Environmental protection takes a significant hit

Published: August 16, 2012

State environmental regulators told The Associated Press last year that they spend as little as 35 minutes reviewing each of thousands of permit applications for natural gas wells, even though the environment surrounding each well is unique to that site.

Gov. Tom Corbett’s reaction? That’s not fast enough.

After cutting the DEP budget by more than $20 million during his first 18 months in office, the governor issued an executive order July 24 that will pressure DEP personnel to quickly complete their reviews, regardless of conditions on the ground. It requires the DEP to set specific deadlines for DEP decisions and makes compliance with those deadlines part of the employees’ performance evaluation standards.

DEP’s appropriate mission, of course, is environmental protection rather than mere speed. The governor would have the agency treat all complete permit applications alike even though each location has unique environmental features.

Even under existing procedures, DEP staffers told the AP, evaluators did not spend extra time on applications to drill near fragile waterways that have specific state and federal protections.

The order is curious in several ways.

It rescinds an executive order issued in 1995 by Gov. Tom Ridge, under which the DEP refunded permit fees to applicants if the agency did not review applications within a set time period. Since then, the DEP has refunded a tiny portion of application fees.

According to the governor, he acted because the complaint “I have received over and over again is the time it takes for businesses, nonprofit organizations and governments to work through the permitting process.”

What one hears, of course, is a function of to whom one listens. Corbett listens very intently to the gas industry, especially since his insistence on vast tax breaks for a gas-based Shell petrochemical refinery in Beaver County that will require an array of environmental clearances. His hearing relative to the environmental impact of drilling has been far more selective. Corbett’s executive order would be more appropriate for an economic development agency, but that is not the legitimate mission of the DEP. The order is a back-door means to diminish environmental protection.

Webinar to explore court decision on Marcellus gas development

The Corbett Administration has appealed the Commonwealth Court ruling on the Marcellus natural gas law, Act 13, to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State Extension [ http://extension.psu.edu/ ] will host a Web-based seminar on Aug. 9 exploring the ramifications of the recent court decision that struck down part of the state’s recently passed law governing Marcellus Shale natural-gas development.

Titled “A Blow to Act 13?: The Impact of the Commonwealth Court’s Decision on Local Zoning and Natural Gas Development in Pennsylvania,” the one-hour webinar will begin at 1 p.m. Free and open to the public, the session will be of special interest to municipal officials and attorneys.

Attorney Steve Saunders with Saunders Law LLC in Scranton will provide an expert’s view of traditional zoning in Pennsylvania and oil and gas development before and after Act 13. He will cover the legal arguments presented to the Commonwealth Court and explain the court’s rationale for its decision.

Saunders also will examine possible outcomes resulting from the court ruling and advise how local governments might react, according to David Messersmith, extension educator based in Wayne County, who will moderate the online discussion.

“Our main goal for the webinar is to clear up any misconceptions that people have about the court decision and to help them understand what their future course of action might be regarding Marcellus gas development,” he said. “We want to clarify what the court decision really means.”

Because the Commonwealth Court ruling was appealed by Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration to the state Supreme Court in late July, municipal officials and others face considerable uncertainty about its immediate impact on natural-gas development, Messersmith said. He noted that Saunders will address possible outcomes from the appeal.

“There are a lot of people who are interested in natural-gas development, and the Marcellus play impacts such a wide segment of the population — from business owners to local government officials to citizen stakeholders — so we believe that this program will be of interest to many,” he said.

The webinar can be viewed at https://meeting.psu.edu/pscems/. No registration is necessary. For more information, contact Carol Loveland at 570-320-4429 or by email at cal24@psu.edu.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Pa. health care company seeks gas drilling facts

May 20, 2012

Some people are absolutely sure gas drilling threatens public health, while others are absolutely sure it doesn’t.
Geisinger Health Systems is looking for more facts on the debate.

“Our concern is getting reliable data so we know what to do for our patients,” said David Carey, director of Geisinger’s Weis Center for Research in Danville, Pa.

Geisinger serves many patients who live in areas that have seen a recent boom in Marcellus Shale gas drilling. The gas-rich formation thousands of feet underground has generated jobs, billions of dollars and concerns about possible environmental and public health impacts from thousands of new wells.

“There’s a real need for reliable information for policymakers,” Carey said, yet some of the debate on the issue has been more emotion-driven than science-driven.

“Lack of data has not led to a lack of opinion,” Carey noted.

But with state and federal budgets under intense pressure, there hasn’t been much money available for serious medical research. Then over the last year, executives at Geisinger realized they had a big head start.

“We have a very long history of caring for patients in this region,” Carey said, noting the company serves 2.6 million patients and operates hospitals, clinics, and an insurance program in 44 north central and north eastern counties. That means they have vast troves of health care data, concerning everything from cancer to car accidents to asthma attacks.

“We can map the clinical data in both space and in time,” Carey said, meaning they can compare health in areas with gas drilling to similar areas where it isn’t happening.

Carey said the company isn’t presuming anything about the issue, though it is aware of both concerns and the economic value of the shale boom.

“Our position is, let’s collect the data and find out,” he said.

It may fall to private companies to do some of the work.

Until a few months ago, Pennsylvania public health officials had expected to get a share of the revenue being generated by the state’s new Marcellus Shale law, which is projected to provide about $180 million to state and local governments in the first year.

But representatives from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s office and the state Senate cut the health appropriation to zero during final negotiations, so now the state Department of Health is left with a new workload but no funding to examine whether gas drilling impacts health.

Many federal and state regulators say hydraulic fracturing is safe when done properly, and that thousands of wells have been drilled with few complaints of pollution. But environmental groups and some doctors assert that regulations still aren’t tough enough and that the practice can pollute groundwater and air.

The claims and counterclaims have been so extreme that some health experts feel the fear and confusion that’s been generated among the public is a problem by itself. Bernard Goldstein, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, said experience has shown that patient trust is a key component in health care.

Goldstein said Pitt is also looking at ways to use health care data to answer questions about gas drilling and possible public health impacts.

Despite all the controversy over the issue, Carey hopes Geisinger can stay above the fray.

“To the extent possible, we’re trying to stay clear of any political land mines,” he said.

“We see this unfolding in phases. I could see a batch of early studies that might focus on some diseases. Asthma is a good example,” he said, since people with that disease would be very sensitive to possible changes in air quality due to gas drilling.

Geisinger hopes to issue some preliminary results of its data analysis within the next year, Carey said, while other aspects of the research will unfold over five, 10 or 15 years.

Drilling law hurts health, docs say


Published: April 12, 2012

PITTSBURGH – Public health advocates and doctors on the front lines of Pennsylvania’s natural-gas-drilling boom are attacking the state’s new Marcellus Shale law, likening one of its provisions to a gag order and complaining that vital research money into health effects was stripped at the last minute.

Doctors say they don’t know what to tell patients who suspect their ailments are related to nearby gas industry activity because of a lack of research on whether the drilling of thousands of new wells – many near houses and drinking-water supplies – has made some people sick.

Yet when legislative leaders and the governor’s office negotiated the most sweeping update of the state’s oil and gas law in a quarter century, they stripped $2 million annually that included a statewide health registry to track respiratory problems, skin conditions, stomach ailments and other illnesses potentially related to gas drilling.

Just last week, the Department of Health refused to give The Associated Press copies of its responses to people who complain that drilling had affected their health. That lack of transparency – justified in the name of protecting private medical information – means the public has no way of knowing even how many complaints there are or how many are valid.

Studies are urgently needed to determine if any of the drilling has affected human health, said Dr. Poune Saberi, a University of Pennsylvania physician and public health expert.

“We don’t really have a lot of time,” said Saberi, who said she’s talked to about 30 people around Pennsylvania over the past 18 months who blame their ailments on gas drilling.

Working out of public view, legislative negotiators also inserted a requirement that doctors sign a confidentiality agreement in return for access to proprietary information on chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process.
Read more

NEPA counties to raise millions or nothing under gas impact fee


By Laura Legere (Staff Writer)
Published: February 13, 2012

Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale boom counties stand to raise millions of dollars this year through an impact fee on the deep gas wells.

Other regional counties with a handful of wells may get little or nothing.

Once Gov. Tom Corbett signs natural gas legislation that passed the House and Senate last week, counties will have 60 days to adopt an ordinance to levy the optional fee.

Counties with active drilling that pass the ordinance will share with the state and their municipalities an estimated $180.5 million this year on the 3,850 vertical and horizontal shale wells that were drilled through 2011, according to state estimates. But only horizontal or producing vertical gas wells can be levied the fee.

Vertical exploratory wells that have never been hydraulically fractured and do not produce gas, like the two drilled in Lackawanna County and the eight drilled in Wayne County, will not be eligible for the fee.

“Our concern was that truly exploratory wells do not pay the impact fee,” said Drew Crompton, chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson County. He added that the local impact of such wells is relatively minor and “quite frankly, we don’t want to discourage exploratory wells.”

On the other hand, the bill presumes that horizontal wells are not exploratory so even those not producing gas are eligible for the fee, he said.

That means Luzerne County’s two test wells, both of which are horizontal, will be subject to the $50,000 per well fee if the county adopts it, despite the fact that both were plugged after they showed little prospect of producing economic amounts of gas.

The bill allows fees to be collected for three years on horizontal wells with no production. After that, the fee is suspended for any well producing less than 90,000 cubic feet per day.

Crompton said the state recommends that counties with any shale gas wells pass the fee ordinance.

State lawmakers crafting the legislation broadened the fee eligibility from only counties with wells producing gas in an earlier draft of the bill to all those with unconventional gas wells that have been “spud” – the industry term for the start of drilling.

It is not entirely clear whether counties with “spud” wells that cannot be levied a fee, like Lackawanna and Wayne, will be allowed to share the money collected from the impact fee statewide.

Counties’ eligibility for the fee will be subject to a final determination by state environmental regulators, the governor’s office or the Public Utility Commission, Crompton said.

“Whether it covers everyone or not, we’ll have to see,” he said. “I think it will be interpreted that they should go ahead and vote on the resolution and hopefully make themselves eligible to receive, not a big part of the impact fee, but maybe some of it.”

Luzerne County will consider adopting the fee ordinance even if it stands to raise little from it, interim County Manager Tom Pribula said.

“All counties are basically revenue starved,” he said, “so if we have the ability to generate additional revenues it would be wise to do something.”

The county and its municipalities will share less about $51,000 of the $100,000 raised from the two wells – after the state’s share and distributions to other programs, like the Department of Environmental Protection, natural gas vehicle incentives and low-income housing support, are taken out.

In Wyoming County, where gas drilling has increased rapidly in the last year, commissioners are just beginning to review the impact fee bill, chief clerk William Gaylord said.

“There are a lot of questions to be answered,” he said. He did not indicate if the commissioners are inclined to adopt the fee ordinance.

“This has been talked about for years,” he said, “and they have never come out for or against it.”

If Wyoming County adopts the fee, its wells could raise $4.5 million this year. The county and its municipalities would share about $2.3 million of it, according to calculations based on state spud data.

Local and county governments in Susquehanna County, which ranks among the top gas producers in the state, are eligible for about $11 million of the $20.3 million its wells will raise this year if the county passes  the ordinance.

Efforts to reach the Susquehanna County commissioners on Friday were unsuccessful.


Pennsylvania House Votes “Sweetheart” Deal for Big Oil and Gas


Feb. 8, 2012 (Press Release)

HARRISBURG, Pa., Feb 08, 2012 (BUSINESS WIRE) — Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) condemned the passage of the so-called “compromise” drilling bill, House Bill 1950, in the Pennsylvania House today, which passed by a 101 to 90 vote. PennFuture said the bill was fast tracked to near warp speed, moving through the process from a secretly negotiated deal to passage in both houses in just days.

“This bill proves the adage, ‘money talks,’ as the governor and the General Assembly adopted everything the deep pocketed drilling interests wanted, to the detriment of the citizens, their public health, local representation, the environment, and nearly every sector of our economy except drilling,” said Jan Jarrett, president and CEO of PennFuture. “Big campaign contributions and full court press lobbying won the day against the rights and liberty of Pennsylvanians.

“The bill adopts one of the nation’s lowest extraction fees, contains weak environmental protections over drinking water and our streams and wetlands, confers special stature on the drillers over other businesses in Pennsylvania, and destroys local rights to use zoning ordinances to manage drilling and withholds funds from any municipality that attempts to use those rights,” said Jarrett. “Pennsylvania citizens will get little in return.

“Some accepted this deal for the little environmental funding proposed, but no sound thinking person would accept 30 pieces of silver for this awful deal,” continued Jarrett. “We will live with the damage caused by drilling for decades, just as we still live with the damage from abandoned coal mines and shallow oil and gas wells across the Commonwealth. And once again, the citizens of Pennsylvania will be stuck with the tab for cleaning up the mess.

“It’s clear why the governor and the Republican leadership needed to ram this bill through,” said Jarrett. “It violates the rights of the citizens, and the wishes of more than three-quarters of the voters.

“We had the opportunity to do this right, but the General Assembly squandered that opportunity,” concluded Jarrett.

PennFuture is a statewide public interest membership organization that advances policies to protect and improve the state’s environment and economy. With offices in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Wilkes-Barre, PennFuture’s activities include litigating cases before regulatory bodies and in local, state, and federal courts, advocating and advancing legislative action on a state and federal level, public        education, and assisting citizens in public advocacy. The PennFuture website is www.pennfuture.org and the blog is located at http://pennfuture.blogspot.com .

SOURCE: Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future

Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future
Jeanne K. Clark, 412-258-6683 / 412-736-6092


Pa. GOP to seek vote on drill bill


February 6, 2012

Party has notified lawmakers that it hopes to hold votes on impact fee, regs this week.

HARRISBURG — A final framework is at hand on sweeping legislation to impose an impact fee and update safety regulations on Pennsylvania’s booming natural gas industry, top Republican state lawmakers say.

Republicans notified rank-and-file lawmakers Saturday night that they hope to hold votes this week on a framework reached by negotiators from the House, Senate and Gov. Tom Corbett’s office during closed-door negotiations over the past six weeks.

“These discussions have progressed rapidly over the course of the last two weeks,” House Speaker Sam Smith and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said in a letter to lawmakers. “In fact, staff have been working throughout the weekend and will be working (Sunday) in order to have a proposal that we can consider as early as this week.”

Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state that doesn’t tax natural gas production, and Democrats have not been part of the negotiations after trying unsuccessfully for three years to win enough Republican votes to impose a severance tax on the industry. Because Corbett opposes a tax on the industry, Republicans, who control the Legislature, have instead pursued an “impact fee” that he views as being fundamentally different than a tax. But House and Senate Republicans have clashed over the size of the fee, while Democrats and environmental groups view their proposals as too low and members of the industry have been split over paying any levy.

The 15-year impact fee would rise and fall with the price of natural gas and inflation. Currently, the price of natural gas is about $2.30 per million British thermal units — a measurement used at major pipeline hubs. If the price is between $3 and $5, the total per-well fee would be $310,000 over 15 years, not counting inflation, according to a summary distributed to senators.

At the current price of gas, the 15-year fee total would be $240,000 per well, not counting inflation, according to a summary distributed to House Democrats. The maximum per-well fee a company would pay is $355,000, if gas stays above $6, while the minimum would be $190,000, if gas stays below $2.25, again not including inflation.

But the fee at any price would be well below the average lifetime per-well tax paid in other natural gas states, including $993,700 in West Virginia, $878,500 in Texas and $555,700 in Arkansas, according to the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a liberal think tank.

Counties that host the drilling would have the option of whether to impose the fee — a key element sought by Corbett and disliked by senators — but a critical mass of municipalities would have 60 days to override a county’s refusal. Counties and municipalities that refuse the fee would not get a share of the money.

Money from the impact fee and state forest drilling royalties would be distributed to a wide range of purposes, including bridge repairs, open space, water and sewer plant improvements, statewide environmental cleanup programs and purchases of natural-gas fleet vehicles. Local governments that are home to drilling would get 60 percent of the money from an impact fee, with 40 percent going to state programs or agencies, according to the summaries, even though Corbett had opposed using impact fee money for state programs.

The bill would increase the required distance between drilling and public water sources such as reservoirs, but not to the extent sought by Democrats and environmental groups, and it would require the state to develop regulations for transporting drilling wastewater and enforce qualifications of treatment plant operators.

The legislation also would address a top priority of the natural gas industry and set limits to prevent municipal officials from imposing zoning ordinances that effectively prevent drilling there. A drilling operator could ask state utility regulators to review a local ordinance to determine whether it allows for “the reasonable development of oil and gas.” If the Public Utility Commission or a state court decides that a local ordinance fails, the municipality would be unable to receive impact-fee money until it changes it, according to the summaries.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have talked about whether to tax the natural gas industry since it arrived in earnest in 2008 to tap into the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation, considered the nation’s largest-known natural gas reservoir. The drilling has drawn opponents who fear it is polluting the water supply.

Drilling fee legislation near?


January 31, 2012

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s highest-ranking state senator said Monday he thinks an agreement on a sweeping bill to impose a fee on the booming natural gas drilling industry can be finished in a week, right before Gov. Tom Corbett unveils his budget plan.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said negotiators from the House, Senate and governor’s office are trying to agree on the size of the fee and the distribution of the money.

He said negotiators are working toward a “hybrid” solution to iron out differences over whether the state or the county that hosts the drilling should enforce the fee.

Scarnati said Senate negotiators are trying to make a final bill more appealing to advocates of allowing municipalities to regulate drilling activity than earlier proposals that passed the Senate.

EPA serves public interest

Published: January 24, 2012

The Corbett administration’s recent characterization of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as naive interlopers evaporated like so much gas last week.

Federal investigators began testing water supplies for 61 homes in Dimock Township, Susquehanna County, and delivering clean water to four homes where independent testing has found health threats in contaminated water.

In December, the state Department of Environmental Protection ignored the state constitutional guarantee of clean water for Pennsylvanians, and allowed Cabot Oil & Gas Co. to stop delivering clean water to the affected homes in Dimock, on grounds that the company had fulfilled terms of an agreement.

That agreement between the DEP and the company required Cabot to create escrow accounts for the twice the value of affected properties and to offer water filtration systems.

The issue isn’t fulfilling agreements but determining whether drilling and hydraulic fracturing adversely affect the water supply. Yet when the Environmental Protection Agency continued its investigation, Michael Krancer, secretary of the state environmental agency, claimed that the federal agency had only a “rudimentary” understanding of the situation.

In water samples from eight Dimock properties, an EPA toxicologist had found “noteworthy concentrations” of chemicals that do not occur naturally in the local water.

To ensure that its understanding of the situation is not “rudimentary,” the EPA comprehensively will test water samples from a 9-square-mile area and fill in gaps it has found in the data complied by other parties, including Krancer’s agency.

Beyond the local water quality issue, the EPA’s investigation is nationally significant. It follows another EPA inquiry in Wyoming that, for the first time, indicates a link between hydraulic fracturing – the process used to extract gas from deep shale deposits – and contaminated ground water.

Given the abundance of shale gas and its growing role in the nation’s energy portfolio, it’s crucial to gain a comprehensive understanding of the environmental consequences of its extraction. In seeking those answers, the EPA serves the public interest.

Well safety bill heads to governor


By Robert Swift (Harrisburg Bureau Chief)
Published: January 19, 2012

HARRISBURG – A bill requiring Marcellus well operators to upgrade safety procedures is headed to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk following final approval today in the Senate.

The measure sponsored by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, requires operators of new and existing wells to provide sophisticated siting information to emergency responders and develop response plans to deal with accidents and spills.

“Senate Bill 995 fills a gaping information hole,” Baker said. “When something goes wrong, having emergency information posted at the site, and a plan that is shared with key emergency personnel, are vital parts of a risk reduction plan.”

The bill specifies that operators are to post signs at the well site bearing their GPS coordinates so firefighters, ambulance crews and hazmat teams know where wells and access roads are located and also to register those coordinates with county and state officials.

The Department of Environmental Protection is directed under the bill to write regulations on an emergency basis to implement the bill.

This will allow quicker enforcement of the law, Baker said. Otherwise, the regulations would have to be reviewed by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission – a process that could take up to 18 months, she added.