Onorato threatens to withhold drilling permits

Image courtesy of DEP

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dan Onorato says he’d pressure natural gas drilling companies to hire Pennsylvania residents by threatening to withhold state drilling permits.

Both Onorato and Republican Tom Corbett say they want more Pennsylvanians employed at natural gas drilling sites. Right now, a majority of well workers come from out of state. Both candidates promise to commit to training commonwealth residents to do the complicated jobs, but Onorato says he’d go a step further.

Onorato says he’d be justified to use permits as leverage, arguing, “I think all governors apply pressure on every industry. The whole idea of being governor is you try to bring jobs and improve the economy of your state. We have a golden opportunity here, with the Marcellus Shale find. But we get one chance to get it right.”

The problem is, Onorato’s idea isn’t legal. “It’s not what we do,” says Governor Rendell. “And you might be able to do that, but you’d probably have to change some regulations or get some legislation.” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger, who oversees well permitting, agrees. “That’s not one of the grounds for rejecting a permit in the Oil and Gas Act,” he explains, adding he worries a measure mandating companies hire Pennsylvanians would run afoul of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

Still, Hanger applauds Onorato’s mindset. “I think it’s more than reasonable for Pennsylvania  public officials to turn up the heat on getting Pennsylvanians hired,” he says, pointing out companies have been drilling in the Marcellus formation since 2005. “We want Pennsylvanians to be hired. I think everyone has seen the proliferation of Texas, Wyoming and other out of state plates on trucks and all sorts of vehicles around Marcellus operations.”

What does Corbett think about Onorato’s proposal? “That’s  quite a threat that he has out there. My idea is, we get the people trained, they’re going to hire our people. And that solves the problem.” Would Corbett use permits as leverage, I asked during a campaign appearance. “I don’t threaten people,” he said.


DEP hits energy company with $350,000 fine

A state investigation into a June natural gas spill in Clearfield County blames the energy company running the well for skirting safety standards. The June 3rd accident caused natural gas and polluted water to shoot into the air for more than 16 hours.

A state investigation faults EOG Resources for having just one pressure barrier in place at the well, and for failing to properly test their operation’s blowout preventer.

Lead investigator John Vittitow says EOG also failed to properly train its employees.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger says the state has imposed the stiffest fine possible, and warns DEP will revoke the company’s drilling license if it makes another mistake.  “It was an embarrassment,” he said during this afternoon’s press conference.  “And that – that is a word that describes unusual behavior. Unacceptable behavior. And EOG needs to turn the page here. I believe in redemption.” Hanger says EOG’s cooperation during the investigation played a role in DEP giving the company a second chance.

The $353,400 is the largest fine allowed under state law. DEP has sent a letter to all natural gas drillers operating in Pennsylvania, reminding them to install at least two pressure barriers at wells.

Cows quarantined after drinking fracking fluid

The Agriculture Department has quarantined 28 Tioga County cows who came into contact with fracking fluids from nearby natural gas drilling. Here’s the relase

Cattle from Tioga County Farm Quarantined after Coming in Contact with Natural Gas Drilling Wastewater

Harrisburg – The Department of Agriculture announced today that it has quarantined cattle from a Tioga County farm after a number of cows came into contact with drilling wastewater from a nearby natural gas operation.

Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said uncertainty over the quantity of wastewater the cattle may have consumed warranted the quarantine in order to protect the public from eating potentially contaminated beef.

“Cattle are drawn to the taste of salty water,” said Redding. “Drilling wastewater has high salinity levels, but it also contains dangerous chemicals and metals.  We took this precaution in order to protect the public from consuming any of this potentially contaminated product should it be marketed for human consumption.”

Redding said 28 head of cattle were included in the quarantine, including 16 cows, four heifers and eight calves. Those cattle were out to pasture in late April and early May when a drilling wastewater holding pond on the farm of Don and Carol Johnson leaked, sending the contaminated water into an adjacent field where it created a pool. The Johnsons had noticed some seepage from the pond for as long as two months prior to the leak.

The holding pond was collecting flowback water from the hydraulic fracturing process on a well being drilled by East Resources Inc.

Grass was killed in a roughly 30- x 40-foot area where the wastewater had pooled. Although no cows were seen drinking the wastewater, tracks were found throughout the pool. The wet area extended about 200-300 feet into the pasture.

The cattle had potential access to the pool for a minimum of three days until the gas company placed a snow fence around the pool to restrict access.

Subsequent tests of the wastewater found that it contained chloride, iron, sulfate, barium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium, strontium and calcium.

Redding said the main element of concern is the heavy metal strontium, which can be toxic to humans, especially in growing children. The metal takes a long time to pass through an animal’s system because it is preferentially deposited in bone and released in the body at varying rates, dependent on age, growth status and other factors. Live animal testing was not possible because tissue sampling is required.

The secretary also added that the quarantine will follow the recommended guidelines from the Food Animal Residue Avoidance and Depletion Program, as follows:

  • Adult animals: hold from food chain for 6 months.
  • Calves exposed in utero: hold from food chain for 8 months.
  • Growing calves: hold from food chain for 2 years.

In response to the leak, the Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation to East Resources Inc. and required further sampling and site remediation. DEP is evaluating the final cleanup report and is continuing its investigation of operations at the drilling site, as well as the circumstances surrounding the leaking holding pond.

Vitali: House Dems need to make severance tax happen

A natural gas severance tax needs to be passed in the coming weeks, or it won’t be passed at all.

That’s according to Delaware County Democrat Greg Vitali, who’s led the charge for a Marcellus Shale levy in the House this session.

Vitali predicts the Republican-controlled Senate won’t approve a tax — or the House’s three-year moratorium on state forest land leasing — unless Democratic leaders use the measures as leverage during upcoming budget negotiation sessions.

The House’s severance tax would impose an eight percent levy on natural gas wells’ production value. It’s part of the revenue package that House members debated this afternoon before Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans halted debate at the governor’s request.

Casey wants more federal drilling oversight

Democrat Bob Casey is calling on the EPA to take a larger role in investigations of water contamination caused by natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation.  The release is below.

SCRANTON, PA—U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) today was joined by residents in the Dimock area whose wells were contaminated by drilling conducted by Texas-based Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. as he called for additional oversight of natural gas drilling.  Senator Casey today sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urging them to examine its current authority to determine whether it can take additional steps in Pennsylvania to investigate and respond to groundwater contamination and other potentially harmful consequences of drilling.

“Natural gas drilling can provide an economic boost to Pennsylvania but we must protect ground water,” said Senator Casey.  “We will not allow an out-of-state company to come to Pennsylvania and contaminate the groundwater of our residents.  Three million Pennsylvanians rely on wells for their drinking water.  We must ensure adequate safeguards are in place to protect this most basic necessity for Pennsylvanians.”

In the letter, Senator Casey wrote: “I urge EPA to examine its authority to determine whether it can take additional steps in Pennsylvania to investigate and respond to groundwater contamination and other potentially harmful consequences of drilling. I request a meeting with you and appropriate EPA officials to discuss natural gas drilling and whether EPA could launch an investigation into water and environmental contamination.”

In 2009, Senator Casey introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act.  The legislation would repeal a Bush administration exemption provided for the oil and gas industry and would require them to disclose the chemicals they use in their hydraulic fracturing processes.  Currently, the oil and gas industry is the only industry granted an exemption from complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Hydraulic fracturing – also known as “fracking”, which is used in almost all oil and gas wells, is a process whereby fluids are injected at high pressure into underground rock formations to blast them open and increase the flow of fossil fuels.  Fracking is used in areas of Pennsylvania where natural gas is being drilled from Marcellus Shale.

This injection of unknown and potentially toxic chemicals often occurs near drinking water wells.  Three million Pennsylvanians are dependent on private wells for water.  Troubling incidents have occurred around the country where people became ill after fracking operations began in their communities. Some chemicals that are known to have been used in fracking include diesel fuel, benzene, industrial solvents and other carcinogens and endocrine disrupters.