President Donald Trump wants to make it easier for companies to transport natural gas from places like Pennsylvania to the Northeast.
He signed an executive order this week that would speed up pipeline permitting. It takes aim at states like New York that have blocked pipeline projects that would carry Marcellus Shale gas to markets in the Northeast, where gas is not always readily available. Trump’s order also opens the door to natural gas being transported by rail.
“Too often, badly needed energy infrastructure is being held back by special interest groups, entrenched bureaucracies and radical activists,” the president told a crowd gathered Wednesday at an International Union of Operating Engineers facility in Crosby, Texas before he signed several executive orders related to oil and gas.
Trump’s directive stems in part from New York’s denial of a water quality permit for the Constitution Pipeline, among other projects blocked by states under the federal Clean Water Act.
New York in 2016 halted the Constitution project, which would carry gas north from Susquehanna County. The fight over the pipeline continues to play out in court and among regulatory agencies.
In his executive order, Trump directs the Environmental Protection Agency to issue new permitting guidance to states. He did not explicitly say how states’ authority should change, but he said the EPA’s review should focus on “the need to promote timely Federal-State cooperation and collaboration” and “the appropriate scope of water quality reviews.”
Trump also asked the EPA to go a step further by formally revising its rules surrounding that portion of the Clean Water Act.
Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry welcomed Trump’s order.
“If you have the rules in place where the game is fair in terms of siting pipelines and critical infrastructure projects, then I think it opens the door for new development,” said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group.
Still, the fate of the Constitution Pipeline is unclear.
Williams, the lead developer of the project, said in a statement that it “supports efforts to foster coordination, predictability and transparency in federal environmental review and permitting processes for energy infrastructure projects.” The company, however, declined to comment specifically on the president’s order and what it means for the future of the pipeline.
Mark Szybist, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he anticipates the legal battle over the pipeline will continue following Trump’s order.
“I suspect that was at least the intent of this executive order, to change the outcome of projects like the Constitution Pipeline,” he said. “How well that intent will succeed I think remains to be seen.”
He pointed to a statement from New York’s governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, who called Trump’s executive order a “gross overreach” of federal power.
“States must have a role in the process for siting energy infrastructure like pipelines, and any efforts to curb this right to protect our residents will be fought tooth and nail,” Cuomo said.
Szybist also questioned to what extent pipeline permitting in Pennsylvania will be affected by the order, given that the state has not experienced some of the same high-profile fights over pipelines as its neighbors that have denied projects under the Clean Water Act. Nevertheless, he said it would be concerning if the order changes the way Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection issues water quality certifications, should it result in less protection.
For years, the gas industry in Pennsylvania has sought to build more pipelines to reach New England, where residents tend to face higher heating prices than the rest of the nation and rely more on fuels like heating oil.
Spigelmyer said some in the region last year used gas supplied by a ship that anchored in Boston Harbor. The gas it carried came from Russia.
“That’s not a good thing when you’re bolstering your nation’s energy supply from out of the country,” he said.
As an alternative to transporting gas by pipeline, Trump’s order also directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to propose a rule allowing liquefied natural gas to be carried by rail.
For that to happen, gas would need to be cooled until it liquefies, at which point it would be carried on tank cars and delivered to a facility that would heat it again to return to gas form.
Such a form of transportation is legal in Canada, and trains already carry liquefied gas on a limited basis in Alaska and Florida, according to Bloomberg.
“We move oil that way, we move other liquids that way,” Spigelmyer said. “It is a safe form of transportation, and it is an alternate form of transportation that also makes sense.
Still, he said, pipelines are the cheapest and most efficient way to move natural gas.
If gas-by-rail becomes a reality, it will likely draw an outcry over the potential for derailments, given that trains have crashed while carrying crude oil from North Dakota. One such derailment that occurred in Canada in 2013 resulted in a fiery explosion that killed 47 people.
“My guess is there would be a huge amount of pushback from communities that would be affected by those kinds of projects,” Szybist said, adding that he wondered whether the proposal is meant to prompt states to view pipelines more favorably.
(Harrisburg) — Plastic straws, plastic bags, and Styrofoam food-takeout containers could be on their way out in Pennsylvania if some Democratic state lawmakers get the change they want.
The group has announced a package of 13 bills that tackle environmental and health problems posed by waste, litter and single-use plastic. The bills aim to alter the behavior of what they call a “throwaway society” with bans and taxes to punish use of plastic items that can be used only once, while pushing for incentives for recycling and waste reduction.
“When your food comes to you and it’s in a Styrofoam container, you’re unlikely to say, ‘No, I don’t want it anymore.’ They’re not going to give you the food in your hands, but you’re stuck,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, who pushed for the bills. “So we need laws to balance out and have check and balances in a marketplace that often has us putting consumption over the things that are better for [our] planet, our health, our quality of life.”
The “Zero Waste PA” legislative package is led by State Rep. Tim Briggs of Montgomery County. In February, he introduced a bill that prohibits restaurants and stores from dispensing their food in plastic plates, cups, or any other polystyrene container, including Styrofoam — and he wanted to broaden the scope to try to solve the bigger waste and litter issue.
“Recycling is broken in Pennsylvania,” Briggs said at a news conference Wednesday morning in Harrisburg. “If it’s e-waste, if it’s what we recycle [at] the curb going to incinerators, going to the landfills … The whole system needs to be reworked.”
Wilfredo Lee, / The Associated Press Photo
The package includes a bill from Montgomery County Rep. Mary Jo Daley that would prohibit plastic straws from being distributed, except at the request of a customer. Another measure, from Philadelphia Rep. Donna Bullock, would increase fines on illegal dumping. A 2-cent fee on non-reusable plastic bags at big grocery stores was presented by Philadelphia Reps. Brian Sims and Jared Solomon.
A bottle bill that gives 5 cents per container returned was announced by Bucks County Rep. Wendy Ulman. Legislation that would prohibit the distribution of products with packages made with non-recyclable plastics, unless the company selling the item takes the packaging back, was proposed by Chester County Rep. Melissa Shusterman. And a measure that puts a 20-cent deposit on cigarette packs was offered by Philadelphia Rep. Chris Rabb.
“Cigarette litter, 30 percent of all of our litter, is among the most toxic of all commonly littered items, containing a multiple of chemicals,” Rabb said at the news conference. “These chemicals casually tossed into our environment zip into our soil and our water supply. They contaminate our crops, our drinking water, and the animal and fish that we eat.”
Bucks County Rep. Perry Warren announced a bill that would reduce the number of plastic water bottles sent to landfills by requiring newly constructed state buildings and those undergoing renovations to water and pipe infrastructure to install water-bottle filling stations.
Another set of bills presented by Reps. Danielle Friel Otten, Parry Kim, Mary L. Isaacson, and Elizabeth Fiedler seeks to reduce waste by improving recycling and composting, or by increasing the disposal fees at landfills and incinerators. And a bill from Rep. Mike Zabel of Delaware County calls for implementing best practices for electronic-waste recycling.
Fiedler, who represents a district in South Philadelphia, proposed increasing the disposal fee at municipal waste landfills to $8 per ton from $4, to reduce the amount of trash imported into the state from New York and New Jersey.
“It is important that we address the waste and trash that we produce, and some of these societal norms that we have that result in us producing more and more,” said Fiedler, a former reporter at WHYY. “As we all know, there is no Planet B, so we better take care of the one we have.”
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, representing the plastic-bag industry, has been actively lobbying in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to push back against bans and fees. Its representatives say plastic-bag taxes don’t reduce waste and litter, and instead make groceries more expensive for lower-income communities.
PennEnvironment’s Masur said that even though fees may increase the cost of some items by a few cents, taxpayers also pay the cost for cleaning streets and waterways.
“A lot of the bills we’re talking about today have been test-driven in other states or municipalities,” Masur said. “And I think Pennsylvania can tap into that to ensure that these laws are successful and follow that same track record of reducing our waste in our throwaway society.”
The legislative package is the first step in a journey that could last many years, Masur said. His organization’s next steps are to work for bipartisan support of the bills in the State House, getting partner legislation in the State Senate, and having public hearings that would lead to votes on the existing bills.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.
Katie Meyer / WITF
(Harrisburg) — A bill aimed at saving two of Pennsylvania’s nuclear power plants from early retirement is getting an expectedly mixed reception in the state Senate.
The first committee hearing on the measure Wednesday saw nuclear and natural gas proponents clash over how to make Pennsylvania’s energy markets fair.
The proposal would recognize Pennsylvania’s five nuclear plants as carbon-free energy, and add them to the commonwealth’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard.
That law requires electric utilities to buy power from clean sources, like wind and solar. By adding nuclear to the mix, proponents hope to bolster it in a market increasingly dominated by natural gas.
Gas lobbyists argue nuclear plants are already mostly profitable, save Three Mile Island, which has only one reactor.
Marcellus Shale Coalition President Dave Spigelmyer said giving them a leg up is unfair.
“No real reason has been given to pass this legislation, other than we need the money to enhance our profit margin and to charge more for nuclear power,” he said. “This is a battle being waged against your constituents, the rate payer of Pennsylvania.”
The bill is expected to add about $1.53 per month to the average consumer’s electric bill, according to the Public Utility Commission.
Lancaster County Republican Senator Ryan Aument, who’s sponsoring the bill, didn’t dispute that. But he argued that Pennsylvania “will end up paying far more in the future if our nuclear power plants are permitted to prematurely retire.”
He is basing that assessment on an analysis from the Brattle Group, which studied potential impacts of all five of the commonwealth’s nuclear plants shutting down.
The researchers reported that the reduction of in-state energy production would likely drive electric utilities to purchase power from other states at a markup to consumers. That, they estimated, would result in a markup of around $6.6 billion over 10 years — about 37 percent of which would fall on residential customers.
A parallel bill in the House has gotten similar responses.
The Senate version has a few major differences. For one, it includes a provision that requires a nuclear plant to refund money from the AEPS credit if it fails to produce electricity. And it gives non-nuclear resources more opportunity to use the new tier 3 credits — a potential boost to renewables.
That lack of inclusion was a key reason environmental groups balked at the House’s initial proposal. But after the Senate bill was released, a representative for the Natural Resources Defense Council said it was “deeply flawed.”
Without intervention, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Harrisburg is expected to close in September. The Beaver Valley plant outside Pittsburgh faces a 2021 retirement.
Amy Sisk / StateImpact Pennsylvania
Some Allegheny County residents use a smartphone app to report foul smells in their communities, and a new version of that app is now available to the rest of the country.
For three years, people in the Pittsburgh area have documented their experiences with odors with just a few taps of a finger via Smell PGH.
The app also allows users to view a map showing where others have made reports.
“We wanted to build a sense of community,” said Beatrice Dias, project director at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, which built the app in collaboration with local groups concerned about air quality. “You’re not alone in your experiences with pollution; all your neighbors are experiencing the same thing. That validation and that power of a community voice was important.”
Since 2016, the app has sent more than 20,000 reports to the Allegheny County Health Department, which analyzes them to identify trends.
Now, the lab is rolling out a new version of the app called Smell MyCity for people across the country, with support from the green cleaning products company Seventh Generation.
Anyone in the United States can use the app, but CMU is customizing some features for certain cities. The developers are working first with partners in Louisville, Ky. to build a base of users.
Data from the app is available for anyone to download, and some groups already plan to use it.
Ted Smith, deputy director of the Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute at the University of Louisville’s medical school said university researchers will compare health data such as hospital admissions to smell reports to identify potential correlations.
“I really do hope that helps residents see that there’s somebody that actually does care about the thing they’re afraid of,” he said. “They’re afraid, potentially, that there’s a toxic emission that could be bad for their health.”
Odors in Louisville tend to come from the area’s rubber industry, coal power plants and a slaughterhouse, he said.
Like in Allegheny County, residents of Louisville can already go online to report bad odors to a local agency responsible for regulating air pollution, but they cannot see the breadth of reports across the community or easily find out what action, if any, officials take in response.
The community is cognizant of pollution problems. Smith said more than 1,000 people took part in a recent study where they carried GPS-enabled inhalers to use during asthma attacks.
“It was a tremendous project that showed us that air pollution was the single biggest predictor of asthma exacerbations,” Smith said.
Before CMU launched the Smell MyCity app, Smith’s high school son used code available online from Smell PGH to build a similar version for Louisville. He later did an internship with the CREATE Lab to help develop the national version.
Dias said the lab is also working with partners in Portland, Ore. and will likely promote the app there next.
At a Duquesne Light facility in Pittsburgh, 10 high school students hunched over sheets of paper, pens in hand, as they sketched their dream homes.
“I’m just drawing an A-frame house with a garage on the side, a nice front porch,” said Louis Charlier of Beaver Area High School on a recent Thursday.
The students had to draw their homes from three separate angles: straight on, from the side and a bird’s-eye view. This was a lesson on blueprints, something they will become familiar with if they pursue careers with the electric power company.
The teens arranged their schedules to take this class for a few hours each afternoon for several weeks as part of Duquesne Light’s new student bootcamp.
“They take classes around mathematics, reading comprehension, and we’re also doing soft-skill classes on interview skills, resume-writing, as well as an OSHA 10 class and a CPR class,” said Selenna Gregg, manager of talent acquisition for Duquesne Light.
The bootcamp is a new effort by Duquesne Light, which serves Allegheny and Beaver counties, and the Community College of Allegheny County to prepare students for the Construction and Skilled Trade Selection System exam. Passing the test is the first step in applying for a skilled trade job at the company.
The camp could help shape the next generation of workers tasked with keeping the lights on. New workers for electric power companies and other utilities like natural gas and water are in demand across Pennsylvania and the rest of the country.
“The baby boomers are starting to retire,” said Gladys Brown, chairman of Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission.
The PUC estimates 28 percent of the state’s utility workforce will retire in the next five years.
With them goes institutional knowledge that needs to be passed along to new workers, Brown said.
“You need those people to provide for that bridge, that transition to train them,” she said.
While the situation is a challenge for utilities, she said it’s not dire. The PUC keeps close tabs on utilities’ performance to ensure that outages don’t become too frequent and that response times are reasonable.
“We want to make sure you have the appropriate skilled, trained personnel on-hand to deal with providing that reliable service,” Brown said.
Gregg said Duquesne Light has experienced the same retirement trend as the rest of the industry. Its training programs have helped to replace those workers.
Each year, as many as 24 people go through the 10-month electrical distribution technology program at CCAC, which prepares them for careers at Duquesne Light. They could work in the power supplier’s operation center or have a job that takes them into the field installing and repairing lines and other equipment associated with the company’s electricity systems.
Duquesne Light plans to host another bootcamp this summer for high school students, who could go on to the CCAC program when they graduate. The power company is also holding a similar bootcamp for high school teachers.
“If teachers don’t know about the positions or some of the technical things that are out there for their students, they’re not able to talk to their students and share those experiences,” said Debbie Killmeyer, dean of workforce at CCAC.
It was a teacher at Charlier’s school who heard about the bootcamp from a Duquesne Light employee, and suggested he apply.
Charlier said he does not want to go to a traditional college.
“I’d rather just go straight into the workforce, do a trade or something along those lines,” he said.
On Day 2 of the camp, something Charlier heard from one of the company’s executives caught his attention.
“He told us that this job opportunity would be like having a $3-million lottery ticket,” he said.
That’s how much the students could make over the course of their careers if they work for Duquesne Light. Gregg said the starting salary for crafts-related jobs at the company is $65-$85,000, plus overtime.
“There’s plenty of jobs out there that pay really well and you don’t need a 4-year-degree for, and these jobs are needed,” Charlier said.
Power companies from Duquesne Light to First Energy to PECO are active in recruiting new workers, running programs and internships to give prospective employees hands-on experience.
The PUC is working on this issue too, having launched a utility careers campaign to promote the industry to young people, military veterans and others by talking up the positions at job fairs and other events. Brown said the PUC has involved a number of state agencies, schools and utility companies in the effort.
“I was realizing the magnitude of the retirement of our workers in-house, and I said let’s reach out to our utilities because I’m assuming they’re dealing with some of the same things,” she said.
For people considering utility careers, the next step after the Construction and Skilled Trade exam could make it or break it: pole school.
“A lot of people come in and they don’t realize if they’re scared of heights or if they’re able to climb to the top of a pole and then be able to work with their hands,” Gregg said.
Charlier’s not too worried. He’s looking forward to the challenge.
“I did well on all the practice exams, so I feel like I’m going to pass that test,” he said. “I feel like I can climb a pole.”
A couple degrees doesn't seem like much. But, a Penn State professor explains, it means more than we might think when it comes to the Earth.
Kriston Jae Bethel / For WHYY
Democratic U.S. Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Tom Carper of Delaware met with local politicians and community leaders from Bucks and Montgomery Counties Monday to discuss the remediation of a toxic class of chemicals known as PFAS, which has contaminated drinking water supplies across the country.
They left the meeting with a new commitment to get the PFAS Action Act — a bill introduced by Carper and co-sponsored by 30 senators including Casey — through Congress by attaching it to the Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass piece of legislation that funds the military and is voted on every two years.
“The time for examination is over,” Casey said. “These families need answers and action.”
The bill would force the EPA to list PFAS as hazardous chemicals, which would open up Superfund dollars to clean up contaminated sites, and would also force polluters to take charge of remediation efforts, and ultimately pick up the tab.
Carper said including the bill as part of the Defense Authorization Act will increase the likelihood of its passage.
“[The Defense Authorization Act] is like a locomotive, to which are appended a lot of rail cars, or in this case, a lot of pieces of legislation,” he said. “Some of them have a lot to do with defense, some of them frankly not so much.”
“[The PFAS Action Act] is germane,” he continued. “It involves hundreds of congressional districts across the country, thousands of communities, and it’s a defense-related issue.”
The meeting included state politicians, such as state Sen. Maria Collett and state Rep. Todd Stephens, as well as municipal and community leaders from Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington, communities whose drinking water was contaminated by PFAS-containing firefighting foam used at former military bases nearby.
Members of the community voiced their frustration at the lack of federal action when it comes to PFAS regulation.
The EPA announced a PFAS Action Plan in February but didn’t give a timeline for when drinking or groundwater standards would be passed. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signaled the agency would determine whether to issue a maximum contaminant level for PFAS in drinking water by the end of the year, but that would push an enforceable standard to 2023 at the earliest, according to most estimates.
Appending Carper’s bill to the defense legislation would take time as well. That bill is reauthorized every two years, usually toward the end of a legislative session, meaning passage would not occur until 2020 if it survives the legislative process.
“Of course we want something sooner,” said Hope Grosse, who heads the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water and participated in the meeting. But, she said, “at least there’s something on the table that has direction and has deadlines.”
Joanne Stanton, another member of the Buxmont Coalition who spoke with the senators, felt buoyed by the meeting.
“It was very encouraging to know that we have such support in the Senate,” she said, adding she is hopeful that if Carper’s bill is attached to the defense bill, “help will come and funds will finally be able to be disbursed to communities like ours in need.”
Collett stressed that even with strong support from the Senate, Pennsylvania needs to proceed with its own regulation of PFAS.
“If the EPA actually comes out and sets a standard that actually is going to work for us, fantastic,” she said. “I will be the biggest champion for that kind of legislation and that kind of movement.”
“But we’re not seeing it now, so we’re going to keep moving forward,” she added. “We’re going to keep pushing here in Pennsylvania to make sure that the people in our state are protected and healthy.”
Collett has issued a bill in the state legislature that would label PFAS as hazardous substances and would require the state to come up with a maximum contaminant level in drinking water.
In addition to the work happening in the state legislature, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf established a PFAS Action Team last fall to address growing concerns about these chemicals across the state.
That team will hold a meeting next week at Abington High School to discuss a plan to sample potentially contaminated drinking water sources and to delve further into the results of a pilot blood study conducted by the state Department of Health last year.
In the meantime, Casey said he found the stories of community members “sobering” and plans to use that information to help push Carper’s bill through Congress.
“People in both Montgomery and Bucks County have a right to know what’s in their water and what the health impacts are for them, for their families, and for their communities,” he said.
A House panel heard a litany of arguments for and against a bill that would provide a $500 million annual subsidy to Pennsylvania's nuclear industry.
U.S. Steel says the pollution controls at its Clairton Plant are fully operating again after a fire damaged them in December.
For over three months, the company has been working to repair equipment that takes sulfur out of the gas produced by baking coal into coke, a key ingredient in steelmaking, at its Clairton plant. When burned, the sulfur forms sulfur dioxide, a lung irritant that can cause respiratory problems.
The lack of controls has led Clairton and two other U.S. Steel plants nearby to release five times the amount of sulfur dioxide as they normally are permitted to, according to the Allegheny County Health Department. That has caused several spikes of the pollutant in the surrounding area.
In January, following the fire, the health department issued an air quality warning for vulnerable populations, like children and the elderly, to limit their outdoor time due to potential air quality problems.
The Allegheny County Health Department ordered the plant to have its repaired equipment fully running by April 15. U.S. Steel has notified the agency that it’s already met that requirement, 11 days early.
“This is an important milestone in our repair efforts and we will continue to monitor and adjust coking times as appropriate,” said Meghan M. Cox, a company spokeswoman, in an emailed statement.
The health department says it will now calculate a fine to levy against the company for air quality violations related to the fire.
Even the most comprehensive studies have fallen short of drawing conclusive verdicts on the ongoing debate.