PA 17110-9382
717-651-2715 | Cell: 717-307-5335
CP’s breaking news and analysis of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania. Click here to join the “Frack Track” Google group and receive email updates.
This isn’t quite breaking news β it’s been covered by a few papers in western Pa. and I mentioned it brieflyΒ in a recent “Man Overboard” column β but it’s gotten surprisingly little play in the media, considering the severity of the claims being made.
The Allegheny Defense Project, a grassroots group dedicated to preserving the environment, ecology, and wilderness of the Allegheny mountains, has charged the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection with illegally permitting water withdrawals.
Here’s the breakdown: Hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation underlying much of Pa., requires water βΒ lots and lots of water. In eastern and central Pennsylvania (the Delaware and Susquehanna river basins, respectively), that water can be drawn from Pa streams and rivers only with the permission of that watershed’s river basin commission.
But in the part of western Pa. which lies in the Ohio River Basin, there is no basin commission to permit water withdrawals. Instead, argues the ADP, those rivers and streams are governed by riparian rights: governed, in other words, by the property owners themselves.
The group charges that DEP has been illegally giving drilling companies permission to withdraw water β charges which they outlined in a letter to DEP Secretary John Hanger (download the full letter here).
According to Board Director Bill Belitskus, the DEP β more than a month later β has yet to respond.
From the Allegheny Defense Project press release:
βThe fact is, the DEP has absolutely no authority to permit water withdrawals in Pennsylvania,β said Cathy Pedler, ADPβs forest watch coordinator.Β βOutside of the Delaware and Susquehanna River watersheds, water withdrawals are governed by riparian rights common law, which means only those who live adjacent to the water can make reasonable use of the water on their land.Β A gas company cannot take water that flows through property it does not own.β
Nevertheless, documents obtained by ADP reveal that the DEP is unlawfully authorizing water withdrawals from western Pennsylvania streams and rivers.Β On March 31, 2010 the DEP approved a Water Management Plan for Hanley & Bird, Inc.Β The Water Management Plan allows Hanley & Bird to withdraw 1.44 million gallons of water a day from the Redbank Creek in Jefferson County for five years.
What to say? The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has said it all:
A Monroeville drilling company could tap natural gas beneath 15 cemeteries in Allegheny and Washington counties under a lease signed by the Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the association’s director said Tuesday.
The association leased nearly 1,060 acres of cemetery land in 2008 to Huntley & Huntley Inc., including the 200-acre Calvary Cemetery in Hazelwood, which City Councilman Doug Shields called “ground zero” in the debate over whether natural gas drilling should be permitted in Pittsburgh
In case you missed that last phrase: “the debate over whether natural gas drilling should be permitted in Pittsburgh,” β it is, in fact a debate and a distinct possibility: Pittsburgh, unlike Philadelphia, is located on top of the Marcellus Shale and the drilling industry is moving in quickly to begin drilling within city limits.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Communications Secretary Neil Weaver quietly left his post on Friday, according to an “Out of Office” email CP received Monday morning.
Mr. Weaver joined the Department in 2007 and became press secretary in 2008. Recently, he was handling a great deal of Marcellus Shale-related information for the press β in which capacity I exchanged several emails and phone calls with him (He was, just to put it out there, quite cordial, responsive, and helpful).
It’s not unusual that as the Rendell administration winds down, we’re seeing higher-ups leave their posts for positions in the private sector. But it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye on where they’re winding up β especially given the recent spate of officials leaving the Rendell administration to work in natural gasβ after that administration was exceedingly friendly to and well-financed by that industry.
So where did Mr. Weaver go? We don’t know. Do you?
DEP spokesman and acting Press Secretary Tom Rathbun said only that:
“Neil has gone to work for a private firm that is not involved in the OilΒ & Gas industry,” and that “It is a public relations position and not related to lobbying.”
CP’s ongoing coverage of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania. Email us for regular updates, or use this handy link to the Clog’s “fracktrack” category.
While a state House bill, sponsored by state Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), that would ban further leasing of state forest for Marcellus Shale gas drilling lingers in the state Senate, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has quietly supplied supporters of the bill β and, for that matter, opponents and those undecided β with new data showing the impact of current drilling, and the potential impact of any more drilling on state forest land.
“There are proposals, that the governor is supporting, to have a moratorium on additional leasing of state forest land. What we wanted to do is make accessible to the public the thinking about the future of leasing of state forest in [that] context,” DCNR Secretary John Quigley told me over the phone today.
Quigley says the idea is to show “that there are limits to the amount of leasing that can be sustained β and that we’re probably there.”
They’ve posted a small mountain of highly-technical documents β much more than I can sift through on my own. So, readers: help yourself and please report back anything you find that seems worth reporting β either by email, or by posting a comment below.
That said, the feature presentation β a 46-page .pdf slide show β gets the main point across: Using a map of the state’s forests, the presentation shows a step-by-step layering of drilling sites and potential drilling sites along with factors that DCNR says should render land ineligible for drilling β like sensitive and wild areas and areas identified as “priority” forest patches.
In other words, take this patch of forest in northern PA
Now take out everything already leased and which cannot sustainably be leased, and you get this:
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has just released its report on the explosion of a Marcellus Shale drilling well in Clearfield County. You can view it here.
I haven’t had time to look it over yet, so stay tuned: but your input, readers, is always welcome and needed. Email tips, suggestions, etc.
In other news: opinion being divided over whether to keep “FrackTrack” or find another name, we’re delaying action until next week.
Introducing our new series “Fracktrack” β ongoing coverage of the Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry in Pennsylvania. Copy or bookmark this link to check for future updates or send us an email for notifications.
When Harrisburg passed a state budget two weeks go, the legislature included in that budget a theoretical tax on the production of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania β theoretical, because the tax still doesn’t exist, except in theory: the details have yet to be worked out, and the gas industry, unsurprisingly, is lobbying hard for concessions.
Last Friday, I began hearing rumors that chief among those concessions desired is the power to implement “forced pooling,” β essentially, the power to force reluctant landowners to lease or open their land for drilling, whether they want to or not.
Sure enough: this weekend, the Scranton Times-Tribune reported that two state representatives β Marc Gergely, D-35, Allegheny County, and Garth Everett, R-84, Lycoming County β have co-sponsored a bill which would do just that.
The piece quotes Kathryn Klaber of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, explaining that the law’s intent is to ensure that gas development is “not a crazy quilt” and adding that, although models for such laws exist in other state, the Marcellus Coalition has “not found another state’s pooling statute that stands out as a model for what they would like to see in Pennsylvania.”
Meanwhile, a (very) cursory examination of Pennsylvania campaign finance records by CP shows that both representatives sponsoring the bill have received contributions from the gas industry:
Rep. Gergely received at least $6,000 from Allegheny Energy PAC in two donations last summer, at least $1,500 in donations β including $1,000 donated just a few months ago β from Chesapeake Energy Corp, one of PA’s largest drilling companies.
Rep. Everett received donations from Chesapeake also: a $500 donation and two tickets to the Phillies, worth (according to Everett’s campaign) $140.
A letter, headed up by the Campaign for Clean Water and signed by more than a dozen representatives of environmental groups is calling on the legislature to oppose so-called “forced pooling”:
Forced pooling not only will require landowners to sign leases they do not want to sign, but it does this for the sole purpose of the gain of a private entity.Β Some landowners have decided they do not want to lease their mineral rights after deliberative consideration.Β The oil and gas industry would like the General Assembly to overturn the landowners’ decisions.Β This essentially extends the concept of eminent domain but instead of using private property for the public good, it takes private property for private gain.
The recent explosion of a Marcellus Shale mine β only the latest and worst in a series of spills, leaks, well contaminations, and other environmental damage resulting from the hydraulic fracturingΒ (“fracking”) method of gas drilling in Pennsylvania β seems to finally have got some of our representatives questioning the pace at which fracking is allowed to develop in this state.
So far, that pace has been as fast as possible, damn the risks β as evinced by the more than one thousand environmental violations racked up against the industry in just the last two years, including more than a hundred spills, according to Department of Environmental Protection documents reviewed by the City Paper.
But it looks like the pressure to keep that pace fast β or increase it β is mounting in the wake of the BP spill, which has investors looking at the natural gas below Pa. with new attention.
A couple of days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Chesapeake Energy β a major player in hydraulic fracturing here β is selling stock in its company like hotcakes:
“Chesapeake Energy Corp. said it has sold $900 million in preferred stock to a group of private investors, including Asian sovereign wealth funds, cashing in on heightened interest in onshore energy following the BP PLC offshore drilling disaster.
Turns out, Chesapeake isn’t the only Marcellus Shale company cashing in on increasing thirst for this region’s gas. Reports the Motley Fool:
The increasing presence of Asian funds clearly comes as interest in natural gas ratchets higher worldwide. Other deals have involved India’s Reliance Industries forking over $1.7 billion in April to Atlas Energy (Nasdaq: ATLS) in exchange for a sizable position in the Marcellus Shale. Also, two months earlier, Japan’s Mitsui paid $1.4 billion for about a third of Anadarko’s (NYSE: APC) Marcellus holdings.
With this kind of global pressure to keep drilling, it becomes even more important to ask whether our state officials, legislators and the increasingly beleaguered regulators both, will be able to keep this industry in check β or whether it’s time for a federal agency like the EPA to take this thing over. (Currently, fracking is exempted from federal oversight by a loophole in the energy bill masterminded by former V.P. Dick Cheney).
Josh Fox’s film “Gasland” β an expose on deep well natural gas drilling (hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”) β airs tonight, 9 PM Eastern, on HBO. Among other fascinating tidbits, the film includes footage of a homeowner in Dimock, Pennsylvania lighting his water on fire, a feat made possible by the migration of methane into his well supply after many of the small town’s residents leased land for drilling.
If you’re just catching up on the issue, Pennsylvania has become a unique test case in what happens when the gas drilling industry rushes headfirst into a state with (even the head of our Department of Environmental Protection has acknowledged) insufficient regulation in place.
The rush is due to a unique geologic formation known as the Marcellus Shale, which lies below much of the state. (Click here for more of our coverage of Marcellus Shale drilling.)
In light of tonight’s airing, and as state lawmakers actively consider harsher regulations, a few sobering stats:
- Well permits issued so far in 2010: 1,272
- Number of permits denied, returned, or withdrawn, 2010: 15, or 1.2%
- Drilling applications submitted to DEP since 2005: 4,248
- Drilling applications denied, returned, or withdrawn since 2005: 58, or 1.3%
- Number of violations found in 2009: 638
- Number of violations recorded so far in 2010: 421
- Number of violations for illegal/improper “discharge” of toxic materials 2010: 58
|Photo | Isaiah Thompson
Lots of Marcellus Shale news lately. (Click on that link for our “Marcellus Shale” tag β you can feed directly to it if this stuff interests you).
Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved new regulations aimed at protecting Pennsylvania surface waters from potential impacts of drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The regulations can still be challenged by the House or Senate environmental resources committees, but given Governor Rendell’s support of these measures, it seems unlikely.
Probably most significant is a limit on Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) β salty chlorides and sulfides β in discharged fracking water.
Lest the gentle reader think a stream’s “saltiness,” isn’t a big deal, check out the contamination and massive fish kill that resulted from elevated TDS levels in Dunkard Creek in western Pennsylvania.
Interestingly, Marcellus Shale Coalition executive director Kathryn Klaber issued a statement yesterday saying rather inexplicably that the standards would “not provide any additional environmental benefit.”
While environmental watchdog groups like Penn Environment and Clean Water Action praise the new rules, they point out that these regulations don’t cover other toxic discharges β like carcinogens benzene and arsenic.
“This rule is about setting a discharge standard, but we don’t have that for chemicals,” Myron Arnowitt, PA State Director for Clean Water Action, told me over the phone. “There are contaminants being discharged in Marcellus Shale wastewater that there need to be more standards for.”
Erika Staaf, Clean Water Advocate for Penn Environment, agreed, pointing me to a report authored by the Environmental Working Group’s Dusty Horwitt, who reports that gas companies may be regularly injecting “toxic petroleum distillates” β which contain benzene β into wells:
Companies that drill for natural gas and oil are skirting federal law and injecting toxic petroleum distillates into thousands of wells, threatening drinking water supplies from Pennsylvania to Wyoming. Federal and state regulators, meanwhile, largely look the other way.
These distillates include kerosene, mineral spirits and a number of other petroleum products that often contain high levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen that is toxic in water at minuscule levels. Drillers inject these substances into rock under extremely high pressure in a process called hydraulic fracturing that energy companies use to extract natural gas and oil from underground formations.
Ready for the really scary quote?
In a worst case scenario, the petroleum distillates used in a single well could contain enough benzene to contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of drinking water to unsafe levels, according to drilling company disclosures in New York State and published studies. … That is more than 10 times as much water as the state of New York uses in a single day.