News

12/26/2018 - Solar co-ops grow in western PA

While the bulk of solar energy in Pennsylvania exists in the eastern half of the state, co-ops are popping up across western part of the commonwealth to help people go solar.

The groups started earlier this year in Allegheny and Cambria counties and the Upper Ohio Valley. The organization Solar United Neighbors helped launch them in several other states before coming to Pennsylvania. By banding together as co-ops to solicit bids from solar installers, participants often get a better price than if they had gone through the process alone.

“Western Pennsylvania is a challenging place to talk about solar and expand solar access, and that’s the big reason why we’re here doing this,” said Henry McKay, state program director for Solar United Neighbors.

Several of the co-ops have formed in places with a long history of fossil fuel extraction. The newest one in Indiana County — a longtime coal producing area — drew 70 people to its first meeting. McKay said that was the biggest turnout so far, and it happened in a county with little existing solar energy.

“There is a lot of latent interest out there where there’s interest in it, there’s excitement about it, but no one is going to say, ‘Hey, here’s how we can bring more solar to our community,’” he said.

The co-ops seek to fill that void. And they come to Pennsylvania at a time when the state’s looking to bolster solar energy. This fall, the state released a blueprint to make 10 percent of its electricity generation come from solar energy by 2030. The plan calls for more rooftop solar panels, as well as utility-scale solar farms to send renewable energy into the grid.

Since Solar United Neighbors launched, more co-ops have formed in Indiana, Crawford and Mercer counties, and the earlier ones have already selected installers for their regions. McKay said he hopes to start additional co-ops in 2019, possibly in Butler and Beaver counties and another in Allegheny County.

12/24/2018 - Spills, shutdowns and legal challenges: a tumultuous year for Mariner East 2

After multiple delays, Sunoco has said it is on target to start operations of the controversial pipeline by end of 2018.

12/21/2018 - Man injured in gas plant blast dies

A West Virginia man who was burned in a Washington County gas plant explosion has died, officials confirmed.

Jeffrey Fisher, 61, of Salem, W. Va. died Tuesday afternoon at UPMC Mercy hospital in Pittsburgh. Fisher was a burn victim at the hospital, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office, which did not release a cause of death.

Three others were injured, but the company did not release any further details on their conditions.

The blast happened December 13 at MarkWest’s Houston Processing and Fractionation Facility in Chartiers Township. Officials from the company had said that the incident occurred near a pair of temporary storage tanks.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the workers were employed by Energy Transportation LLC of Bridgeport, W.Va.

Fisher had been with the company since January and worked as a driver, said Andria Wymer, director of strategic initiatives for Energy Transportation. Wymer said the company was “saddened by the loss of Mr. Fisher” but declined to discuss details of what he and the other workers were doing at the time of the accident. 

Jamal Kheiry, a spokesman for Marathon Petroleum, MarkWest’s parent company, released a statement:

“We are deeply saddened that one of the contract employees injured during the Dec. 13 incident at our Houston, Pennsylvania, facility has died of his injuries. We continue working with federal, state and local agencies to investigate the incident.”

OSHA and Pennsylvania State Police fire marshals are investigating.

12/21/2018 - Climate change in Pennsylvania: A look back at 2018 and ahead at 2019

A flurry of climate reports came out this fall — from the United Nations and the U.S. government — painting a dire picture of the challenges facing the globe. Here’s a look at how Pennsylvania has been working to reduce emissions in 2018 and a preview of what may be in store for next year.

Climate reports

A special report from the UN in October said that by 2040, the world faces myriad crises — including food shortages, extreme weather, wildfires and a mass die-off of coral reefs — unless emissions are cut sharply.

The scientists wrote the report expressly for policymakers. They’re urging governments to try to keep the warming to less than 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That’s half a degree lower than the goal set by the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. They conceded that there is “no documented historic precedent” for such a rapid transformation of the global economy. News came this month that global emissions in 2018 reached a record high, as representatives from countries across the world met in Poland to figure out how to achieve the pledges made three years ago in Paris.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally-mandated report, was released by the Trump administration in November and says the Northeastern U.S. is warming faster than any other part of the lower 48 states. Another UN report published last month shows countries are far off the mark in meeting the necessary emissions reductions. Although Pennsylvania has a small share of the global population, it is an energy powerhouse that is both historically — and currently — a major source of harmful emissions. Among states, Pennsylvania is the third largest carbon polluter.

A draft update of Pennsylvania’s Climate Action Plan was released in November by the state Department of Environmental Protection. It calls for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, from 2005 levels. It outlines 19 strategies for addressing climate change, including promoting clean energy, energy efficiency, monitoring ecosystems vulnerabilities, and providing resources to help farmers and the outdoor tourism industry adapt.

AP Photo/Matt Rourk

Floodwaters partly submerge a van in Darby, Pa., Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. This was Pennsylvania’s wettest year on record.

Climate-related risks to Pennsylvanians include frequent extreme weather events, injury and death from those events, and threats to human health through air pollution, diminished water quality, and heat stress, according to the report. The warming will also affect farmers as it presents changing pest, weed, and disease management challenges.

2018 was Pennsylvania’s wettest year on record, according to Pennsylvania State Climatologist Kyle Imhoff. The statewide total precipitation average (ending Nov. 30) was 59.43 inches — that’s more than 20 inches above the average for the period from 1901 through 2000. The year’s wet weather cannot be directly attributed to climate change. However, climate models predict the region will experience more precipitation as temperatures continue to rise. The state’s Climate Action Plan says annual precipitation in Pennsylvania has increased by about 10 percent since the early 20th century and is expected to increase by another 8 percent by 2050.

The Wolf administration also recently put out a report calling for a major increase in the use of solar energy. Under the state’s current Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, Pennsylvania is on track to produce half-a-percent of its electricity from solar sources by 2021. The new plan, called Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future, sets a much more ambitious goal — 10 percent by 2030.

Public opinion

A majority of Pennsylvania voters agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is causing problems right now, and more than two-thirds say the state should be doing more to address it, according to a Franklin & Marshall College/StateImpact Pennsylvania poll published in March.

Party affiliation and political ideology continue to play a big role in people’s views, with Democrats and independents being much more likely to believe climate change is happening. However, almost two-thirds of Republicans in the survey said climate change is causing problems now or will at some point.

A national Gallup survey published the same month showed 45 percent of Americans believe the warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. That’s the highest percentage recorded since Gallup first asked the question in 1997.

Policies

Despite the partisan divide, Pennsylvania lawmakers managed to pass some climate-friendly legislation in 2018.

In June, Gov. Wolf signed a bipartisan bill aimed at helping commercial property owners finance the costs of installing clean energy upgrades. Known as Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy, the measure creates a voluntary program, allowing municipal governments to set up energy improvement districts. Private lenders then give money to agricultural, commercial, or industrial property owners who want to finance energy-efficiency and clean technology upgrades, such as solar panels, water pumps, or insulation. The loan is repaid through a tax payment that remains attached to the upgraded building, even if the owner later relocates and sells the property. Nearly three dozen other states and Washington D.C. have adopted similar programs.

The same month, Wolf signed Act 58, which gives the state’s Public Utility Commission a new range of options in crafting electricity rate designs. Known as alternative ratemaking, the new law gives utilities ways to recoup their costs a time when electricity consumption has been flatlining.

That matters for climate change, because before the new law, electric utilities had an incentive to push for increased usage— that’s what drove their investments into infrastructure and a guaranteed return from regulators on those investments. Utilities will now have more options for generating revenue, although consumer advocates worry the language in the law is too vague and ratepayers could wind up paying more than their fair share.

In December, the Wolf administration announced it was joining a coalition of eight Northeast states, and Washington D.C., to create a program to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles. The states are Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. The coalition pledged to draft a policy within one year, creating a “regional low-carbon transportation policy proposal that would cap and reduce carbon emissions from the combustion of transportation fuels through a cap-and-invest program or other pricing mechanism.” After that, each state will determine whether to adopt it.

Cap-and-trade petition

In a petition filed last month, a coalition of environmental groups, legal scholars and solar energy firms are trying to compel Pennsylvania to establish an economy-wide cap-and-trade program in Pennsylvania, using California’s system as a model.

The petition triggers a legal process, requiring a response from the state. Gov. Wolf recently said he has not “come to a conclusion” on it, but that he sees climate change as “one of the big issues we have to deal with.” If the petition were embraced by the Wolf administration, it could be a way to enact significant climate policy on the state’s power sector through a regulatory approach, largely circumventing the Republican-led legislature. The petition could also provide a pathway for Pennsylvania to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a carbon trading program among nine Northeast states. Joining that effort is something Wolf pledged to do during his 2014 campaign for governor.

The petitioners are hinging their argument on Article 1 Section 27 of Pennsylvania’s constitution — commonly known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. It was added in 1971 and guarantees citizens the right to clean air and pure water. It also requires the state to act as a trustee of the public natural resources for all the people, including “generations yet to come.” After being largely ignored for decades, the amendment has seen a resurgence following two recent state Supreme Court decisions. The petitioners argue that provides a constitutional requirement for the state to act on climate change.

Looking ahead to 2019

There will be a big push in the legislature next year to provide help to Pennsylvania’s nuclear industry, which is struggling economically.

Courtesy: Exelon

Exelon’s Three Mile Island plant is scheduled to prematurely close in September 2019. The company has been lobbying for help from the state to keep it open.

Two of the state’s five plants are set to close prematurely. Other states have recently helped prop up their nuclear fleets, and it’s often been coupled with increased clean energy targets. Pennsylvania has a 2004 law called the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard that requires utilities to get 8 percent of their power from so-called “Tier 1” clean sources by 2021.  Nuclear advocates want the state to recognize their power plants as a clean source of carbon-free emissions. Environmental advocates would likely want to wrap up anything for nuclear plants with increases to the AEPS — they want bigger carve outs for wind and solar too.

Opposition is coming from consumer groups, such as the AARP, which says aid for the nuclear industry will increase costs to ratepayers. The natural gas industry, which has a powerful lobby in Pennsylvania and has been increasing its share of electric power generation, also opposes the effort, arguing the aid would be unfair, and threaten competitive wholesale electricity markets.

12/20/2018 - DEP approves ethane pipeline to Shell’s cracker in Beaver County

Shell won state approval Thursday on a pair of permits for the pipeline that will feed ethane to its $6 billion chemical plant in Beaver County.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved two water permits for the company’s Falcon ethane pipeline. The 97-mile pipeline will run from Ohio and Pennsylvania to Shell’s ethane cracker in Potter Township.

The route of the Falcon Ethane Pipeline through Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Image: Fractracker Alliance.

The DEP approved Shell’s water obstruction and encroachment permit, as well as its erosion and sediment control permit.

In Pennsylvania, the pipeline’s route will go through Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties.

“This allows Shell to begin some work, like tree clearing,” said Lauren Fraley, a DEP spokeswoman. The company is still awaiting approval from regulators from Ohio, West Virginia, and the Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction of the pipeline. Some work on the pipeline route is expected to begin in early 2019.

Virginia Sanchez, a company spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement that Shell “has taken significant steps to assess the potential impacts associated with the Falcon Pipeline System and it is confident that the measures to avoid, minimize, or mitigate these impacts can help to ensure public safety and environmental protection.”

The pipeline was opposed by environmental groups, and by the Ambridge Water Authority, which provides water to 30,000 customers in Beaver County. Authority general manager Michael Dominick argued in April the pipeline’s route went too close to its Ambridge Reservoir, and cut across an important water line to the reservoir. An accident there could have a “devastating effect” on the authority’s water supply, Dominick said in April. 

Fraley said the company’s permit included “appropriate construction techniques and special conditions” near the reservoir and that the company was “in discussions” with the authority over its concerns. 

Shell proposed to bore 31 feet under the reservoir’s water line using horizontal directional drilling. The company also proposed to have a standby crew at the reservoir during construction in the event of an accident, and to keep special repair equipment on site in the event that pipeline construction broke the reservoir’s water line.

Officials at the Ambridge Water Authority declined to comment on the DEP’s decision Thursday afternoon. 

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration would oversee construction of the pipeline.

Shell is also waiting word from DEP on whether the project needs any type of air quality permit, Fraley said.

Environmental groups that opposed the project pointed to problems with the Mariner East pipeline, which is being investigated by the Chester County District Attorney, and the September explosion of a natural gas pipeline in Center Township.

“It is very disheartening with all the other problems with pipelines across the state and country that the DEP would issue this hasty decision now,” said Lisa Graves-Marcucci of the Environmental Integrity Project, in an emailed statement.

12/19/2018 - Chester County district attorney opens criminal investigation into Mariner East pipeline project

The district attorney said a recent pipeline explosion in Beaver County, and a visit to see where sinkholes opened last year at a pipeline construction site, prompted him to act.

12/19/2018 - PUC investigators: We didn’t say the 12-inch Mariner East 2 line was safe

The agency's Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement said Sunoco 'mischaracterized' its position to an administrative law judge who's reviewing a request by a group of residents to shut down the Mariner East pipeline project. The bureau said it didn't say the line was unsafe, either.

12/18/2018 - Pennsylvania joins regional effort to cut emissions from vehicles

The coalition is Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

12/17/2018 - Smart Talk: Pennsylvania’s nuclear dilemma: Should the state bail out plants?

Exelon says it will close Three Mile Island’s Unit One reactor in September 2019.Two of Pennsylvania’s five nuclear plants are scheduled close prematurely: Three Mile Island in 2019, and Beaver Valley in 2021.

A recent legislative report urged the state to consider how other states have bailed out failing nuclear plants.

Nuclear plants are a source of carbon-free power at a time when many states are trying to reduce carbon emissions to lessen the effects of climate change. But they are struggling to compete in a competitive energy marketplace.

Guests on Friday’s Smart Talk represented both sides of the debate. They were:

Rep. Thomas Mehaffie (R- Dauphin) and David Fein, Senior Vice President of State Governmental and Regulatory Affairs at Exelon; Mark Szybist, senior attorney, Climate and Clean Energy Program, Natural Resources Defense Council; Stephanie Catarino Wissman, Executive Director, Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania; and Glen Thomas, President, GT Power Group.

Key points

1:14 – Caucus report

13:55 – Listener call regarding bailout and spent fuel disposal

23:30 – Critics to a bailout plan

37:12 – Pennsylvanians can choose where to get their fuel

 

12/15/2018 - PUC panel sees ‘statewide concern’ with pipeline corrosion after ME1 leak

Investigators at the Public Utility Commission blamed corrosion for a leak of natural gas liquids from Sunoco’s Mariner East 1 pipeline in April 2017, and said they are concerned about the company’s corrosion-control program throughout the ageing statewide line.

The PUC’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement issued a formal complaint late Thursday saying that ethane and propane leaked from the line at Morgantown in Berks County, and the leak was discovered by a resident who reported “bubbling” out of the ground on April 1.

Two days later, Sunoco workers dug up that section of the pipe, and concluded that it was corroded at the bottom. That was later confirmed by a laboratory that examined an eight-foot section of the pipe, the complaint said.

The company said at the time that about 20 barrels of liquids leaked.

The bureau faulted Sunoco’s use of cathodic protection – a technique to prevent metal corrosion – saying that its level did not meet official requirements for minimum protection.

And it said the incident raised questions about possible corrosion elsewhere along the line, which was first installed in about 1931 to carry refined petroleum products, and in recent years has been repurposed for highly volatile natural gas liquids. Sunoco has said the line got a $30 million upgrade in 2016.

“While the data reviewed was largely specific to the site of the leak, SPLP’s procedures and overall application of corrosion control and cathodic protection practices are relevant to all of ME1 and thus I&E alleges that there is a statewide concern with SPLP’s corrosion control program and the soundness of SPLP’s engineering practices with respect to cathodic protection,” the bureau wrote in the 16-page complaint.

It also criticized Sunoco’s record keeping, saying that it failed to say anything about corrosion in a report on an inspection of that section of pipe in July 2017, even though metal loss on the pipe “signifies the presence of corrosion.”

And it proposed that Sunoco should conduct a “remaining life study” of the pipeline and consider when it will retire the line.

According to the federal pipeline regulator, PHMSA, Sunoco has blamed corrosion for 129 of the 305 pipeline incidents it has reported to the government since 2006. Twelve of the corrosion cases resulted in federal enforcement actions, according to PHMSA data.

In the Morgantown incident, the bureau alleged 15 violations of federal pipeline safety standards, and proposed a total fine of $225,000. The recommendations will now go before the full Commission.

Asked why it took the bureau some 20 months after the incident to file its complaint, PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said: “Like any enforcement agency, they make a decision to file when they believe they have the evidence and information to support their allegations.”

Critics say older pipelines like Mariner East 1 heighten the risk of a leak or explosion of natural gas liquids. In May, a PUC judge briefly shut down the pipeline in West Whiteland Township, Chester County because of its proximity to construction of the new Mariner East 2 and 2X pipelines on the same right of way.

Sunoco said it was aware of the complaint and has already addressed some of the issues raised in it.

“We look forward to working cooperatively with the PUC to find common ground on the remaining issues,” said Vicki Granado, a spokeswoman for Sunoco’s parent, Energy Transfer. “Our first priority is the continued integrity of the line, which has been operating safely for years. We are committed to adhering to all the appropriate regulations that govern the operations of our pipeline.”

State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), a persistent critic of the Mariner East project, said the bureau’s complaint provides more evidence that Sunoco is not doing enough to protect the public from moving highly volatile liquids in old pipelines.

“The PUC claims that Sunoco’s corrosion testing on its own pipelines failed to detect potential problems and leaks,” Dinniman said in a statement. “It seems that the company is either unwilling or unable to adequately determine which segments of pipeline are safe.”

Pipeline safety campaigners said the Morgantown incident was the latest to raise questions about the integrity of Mariner East 1.

“As usual, Sunoco failed to detect that a leak was occurring, so we still don’t know how long it had been leaking …,” said George Alexander, a spokesman for Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, a community group in Delaware and Chester counties.

Noting that the complaint asked Sunoco to consider retiring the pipeline, Alexander said: “We think it should have been retired long ago.”