Breaking News: SB790 Vetoed by Governor Wolf

PA Senate Bill 790—an “Act relating to conventional wells and the development of oil, gas and coal” and “imposing powers and duties on the Department of Environmental Protection”—has been vetoed by Governor Wolf.

Whether this marks Pennsylvania’s turn away from a carbon economy toward a greener future is yet to be determined, but it does shine a rare ray of hope on an otherwise looming dark winter.

Class VI Rapids: Pennsylvania’s EcoApocalyptic Legislators

[Class VI Rapids are defined as: “Nearly impossible and very dangerous. Involves risk of life.” So Class VI Rapids is the title of this regular collection of recent life-threatening environmental stories affecting The Allegheny River watershed.]

The term “EcoApocalyptic” is not hyperbole. It is not snark. It is, if anything, understatement.

The Apocalypse as described in the the biblical book of Revelation is the final destruction of the world. With respect to the world as we know it, this aptly describes the consequences of the climate crisis. As Oxford Physics Professor Raymond Pierrehumbert says, “It’s time to panic.”

The Apocalypse, of course, is religious prophecy. The EcoApocalypse, on the other hand, is scientific prediction. The EcoApocalypse is the allegorical Apocalypse made real in superstorms, disease outbreaks, heatwaves, climate wars, droughts, floods and species extinction.

There are so many Pennsylvania legislators bent on hastening our collective demise, it is impossible to cover them all in a single post. So this is a just a sampling.

State Representative Kathy Rapp

Despite her conservative bona fides that regard jobs as the currency of modern politics, in this video Representative Rapp (Republican, Allegheny River Watershed, District 65) displays her abject distaste for jobs–yes, jobs! She is so clearly biased in favor of jobs in the declining oil and gas sector that she disparages jobs in the rapidly growing green energy sector.

In questioning Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary McDonnell and Rob Altenburg, Director of Energy Center, PennFuture, she expresses angry disbelief that clean energy jobs outnumber oil and gas jobs in Pennyslvania and in her own district.

She then virtue-signals her concern over the future environmental impact and cost of recycling those abhorrently toxic—wait for it—wind turbines!

In her outrage over wind-turbine pollution, Representative Rapp, of course, completely ignores the real and present-day threats to human and environmental health resulting from her own advocacy of increased oil and gas industry pollution.

If Representative Rapp was sincere in her concern about industrial pollution, wouldn’t she have taken this opportunity to ask DEP Secretary McDonnell hard questions about permitting Warren Generating Station to pour 29,000 gallons per day of “treated” coal ash leachate (containing lead, aresenic, mercury, uranium, etc.) into the Allegheny River in her district?

Wouldn’t she have asked Secretary McDonnell what he was doing to clean the mercury from the impaired section of Allegheny River downstream from the Warren Generating Station in her district?

Wouldn’t she have asked about cleaning the radioactive elements contaminating 2.64 miles of Allegheny River bottom sediments downstream from the now defunct/bankrupt Waste Treatment Corporation plant that once dumped “treated” oil and gas wastewater into the Allegheny River in her district?

Could Representative Rapp’s pearl-clutching over recycling wind turbines have anything to do with the fact that wind generated electricity is the cheapest form of generated electricity? In 2017, Scientific American reported “U.S. wind energy will continue to be one of the lowest cost electricity generation technologies available, with the long-term wind electricity price available through a power purchase agreement coming in at about half the expected cost of just running a natural gas power plant.”

Read the entire transcript of the Pennsylvania House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing.

PA Senator Joe Scarnati

Map of gravel roads in Pennsylvania where oil and gas wastewater has been spread.
Gravel roads in Pennsylvania where oil and gas wastewater has been spread. PennState Institute of Energy and the Environment. (Visit link to zoom in.)

Senator Joe Scarnati, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, represents Allegheny River Watershed District 25 in rural north central Pennsylvania. He has accepted $593,313 from the oil and gas industry, a tidy sum that bought an especially industry-pleasing (and toxic) piece of legislation he sponsored—Senate Bill 790, the Conventional Oil and Gas Act.

SB 790 passed in the Senate without a floor debate on a narrow 26-23 vote. Among many ecocidal rules in the bill, perhaps the most prominent is making it legal again to spread radioactive oil and gas wastewater on gravel roads (see map above), despite a 2018 PennState study that determined brine spreading had already dumped 200 times more carcinogenic radium onto Pennsylvania soil and into streams than all previous oil and gas industry spills.

It would be far better for the Pennsylvania environment and for the health of Pennsylvanians if Senator Scarnati would spend more of his time and campaign funds jetting around Europe, where he used his campaign credit card to pay for meals at posh restaurants and lodging in tourist areas.

For a comprehensive review of Senate Bill 790, visit the PA Environment Blog.

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey is afraid Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren may keep their promises to ban fracking if elected president.

To prevent that, Toomey has sponsored a bill that prevents a president from using executive authority, such as invoking a national emergency, to ban fracking. Toomey refers to fracking as the source of an “economic renaissance.”

In addition, Senator Toomey has also sponsored legislation to prevent state governors (such as New York Governor Cuomo) from blocking construction of gas pipelines, many of which originate in the fracked gas fields of Pennsylvania.

No wonder The Onion‘s 2014 spoof of Senator Toomey still rings so true: “ExxonMobil, Chevron Locked In Bidding War To Acquire Lucrative Pennsylvania Senator.”

If the PGE candidates win the election, what happens to the environment in Warren County?

Oil well by house

PGE Board of Commissioners: Oil and gas drilling in residential neighborhoods is safe and creates jobs!

The Warren County Zoning Ordinance allows conventional oil and gas drilling in residential neighborhoods. In 2016, this became an issue in North Warren, where a well was drilled in the floodplain just over 100 feet from Conewango Creek and just over 200 feet from the nearest neighbor’s house. 

The tank farm was placed alongside busy State Street within feet of a neighborhood school bus stop. Well-drilling equipment and vehicles were parked at the site for months. The well pad was covered by floodwater at least once, damming up stormwater that created unwelcome and long lasting duck ponds in at least two backyards. And on multiple occasions neighbors complained about gas and oil fumes. When an oil spill occurred, fluid-soaked refuse was left onsite in the open bed of a dump truck for weeks, fouling the air downwind.

Will more residential neighborhoods in Warren County become working oil fields?

Unfortunately, as rural oil reserves play out, untapped (or less tapped) residential areas may now be among the most desirable locations left to drill. Conveniently, when blighted houses are demolished creating gaps in residential neighborhoods, drillers may see an opportunity. Proclaiming economic benefits and increased job opportunities they will seek support from the PGE Board of Commissioners to open residential neighborhoods to the drill, and will likely find the Board extremely sympathetic. If that floodgate can be opened, it is imaginable that oil and gas companies will buy cheap houses, demolish them, and drill.

The only pesky limitation on drilling in residential neighborhoods is the state’s setback rule of 200 feet from the nearest house. But that rule is under assault. New legislation in the Pennsylvania Senate essentially eliminates the setback for conventional well drillers, a deregulation effort the PGE Board will no doubt embrace, perhaps by hiring a lobbyist to plead for the bill in Harrisburg, a concept for which there is precedent.

Senate Bill 790 is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati—serving (oil and gas interests in) Cameron, Clearfield (part), Clinton, Elk, Jefferson, Mckean, Potter and Tioga Counties—and also sponsored by Senator Scott Hutchinson, serving (oil and gas interests in) most of Warren County, as well as Butler (part), Clarion, Forest, and Venango Counties.

Scarnati’s and Hutchinson’s bill states: “[If] the distance restriction would deprive the owner of the oil and gas rights of the right to produce or share in the oil or gas underlying the surface tract, the well operator shall be granted a variance from the distance restriction. . . .” (Section 305 (a))

So, if SB790 becomes law, the “owner of the oil and gas rights” will have legal dominance over the property rights of those in residential neighborhoods, including, of course, the homeowner, but also the church, and the small business owners who work from their homes or in houses that have been repurposed into offices. Home owners willing to invest in remodeling will not be happy when the view from their shiny new kitchen is dominated by a pumpjack. In the hierarchy of property rights, homes may be on the surface, but home values are still far beneath oil and gas rights.

Senator Joe Scarnati is reported to have received $593,312.98 in campaign contributions from Energy and Natural Resources companies. In a 2017 article in the Bradford Era about an alleged campaign impropriety, Senator Scarnati is quoted as saying, “. . .my legislative decisions cannot and do not take contributions into account.”

Senator Scott Hutchinson has received $24,550.00 in campaign contributions from Energy and Natural Resources Companies.

In addition, SB790 would pre-empt local ordinances from preventing conventional drilling: “. . .all local ordinances purporting to regulate conventional oil and gas operations regulated by this act are superseded. The Commonwealth, by this section, preempts and supersedes the regulation of conventional oil and gas wells.” (See Section 706)

Local municipalities (like Grant Township in Indiana County) are increasingly dissatisfied with state regulations that fail to protect the clean air and pure water promised by the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment. Some municipalities take stands against the worst environmental excesses of the oil and gas industry by democratically passing community rights ordinances. Courts may favor pre-emption as an implied state right, but just to make sure, the Pennsylvania legislature now aggressively asserts their authority by including language in bills that further fortify pre-emption and further suppress local democracy.

Notably, this applies to the City of Warren. Listed under Prohibited Uses in the City’s Code is “Drilling of oil, gas or other minerals, except in industrial districts.” However, even if SB790 is not passed, would the City choose to defend its oil and gas drilling prohibition in court, especially if sued by an oil company with deep pockets and no moral reservations in suing cash-strapped local governments?

Unlike Grant Township, it seems unlikely the City of Warren, which has been a Home Rule Municipality since 1972, would stand on the principle of community rights. But if the City does suggest it will take a stand, the PGE Board of Commissioners could use various financial tactics—for example, dawdling to commit support for a downtown development or building renovation—to pressure the City to strike the prohibition from its Code.

And if any citizens or neighborhoods outside the City band together to propose an amendment to the County Zoning Ordinance that prohibits oil and gas drilling in residential neighborhoods or which requires increased setback distances from oil or gas wells to schools or t0 municipal water sources, expect the PGE Board of Commissioners to summarily vote down any such proposal (as the current Board did in 2017 when DEP’s Water Source Protection Plan proposed a drilling ban on land above the underground reservoir supplying all of North Warren’s municipal drinking water). Water is life, except in Warren County politics.

In this twilight era of conventional oil drilling across the counties of the Allegheny watershed, and as the remaining conventional oil and gas companies become more desperate to maintain profit flow, a PGE Board of Commissioners would predictably take exceptional measures to support the industry and increase conventional oil drilling opportunities, even if that turns neighborhoods into oil fields.

If there is ever a future proposal for an oil or gas well on the grounds of the Warren County Courthouse, expect the future PGE Board to approve it on a unanimous vote. After all, a working pumpjack in the shadow of the Courthouse clocktower will serve as a fitting symbol of the PGE Board of Commissioners.

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