Plans for the deep injection well are in the early stages, but residents weary of water contamination are on edge.
Republican lawmakers have resisted Wolf administration climate-change efforts. But a different national tone could encourage efforts to compromise.
The oil industry sees the president-elect as open to compromise — and likely constrained by a Republican Senate.
A few weeks after Pittsburgh residents wheezed through several days of unhealthy air quality, a group of Allegheny County residents called on local regulators and US Steel to cut pollution from the company’s production plants.
On a virtual rally, held with local environmental groups and activists, residents living near the company’s Clairton Coke Works said pollution levels during an “inversion” event in early November made it unbearable for them to go outside.
Germaine Patterson, of Clairton, said she couldn’t exercise outside her home during the inversion.
“I was forced to go back in because my heart started palpitating and I know that it was a result of the air quality,” Patterson said. “It’s a shame because we had beautiful days, beautiful November days.”
The county’s nearby air quality monitor in Lincoln Borough exceeded federal air quality standards of 35 micrograms per cubic meter three days in a row, between Nov. 6-8, hitting a high of 104 micrograms per cubic meter — three times the federal standard — the morning of Nov. 8, according to readings recorded by Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab.
Dave Meckel, of Glassport, just across the river from the Clairton plant. Meckel said he’s tired of getting air quality alerts from Allegheny County on days when pollution levels rise.
“People at the Health Department will call and say this is a ‘Code Orange’ day, be a good turtle and go into your shell and don’t come out until we tell you that you can breathe clean air again,” he said. “This is ridiculous.”
Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said in a statement in early November: “It saddens me to know that many people across Allegheny County may not have been able to enjoy time outdoors…because of the poor air quality. Elevated levels of fine particulate matter can negatively impact people’s health.”
The bad air resulted from an inversion that settled into the Pittsburgh area over a few days in early November. Inversions are a weather pattern where warm air traps colder air and pollutants near the earth’s surface, and are common during colder months. The Allegheny County Health Department says climate change is likely to make inversions more frequent in the future.
US Steel said it was already operating its plants at reduced capacity due to the coronavirus. A spokeswoman, Amanda Malkowski, said the plant made voluntary “adjustments” during the inversion, including further reducing production and limiting trucking operations.
According to state data, the company’s Clairton plant is Allegheny County’s largest source of particulate pollution, which can cause heart and lung diseases, and benzene, a carcinogen. It also accounts for around 90 percent of the county’s hydrogen sulfide, a noxious gas that causes a “rotten egg” smell. The plant has been fined $5.5 million since 2015 for air quality violations, according to EPA data.
Air monitors near the plant have exceeded the state’s hydrogen sulfide limits 23 times so far this year, including seven days in a row in early November, according to data compiled by the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP).
Rachel Filippini, the executive director of GASP, said she was hopeful a pair of regulations working their way through county government could soon curtail these releases.
The first is a revised coke oven regulation, which is under a 60-day public comment period, and is targeted at lowering emissions from the Clairton plant, the country’s largest producer of coke, a key component of steelmaking.
“What we are seeing in them is some improved inspection procedures that will hopefully cause US Steel to increase its environmental compliance efforts,” Filippini said, though she said her group would offer more in depth comments on the rules in January.
Filippini said a separate regulation would force industrial plants to cut their emissions during “episodic” events, like inversions. She said it will be “many months” before the county has any written draft of those rules for the public to view.
“The current episodic air pollution regulations that are on the books are woefully outdated,” Filippini said. “Just like you saw earlier this month, there were seven days in a row when our hydrogen sulfide emission standard was violated…So we definitely need something in place to protect public health.”
Malkowski, of US Steel, said the health department hasn’t shown the new rules are technically feasible for the company to implement, or that they would result in improvement to the environment.
The coke oven regulations are available at www.alleghenycounty.us/regs-sips. Comments will be accepted until Jan. 21, at email@example.com or by mail to Allegheny County Health Department Attention: Paulette Poullet, 301 39th Street, Bldg. 7, Pittsburgh, PA 15201-1811.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s office has said the bill “poses an undeniable risk to the health and safety of our citizens, the environment, and our public resources.”
The measure is opposed by a collection of sportsmen’s and environmental groups.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered a pipeline company not to put volatile substances into unstable sections of the Revolution line, to prevent what the agency says could be a danger to the community and the environment.
The DEP says ETC Northeast Pipelines, LLC, a subsidiary of pipeline company Energy Transfer, must stabilize the line before using it to transport natural gas or natural gas liquids.
The pipeline company recently told DEP that it intends to put the Revolution Pipeline into service in Butler, Beaver, Allegheny and Washington counties. DEP said the company failed to submit the required stability designs for numerous unstable sections that the state has identified.
In 2018, a landslide occurred in Beaver County and a section of the pipeline separated, allowing methane gas to escape. It ignited, and then exploded. The resulting fire burned several acres of forestland, caused evacuation of nearby residents, and destroyed a family’s home.
In January 2020, DEP issued a consent order and agreement and $30.6 million civil penalty against Energy Transfer for violations that led to the incident.
DEP said Thursday that Energy Transfer is in violation of the consent agreement requirements for designs “that achieve an adequate factor of safety where [Energy Transfer] constructed the Revolution Pipeline across steep slopes and hillsides.”
Now, the company intends to transmit not only natural gas, but potentially more dangerous natural gas liquids, according to DEP spokesperson Lauren Fraley.
“The impact of a future landslide and pipeline separation, could be more dangerous, and cause more pollution than the explosion in 2018, because of the addition of natural gas liquids into the pipeline,” Fraley said.
The order remains in effect until the agency determines the company has submitted and implemented stabilization plans.
“DEP is not telling the full story regarding the stabilization work,” said Energy Transfer spokesperson Alexis Daniel in an email to The Allegheny Front. “Any areas where stabilization work has been approved have been completed or are actively in the stabilization process.”
She said DEP has not approved the company’s requests to do additional stabilization work, and that independent analysis found the pipeline is built in stable soil. Daniel disputes the company is in violation of the consent agreement. She said the company looks forward to talking with DEP “instead of exchanging information in a public forum.”
A former EPA official said the Biden administration's task regarding climate regulations and environmental protection is "to rebuild what has essentially been completely dismantled."
Andrew Harnik / AP Photo
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is promoting a new “Marshall Plan for Middle America” that would transition the Appalachian region away from fossil fuels and toward greener sources of energy.
The plan calls for $600 billion in investments over 10 years in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, to fund renewable and energy efficiency projects. The authors say this would create 270,000 direct and 140,000 “induced” jobs.
It is named after the Marshall Plan, the United States’ $13 billion effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II in the earliest days of the Cold War.
The Appalachian region plan’s lead author, Leslie Marshall, associate director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sustainable Business, said the plan is aimed at trying to deal with a “confluence of crises.”
“We are feeling climate change very acutely in our own communities, we are seeing widening gaps, in social equity and economic well-being, which are being exacerbated by the pandemic,” Marshall said at a news conference Thursday announcing the 44-page plan.
“This is going to take massive infrastructure — it’s going to require a lot of funding,” Marshall said. “We need to marshal those capital resources to front those costs.”
The plan does not specify where the money will come from, but suggests it could be funded through a mix of tax breaks, public-private partnerships, and alliances between labor, environmental, and academic institutions.
The plan shares many of the goals of the Green New Deal, a plan favored by some Democrats in Congress to rapidly switch to a clean energy economy, while also trying to address inequality in America.
But in talking up the Marshall plan, Peduto said it emphasized working with fossil fuel companies already operating in the region for a more gradual shift, not a complete shutdown of coal and natural gas.
“If we decide to shut it down tomorrow, it’ll mean we have learned nothing from 1979, when we lost our industry, and how we got knocked down to our knees, and families had to leave Pittsburgh and young people had to leave Pittsburgh,” Peduto said at the news conference.
The plan was created by an independent, non-partisan group of academics and other researchers at several institutions, including the University of Pittsburgh.
Peduto said the plan was needed because the region is dependent on fossil fuels, which the world is turning away from because they contribute to climate change.
“If we do nothing, over the next 10 years, our four-state region will lose 100,000 jobs in the fossil fuel industry. One hundred thousand families will be without work,” Peduto said.
Peduto said he’d spoken about the plan with the Biden campaign, which is also promoting a transition to clean energy.
Research for the project received financial support from the Enel Foundation, which is run by Enel, an Italian energy company with investments in wind and solar.
President-elect Joe Biden says he will make climate change a priority on day one of his administration, planning to write a letter to the United Nations recommitting the country to the Paris Agreement and urging nations to bolster their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the landmark treaty, which became official the day after Election Day.
Spain’s Environment Minister and Vice President Theresa Ribera praised Biden’s commitment to rejoining the agreement.
“I think that this is very good news,” she told WHYY. “This could facilitate and accelerate climate action in a very fair way.”
Ribera says having the U.S. back in the agreement could jump-start global action on cutting carbon emissions by reconstructing alliances between the traditional big powers like the European Union, Canada, and Australia, and emerging powers like India, China, and Brazil.
“The commitment of the United States to this agenda is also very positive in terms of values,” said Ribera. “I think the American spirit to work to defend, to invest, to make partnerships with people who are suffering is also important.”
Some of the poorest nations have suffered disproportionately from the impacts of a warming planet despite contributing the least amount of carbon to the atmosphere.
The Paris Agreement committed nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Climate scientists say time is running out, with only a decade left to get emissions under control. Biden’s climate plan seeks to reach net-zero carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2050.
His plan includes ramping up clean energy infrastructure projects like building more electric car charging stations and promoting energy-efficient buildings.
Trump made withdrawing from the landmark climate treaty a hallmark of his 2016 campaign. Biden says he will rejoin
“I’m hopeful,” says John Byrne, director of the Center for Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware. “I believe that the climate plan that his campaign issued is the kind of multi-dimensional approach we need. We need to do a lot in renewables. We need to do a lot in energy conservation and energy efficiency, especially when it pays for itself.”
Byrne has worked with the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for decades, helping to craft climate treaties including the 2015 Paris Agreement.
He says the U.S. has been on the sidelines of clean energy manufacturing since George W. Bush exited the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and that’s been exacerbated over the last four years.
“But I think we can, with proper national signals and support, we can catch up,” he said. “The United States has led in the development of the most cost-effective and most productive solar electric technologies on the planet. It’s just that we lost the ability to take that, if you will, from laboratory to production. We’re not going to regain all of it, but we certainly could play a role as we move forward.”Reversing the rollbacks
The Trump administration spent the last four years dismantling environmental regulations, which Trump says hurt businesses and the economy. More than 100 rules governing clean water, clean air, chemical contamination, and greenhouse gas emissions have been reversed.
And while issues like the coronavirus, racial justice and health care may have dominated voter’s decisions, a lot of people who voted for Biden said they want Biden to restore environmental protections.
“I grew up in a rural community where the water was clean, where the air was clean and I want that 100, 200, 500 years from now,” said Tricia Bruning outside a polling place in North Philadelphia on Election Day. “I want that for Philadelphians, I want that for people all over the world.”
A large amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from cars and trucks. A new administration could impact the kind of cars we drive in the future by restoring the Obama administration’s fuel efficiency standards.
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware all follow California’s tailpipe emission standards, which are cleaner than those set by the federal government. But last year, Trump revoked the ability of states to set tougher limits, and environmentalists expect Biden to restore stricter tailpipe standards set by California.Janice Pfeiffer, Tricia Bruning and her son Carson Butler at a polling place in Brewerytown on Tuesday. All three say climate and the environment were important issues in this election. (Susan Phillips/WHYY)
Maya van Rossum with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network says she feels a sense of relief that Trump will no longer be president. But she says Biden won’t be able to set things right on day one.
“There’s a lot that a Biden administration is going to have to do to bring us back up to where we were before Donald Trump became the president,” said van Rossum.
Van Rossum says it will be difficult for Biden to implement new protections if Republicans remain in control of the Senate. She says Trump’s conservative judicial appointees could also create roadblocks long into the future.
“So much of environmental protection depends on the ability of people to go into court and get a fair hearing about the facts and the science and the impacts and the laws, because all too often, even when we have a good administration in office, government agencies get it wrong,” said van Rossum.
Many worry that Trump will implement further rollbacks through executive orders in the two-and-a-half months he will remain in office.
PennEnvironment Director David Masur says many of Trump’s regulatory rollbacks are still tied up in court, and if Biden were to reverse them, some are still subject to regulatory review.
“The hard part is, for better or for worse, it will take a lot of time and energy to undo all of the steps backwards that the Trump administration implemented over the last four years,” said Masur. “You can’t just snap your fingers and make all that go away.”
Masur says Biden can have an influence on enforcement since he’s expected to appoint qualified scientists to run agencies like the EPA.
During the campaign, Trump focused a lot on fracking, falsely accusing Biden of wanting to ban it. But Biden can only ban fracking on federal land, where he has promised to halt any new leases. Penn State Geoscience professor Terry Engelder says a Biden presidency is likely to have little impact on the oil and gas industry even if he makes good on his promise to ban new fracking on federal land.
“Most of what is [onshore] federal and potential for oil and gas development has already been leased,” said Engelder. “I mean, there’s not a lot left out there that the industry will be able to find. So that I think even a Biden presidency doesn’t affect the industry directly.”
Engelder says there could be more regulations under Biden. He has promised to restore federal limits on methane emissions from oil and gas wells. Engelder says despite Biden’s ambitious climate goals, demand for Pennsylvania’s shale gas won’t go away soon, especially since so much electricity is now generated by natural gas power plants.