Standing on the side of a road that hugs the Ohio River, Jeff Nobers stared across the water at a massive construction site: towering cranes, scaffolding, a maze of pipes.
On the site of what will be Shell’s multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant, 6,000 union workers are putting together an ethane cracker, which will turn a natural gas byproduct into plastic.
“Right now, the biggest trades here are the operating engineers and steamfitters, because a lot of the piping work is being done now,” said Nobers, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania, which includes many of the unions working on the site. “There’s a lot of overtime. So you have people making well over six figures.”
Nobers says if Democrats nominate someone who wants to ban fracking, they’d have a tough time winning over some of his members.
The union leaders he works with might not tell their rank-and-file members he works with who to vote for, he said. “But they would be very clear to say, ‘Look, if you vote for this person, this is what they stand for. And, you know, at the end of it, you know, this is your livelihood and the livelihoods of many others.’”
Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania
Presidential candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both said they want to move away from fossil fuels, and they support a ban on fracking for natural gas or oil. Though natural gas is pushing dirtier coal off the electric grid, scientists warn we need to phase out all carbon emissions from fossil fuels in the next few decades
And fracking can release the powerful greenhouse gas methane.
“While natural gas may burn cleaner than coal, the enormous explosion of fracking and the resulting release of methane presents a significant danger to our planet,” Sanders told a crowd in 2016.
Warren tweeted in September: “On my first day as president, I will sign an executive order that puts a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases for drilling offshore and on public lands. And I will ban fracking—everywhere.”
Experts doubt a president could simply ban fracking without congressional approval.
Ed Crooks, vice chair in the Americas for the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie, says a president might be able to restrict fracking on public lands, but probably not on private or state land, where most fracking takes place. Crooks says the talk is more rhetorical than anything.
“Talking about banning fracking is for Democrats a bit like bringing back coal was for President Trump,” Crooks said. President Trump hasn’t been able to revive the coal industry, “but by talking about bringing back coal, he was sending a signal. He was talking about his strategy and the direction of his policy.”
Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania
Some political observers think an anti-fracking message could hurt a candidate in Pennsylvania, where 30,000 people work in oil and gas, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and thousands more work in related industries.
“Do you lose some moderate Democrats or independents who have interest in the natural gas industry if you call for shutting it down?” said Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College who’s studied public opinion on the topic. “I think the answer is probably ‘Yes.’”
Borick said a lot of people in the state are concerned about climate change and the environment, but he says other topics, like the economy, still rate as more important.
“I think the proven method, the method that is shown to be successful time and time again is to win moderate Democrats, moderate voters in the state,” Borick said.
Those voters include people like Kevin Kopac, who owns an insurance agency near the Shell chemical plant in Beaver County. A registered Democrat, Kopac twice voted for Obama before going for Trump in 2016.
He grew up in a union household in Beaver County. He says construction at the Shell plant has been good for the local economy.
“There’s always jobs around, but these are (jobs with) a lot higher wages than what Beaver County has been used to for the past 20, 30 years.”
Kopac’s undecided about this fall’s election but says if the Democratic nominee is anti-fracking, he would be less likely to vote for a Democrat. “For the simple fact that (fracking) affects our region. It creates a lot of jobs, for a lot of people.”
John Kubicar, a real estate agent in Washington County, says if Democrats nominate an anti-fracking candidate, it will hurt their chances in his county, which leads the state in shale gas wells. “There’s too many people that are in favor of it around these areas,” said Kubicar, a registered Democrat who voted for Trump and plans to do the same in November.
“When these wells go in, I have friends that have restaurants and bars in the area, they’re packed.”
Reid R. Frazier / StateImpact Pennsylvania
But other voters might be fine with an anti-fracking candidate.
Recent polls find Pennsylvania voters are roughly split on whether to ban fracking.
A January Franklin & Marshall College poll found that 48 percent of Pennsylvania voters favored a ban on fracking, while 39 percent were opposed. A Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll conducted in February found 42 percent of voters in the state opposed a fracking ban, with 38 percent in favor.
That same poll found Sanders leading Trump 49-46 percent and Warren tied with Trump 47-47 percent in hypothetical head-to-head matchups.
The Franklin & Marshall poll found support for a ban was strongest in the state’s two big cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Brianna Mims, a University of Pittsburgh student from suburban Philadelphia, said she’d like to vote for a candidate who’s against fracking.
“Because I am someone that really values the environment and I think anything we can to stop the way we’re torturing the environment is beneficial,” she said.
Gerald Medved said he’d be okay with an anti-fracking candidate. A retired union coalminer, Medved is a registered Democrat who voted Trump in 2016, a decision he now regrets. He says Trump’s been too divisive and hasn’t kept his promises on health care and trade.
His own experience with the gas industry has been mixed.
“I feel it’s some good. And a lot of bad. And the bad is we don’t really know.”
He says his groundwater was temporarily polluted when a gas company drilled a well near his house in Fayette County, along the West Virginia border.
“If they pollute this water, say, 20, 30 years down the road, how are we ever going to clean it up?” he said.
Medved’s views on fracking are also related to his views about climate change. He says he’s seen the climate changing with his own eyes.
“With fracking, I think you have to look at the scientists in the United States, the people that are saying there’s global warming. And figure. Do you want to do something about it now or wait until it’s too late?” Medved said.
Fracking might be one of the issues Pennsylvania voters weigh when they decide an election that could be close come November.
And with a president who embraces fossil fuels and has already visited the state 14 times, voters are sure to hear plenty about it.
Medical professionals, scientists and drinking water experts say the condition of drinking water is a significant factor in a community's overall health.
Rosemary Fuller / Submitted
Sunoco will pay a $200,000 fine and must increase oversight after a natural gas liquids leak in 2017 fueled concerns about the safety of its Mariner East 1 pipeline.
The fine is part of a joint settlement approved Thursday in a 5-0 vote by the Public Utility Commission. The settlement also directs Sunoco to make annual progress reports, assess areas of highest risk, and conduct a “remaining life study” of the aging pipeline, run by an independent expert who will advise the company on future maintenance.
The settlement traces back to a pipeline complaint made nearly three years ago, when a Morgantown, Berks County resident reported hazardous gas “bubbling” up out of the ground. That turned out to be a leak of approximately 20 barrels — or 840 gallons — of ethane and propane.
StateImpact Pennsylvania reported at the time that the leak did not reach water sources or cause an explosion. But the highly volatile liquids could have threatened lives and property if they had gone undiscovered or had ignited.
Mariner East 1 had already sparked concern among pipeline safety advocates due to its age and the highly volatile liquids it transports. Last year, it was temporarily shut down due to sinkholes and safety concerns.
The April 2017 leak was caused by pipe corrosion. The PUC’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement faulted Sunoco’s inspection and lack of corrosion control. As of 2018, federal pipeline regulator PHMSA reported that Sunoco cited corrosion as the problem behind 129 of the 305 pipeline incidents it had reported to the government since 2006.
Pipeline critics have said that the Mariner East 1 pipeline in particular, constructed in the 1930s, is overdue for permanent retirement.
Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, spokesperson for the Public Utility Commission, said the PUC will be under no obligation to implement the recommendations of the independent expert’s remaining life study. Instead, the assessments will act as an enhancement to data already being collected by the bureau.
“It’s an ongoing process, it’s not a one-shot deal,” Hagen-Frederiksen said. “It’s an enhanced look at the issues raised as a part of this case to augment everything else that’s going on.”
Hagen-Frederiksen wouldn’t say whether the pipeline could be shut down again as a result of the risk assessments or remaining life study.
“We will not speculate about what might happen at some point in the future,” he said. “If [I&E] sees something that’s a matter of concern, they have the ability and the tools to take immediate action.”
Energy Transfer, parent company of Sunoco Logistics, could not be reached for comment.
The Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation of a pipeline company in connection with a 2018 natural gas explosion in Beaver County.
The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania has issued a federal grand jury subpoena to the pipeline’s owner, Energy Transfer, for documents.
The subpoenas were revealed in the company’s most recent federal financial filings, and were first reported by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
The Revolution pipeline had been in service less than a week when a landslide caused the pipeline to rupture and explode in September 2018. The blast forced evacuations and burned one house to the ground.
In January, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined the Dallas-based company a record $30 million for issues related to the explosion.
Those violations extended well beyond the blast site and included failure to stabilize more than a dozen hillsides, hundreds of cases where sediment from its construction spilled into rivers and streams, and more than 2,000 cases of improper construction.
The DEP found a landslide had taken place at the exact site just months before the blast, and the company failed to consult engineers or other geotechnical experts when it restored the site.
The settlement lifted a nearly year-long permit freeze on the company’s other pipeline projects, including the cross-state Mariner East pipelines.
The existence of a federal jury overseeing the case “absolutely means” the U.S. attorney’s investigation “is criminal in nature,” said Jamie Colburn, a former EPA litigator and environmental law professor at Penn State, in an email. “Subpoenas that come marked as for a grand jury tell the target as much.”
In its filing, the company said the scope of the investigations isn’t known, and didn’t say what crimes the prosecutor could be investigating.
Margaret Philbin, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh, declined comment.
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General is also investigating the blast.
Alexis Daniel, a company spokeswoman said in an email: “The relevant information that we have at this time has been disclosed in the filing.”
A pipeline builder has dropped a controversial project that would have routed fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale into New York.
The Constitution Pipeline got federal approval in 2014, and officials thought it would be delivering natural gas to New York as soon as the following year.
But regulatory setbacks and opposition from environmental groups delayed the project. In 2016, for example, New York state denied a required water permit. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Constitution Pipeline Company’s appeal.
In September 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission later ruled that New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation had waived its right to deny the permit because it took too long to act.
But in New York, which had banned fracking and where in 2019 Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law the state’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the pipeline still faced opposition. In an interview following FERC’s decision, Cuomo said, “…any way we that can challenge it, we will.”
This week, Williams, which operates the pipeline company, said the potential return on its investment had “diminished in such a way that further development is no longer supported.”
Environmental groups cheered the news.
“Defeating the Constitution Pipeline is an enormous victory for advocates who have been fighting for eight years to protect New York State and its waterways,” Earthjustice staff attorney Moneen Nasmith said in a statement. “At this critical moment for our climate, we cannot afford unnecessary fossil fuel projects that will lead to more fracking and exacerbate our climate crisis.”
The Oneonta Daily Star reported that some pro-fracking landowner groups and trade unions had supported the project.
The Constitution’s impact will still be felt on at least one Pennsylvania farm.
In Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, the company used eminent domain to take five acres of the Holleran family’s land.
Workers cut down more than 550 trees — including sugar maples used for the family’s maple syrup business.
StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Susan Phillips talked to a member of the family about their experience for an ‘energy, explained’ podcast episode:
(Clairton) — An Allegheny County judge has approved a settlement to resolve a class action lawsuit that claims pollution from the country’s largest coke producing facility created a nuisance and hurt nearby property values.
U.S. Steel has agreed to pay $2 million to residents in the class, although about half this sum will go to attorney fees.
The settlement also stipulates that U.S. Steel put $6.5 million towards environmental improvement projects at its Clairton Coke Works facility, including installing air coolers, and implementing battery machinery and refractory improvements.
“They’re going to reduce the emissions, and hopefully improve the quality of life in the class area. But we also aren’t releasing any future claims, so that if there are continued issues in the future, people can go ahead and sue again,” said plaintiff attorney Nick Coulson, of Detroit-based law firm Liddle & Dubin, PC.
Coulson was unable to say how many people would receive compensation, as his office was still reviewing claim forms to verify that possible class members lived within the stipulated geographic area, between May 2015 and October 2018.
Clairton resident David Ferraro said the sum of $2 million was only a drop in the bucket.
Adam Tunnard / WESA
“I’m a strong business proponent. I like U.S. Steel. However, it’s time that U.S. Steel pays back the city of Clairton for all we’ve suffered,” said Ferraro.
At the class action’s final hearing on Monday, Ferraro told Court of Common Pleas Judge Philip Ignelzi that pollution from U.S. Steel has driven out business from Clairton, and caused people not to move to the community. Ignelzi pointed out that a number of factors have contributed to Clairton’s economic decline, a fact Ferraro conceded.
“No class settlement is totally perfect,” said Igneliz, who added that if a hypothetical jury were to award an extremely large amount to the class after a trial, that verdict’s sum would likely be appealed and then struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Igneliz said, “I am convinced” the settlement was a good resolution for plaintiffs.
A statement from a U.S. Steel spokesperson thanked the court for approving the settlement, and said that, “Environmental stewardship and safety remain core values at U. S. Steel, and we are committed to investing in our operations and processes to continue to improve air quality at both Clairton and throughout the Mon Valley.”
“I think that, it’s a settlement that’s clearly not sufficient to restitute people for the damage…I think a lot of people in the community recognize that,” said Myron Arnowitt, the Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy nonprofit.
Arnowitt said that many of the improvements U.S. Steel agreed to in the settlement seem “very similar” to commitments it has already made with the Allegheny County Health Department, meaning this agreement may do little to improve air quality in and around Clairton.
“I think [U.S. Steel will] find out that people will continue pursue the company for compensation for various kinds of harms, including health problems,” he said.
This class action did not address health issues, so people who believe that emissions from Clairton has made them ill may still sue on those grounds. This settlement doesn’t include any issues surrounding the 2018 Christmas Eve fire, which is being addressed by another pending class action lawsuit.
Philadelphia Energy Solutions and Hilco Redevelopment Partners have a lot to do before the sale can close. The site won't be a refinery, but no one is sure what comes next. As one cautious neighbor said, “I’ve seen in the past how it is, you know, you just switch from one company to the next company and you have the same problem."
The Pennsylvania Department of Envirommental Protection has fined a Westmoreland County landfill that had been passing pollution from oil and gas drilling waste into a local sewage treatment plant.
The fine is part of a consent agreement with Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill to find a solution for the plant’s leachate, the liquid waste formed when rain and moisture percolates through the landfill.
As part of the settlement, the landfill will pay a $24,000 fine and reduce the amount of waste it generates by closing up part of the landfill’s open area and installing an evaporator and other treatment equipment for the liquid waste.
Ro Rozier, a spokeswoman for the landfill, said in an emailed statement the company was “pleased with the terms and conditions” of the agreement. Rozier said the company was “committed to investing substantial amounts of capital to purchase and install technology and equipment capable of treating and evaporating the leachate generated from the landfill on site. We are confident that our plan for onsite treatment and evaporation will resolve the landfill’s recent leachate disposal issues.”
In May, a Fayette County judge ordered the landfill to stop sending its liquid waste to the Belle Vernon Municipal Authority’s sewage treatment plant, which had reported problems meeting water quality standards for its treated sewage.
The sewage plant sought the injunction because the leachate it was receiving from the landfill was high in salts and radioactive materials found in drilling waste, which the landfill had been taking for several years.
StateImpact Pennsylvania reported in September a loophole in state and federal waste disposal laws allowed the landfill to send its untreated leachate to the Belle Vernon sewage plant. DEP officials told Belle Vernon’s operators to continue accepting the leachate, and stipulated that the landfill would pay any fine incurred by the sewage plant for exceeding pollution standards for its discharge into the Monongahela River.
Tests showed the contaminants, including radium, were exiting the treatment plant and going into the river, a drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people. The DEP has insisted no drinking water sources were put in danger by the discharge.
The agency says it wants the landfill to find a local disposal site for the waste to cut down on truck traffic from the landfill. For now, the waste will be sent to sewage plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Todd Musser, director of wastewater operations for the Altoona Water Authority, one of the plants currently receiving the leachate, says his plant has had no problems meeting its water quality standards since it began taking the leachate about three or four months ago.
He said the plant receives 50,000 to 100,000 gallons of leachate per day, a small fraction of the 12.5 million gallons of sewage a day his plant can accept. The Belle Vernon plant treats just under 1 million gallons a day.
“With the volume we treat here at Altoona Water Authority — it’s a non-issue,” Musser said.
The Democratic governor issued an executive order declaring Pennsylvania would join a regional agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Not everyone is on board.
A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge has approved the sale of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions complex in South Philadelphia to a Chicago-based developer with no plans to re-start refinery operations.
Also approved as part of PES’ Chapter 11 reorganization is a $29 million settlement with the company’s unsecured creditors that includes a $5 million severance fund for former refinery workers.
The sale to Hilco Redevelopment Partners, which received tentative approval after a heated confirmation hearing Wednesday in Wilmington, likely means the end to 150 years of oil-refining activities in the city.
PES filed for bankruptcy in July, one month after an explosion and fire destroyed parts of the 1,300-acre refinery complex. A week after the fire, the company shut down operations and laid off about 1,000 workers. The 335,000-barrel-per-day complex was the largest oil refinery on the East Coast, and the largest stationary source of air pollution in Philadelphia.
Hilco offered $252 million for the complex, according to PES lawyers, representing the highest bid and the best opportunity for creditors to recover their claims. But the offer was valid only if confirmed by the court before Feb. 13.
“I’m very much satisfied that the sale to Hilco is the highest bid and sale,” Judge Kevin Gross said Wednesday evening. “Clearly is in the best interest of the community as well, given the risks that were attended to the prior operations with the refinery, and a refinery frankly that had numerous and repeated problems over the years. And I see no reason to think that that wouldn’t have continued.”
Initially objecting to the sale were PES’ unsecured creditors, including the United Steelworkers union, which represented about 600 former refinery workers. They argued that the backup bidder, Industrial Realty Group in partnership with former Philadelphia Energy Solutions CEO Phil Rinaldi, offered $25 million more than Hilco and an opportunity to restart refining operations and bring union workers back. But PES said Hilco’s bid still was “deemed superior.”
Those differences were settled with the $29 million agreement, with $5 million going to former refinery workers.
“This is not a joyful day,” said Robert J. Stark, who represented the committee of unsecured creditors. “We did the best we could with what we had.”
Stark said that even though the settlement was “far from a perfect outcome,” it would benefit the most vulnerable creditors of “this horrible case,” employees who “one day were going to work” and then were out of work and “figuring out if they would have to move” to be able to pay their bills and mortgages.
“This gives them cash now, when they need it,” said Stark, who urged the judge to confirm the plan.
The sale and the settlement are a substantial part of PES’ plan to emerge from bankruptcy. During the three-hour hearing Wednesday, the company’s lawyers and other creditors urged Judge Gross to approve its fourth amended plan for reorganization, which resolved all but four of the 13 objections to the previous version of the plan filed last week.
PES’ lawyers told Gross the plan achieved the “single most dramatic turnaround” from a dramatic situation. It moved matters from uncertain and unpromising to a proposal they said maximizes the value to be distributed to creditors, secures operations at the refinery site, pursues the recovery of $1.2 billion in insurance claims, and contemplates the investment of millions in the site and the creation of thousands of new jobs through the sales of all its assets to Hilco.
But because negotiations continued until the very last minute — the hearing was postponed twice during the day — most of the stakeholders, as well as the judge, could not read the amended plan before the hearing.
“We have a mess this afternoon,” said David L. Buchbinder, the U.S. trustee who acts as a watchdog for the process. “I appreciate the progress, but before we should sign a confirmation plan, we should see it.”
Judge Gross, who has set his retirement for March, agreed.
“How can I confirm a plan that I haven’t seen?” he asked.
Pressed by the deadline set by Hilco, the judge overruled the remaining objections, approved the sale and the settlement, and set up a hearing for Thursday at 1 p.m.
“I will be prepared to approve confirmation tomorrow assuming there are no new objections,” he said. “You know, I’ve been on the bench almost 14 years, this might be the most difficult confirmation I’ve had.”
Ryan O’Callaghan, former president of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, said he was conflicted after the judge’s ruling, even though the settlement meant a direct benefit to the union’s members.
“That $5 million is not equal to a job, is not equal to employment, is not equal to the brotherhood and the sisterhood that we had in the refinery, we were a family there, it doesn’t equal that,” O’Callaghan said. “And it does nothing for the poor in the city of Philadelphia and the surrounding communities because I don’t know how the area is going to make up $16 billion in economic activity.”
Environmental leaders who have fought for a cleaner use of the site applauded the judge’s decision.
“After over a century and a half of endangering the health of residents and the environment, this decision means a permanent end to the city’s largest industrial source of harmful air pollutants and climate pollution,” the Clean Air Council’s director, Joseph Otis Minott, said in a statement. “Hilco must work with all stakeholders to leverage this opportunity to transform the site so it protects our air, water, health, and safety while spurring economic development and high-paying union jobs.”
Mark Allan Hughes, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, said ending the city’s long oil-refining legacy is great news and the best possible outcome from the bankruptcy process.
“Rather than being a poster child for what the world is turning away from, we can now be a poster child for where the world is going,” Hughes said. “The world is moving towards a lower carbon future, a lower carbon energy system, where the transition (is) from brown, polluting, fossil-fuel based energy systems, to green, non-polluting, clean, renewable energy systems.”
Hughes, who chaired the committee on the environment for the city’s Refinery Advisory Group, applauded Mayor Jim Kenney for standing by the recommendations made by the advisory group of favoring a safer and cleaner use for the site.
“When it really got hard last week, when objections were being raised, on several occasions the city stated and restated its position about reopening the refinery and was frankly not intimidated,” Hughes said.
City officials supported Hilco’s bid when it was first announced, arguing that it followed recommendations presented by the Refinery Advisory Group formed in the aftermath of the fire: a safer and more environmentally friendly mixed-use development of the site.