Environment & Energy

We explore issues of energy and the environment, along with our partners from Allegheny Front and StateImpact Pennsylvania.

The leader of the Marcellus Shale Coalition said that the past year was a mixed bag for Pennsylvania's shale gas industry, and she expects more of the same next year.

Coalition President Kathryn Klaber said that the industry added 200,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania in 2011, and expanded shale gas infrastructure across the state. However, she said that she's disappointed that the legislature didn't pass a set of statewide laws to regulate industry practices.

Christmas Bird Count Underway

Dec 23, 2011

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is inviting wildlife enthusiasts to help in the Audubon Society's 112th Annual Christmas Bird Count. Last year, 62,624 people counted more than 60 million birds throughout the United States, Canada, and Latin America.

Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said that information gathered during the event is very helpful.

A Texas-based company is moving forward with plans to build a pipeline to transmit natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania to distributors along the eastern seaboard.

The Williams Company of Houston has filed a pre-application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to review its preliminary plans to construct the 258-mile pipeline from West Virginia through southern Pennsylvania, including Somerset and Bedford Counties.

The PennFuture Center for Enterprise and the Environment commissioned a study detailing the impacts of Act 129 on the state's families and businesses. The report, conducted by Optimal Energy, found that the law succeeded in its goal of cutting energy demand [PDF].

For several years now, Duquesne University has used a cogeneration plant driven by waste heat from its heating and cooling facility to cover 80 percent of its electricity needs. The remaining 20 percent was supplemented through wind power. About one third of that wind power was generated in Pennsylvania, the rest was from out of state.

Starting this month, the university has switched to getting all of that wind energy from sources within Pennsylvania. That energy plan, said university officials, makes the campus unique.

Is it more environmentally friendly to have an artificial tree, or to cut a real one down? The debate is rehashed year after year — in the media, in the industry, and in who knows how many living rooms. But more often that not, the debate ends, the season passes, and the average consumer is still left in the dark. This year we looked for some answers.

Charlene Lepant said that every year she has one of each: an artificial tree and a real one.

Green Holiday Gift Ideas

Dec 16, 2011

If you're shopping for the eco-conscious on your holiday list, your first instinct might be to go online. But in larger cities like Pittsburgh, several shops are offering a growing number of products considered to be "green."

"These necklaces are recycled liquor bottles. There's wine bottles, you can see Absolut bottles on some of them," said Rebecca Morris. "She basically takes and cuts out different interesting shapes, hearts or teardrop shapes, and puts them onto a chain."

Morris likes to stock recycled goods as much as possible her boutique, WildCard in Lawrenceville.

Turnpike to Become More Electric-Vehicle Friendly

Dec 15, 2011

By the end of next year, the Pennsylvania Turnpike service plazas east of Harrisburg will have working electric vehicle charging stations, with all 17 of the turnpike's plazas expected to offer charging stations by the end of 2013.

Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said that there will be two types of chargers.

"Each turnpike service plaza will get two Level III charging stations that can charge a battery in as little as 20 minutes, and one Level II charging station that can charge in up to four hours," Sunday said.

Members of Clean Water Action and several Neville Island area residents gathered at the entrance to the Shenango Inc. Coke plant to hand-deliver a letter to the plant manager. They're asking Steven Guzy to hold a public accountability meeting to address concerns about air pollution.

A recent report released by the Allegheny County Health Department shows that 37.6 percent of all students in the Northgate School District, which serves Avalon and Bellevue, have asthma. This is a major concern for Bellevue resident Bill Bartlett.

StateImpact Maps the Marcellus Boom

Dec 13, 2011

StateImpact Pennsylvania, a partnership beteween NPR and local public radio stations, has created in interactive web app aimed at helping users visualize a vast body of data on Marcellus Shale gas drilling in the state.

"This is an application that tracks every single producing Marcellus shale well in Pennsylvania," said StateImpact reporter Scott Detrow, who covers the Marcellus. "It tells you who owns the well, how much gas is produced, and whether there are any violations."

Wind power represents one of the fastest growing manufacturing sectors in the U.S., and now employs more than 75,000 people nationwide. But a federal tax incentive that benefits the wind industry is set to expire, leading advocates to urge its extension.

EPA Blames Fracking for Wyoming Groundwater Contamination

Dec 9, 2011

For the first time, federal environmental regulators have made a direct link between the controversial drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination.

The EPA released on Thursday its draft investigation results on water pollution in the Wyoming town of Pavilion.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced that companies involved in Marcellus natural gas drilling in the state must submit data on their facilities' air emissions for 2011. The agency is asking 99 operators to respond. These are companies involved in natural gas development, production, transmission, and processing.

"We use this information as a metric, as a look ahead, as a monitor," said DEP Secretary Mike Krancer. "It's sort of the same reason you go to a doctor. You take an EKG, and if everything isn't OK, you need to address that."

A Sunny Day For PennFuture

Dec 7, 2011

The environmental activist group PennFuture received a $315,697 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help promote and advance the use of solar energy in Western Pennsylvania.

PennFuture Vice President Heather Sage said that the application process was rigorous and only 22 grants were given nationwide.

The environmental watchdog group PennFuture is reporting that Pennsylvania gives the oil, gas, and coal industry around $2.9 billion in subsidies every year. Most of those subsidies come in the form of tax exemptions, tax credits, and grants. Christina Simeone heads PennFuture's Center for Enterprise and the Environment, and said that figure is probably low, because many line items do not disclose a monetary value. She says that lawmakers talk about letting the free market determine industry winners and losers, but state policy says otherwise.

Salts From Drilling, a Drinking Water Danger, Still Showing Up in Rivers

Dec 2, 2011

Standing on a catwalk over a pool of water near the banks of the Ohio River, Frank Blaskovich points at a series of pipes draining into the far end of the pool.

"There, that's the river water coming in," says Blaskovich, water treatment manager for Wheeling, West Virginia.

His job is to take water from the Ohio River and make it into safe drinking water for his city of 30,000. But since 2008, the Ohio has been too salty, so he's had to dilute it with groundwater from backup wells. Blaskovich doesn't like doing this, because each added step costs money.

“Tulips Will Be Just Fine”

Nov 30, 2011

If you're worried because you've seen cherry trees blooming in downtown Pittsburgh, magnolia buds about to burst, and tulip leaves coming up in the garden, put your mind at rest.

Mike Masiuk, director of the Penn State Extension in Allegheny County, said that there's a cherry tree cultivar that blooms in both fall and spring, and it's not unusual to see tulip foliage or magnolia blooms in a mild fall. He said that the growth that looks premature and vulnerable will make it through the winter and perform as expected in the spring.

The Heinz Endowments is adding $920,000 to the Clean Diesel Construction Equipment Retrofit Fund. That matches the amount already in the fund that was started by the Allegheny County Health Department. The money will go to small businesses that have older diesel equipment that needs to be retrofitted, as per city ordinance.

New city regulations require contractors to use low-emissions construction equipment on projects that total $2.5 million or more. That had some fearing that small contractors would be pushed out of the process because of the cost associated with retrofits.

Environmental Group Holds Shale Workshops

Nov 26, 2011

The environmental group PennEnvironment is holding a series of statewide workshops on the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry, three of which will be held in the Pittsburgh area.

PennEnvironment Clean Water Advocate Erika Staaf said the events are meant to get people "up to speed" on the industry and teach them skills for dealing with energy companies, lawmakers, and media.

The National Children's Study (NCS) will track hundreds of thousands of kids throughout the U.S. from before birth until they turn 21. It's the largest long-term examination of children's health ever conducted in the U.S. In Pennsylvania, Westmoreland County is where the tracking will happen, and researchers are currently enrolling eligible families.

The purpose is to determine how environmental factors influence health, development, and overall quality of life; in particular, why some problems have skyrocketed in recent years.

New Vertical Wind Turbine Powering Phipps

Nov 24, 2011

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens has installed a renewable power source, further helping the effort of the Living Building Challenge, and achieving a new zero-energy goal. The Gale 10 vertical axis wind turbine, made by Tangarie, is expected to harness more than 10,000 kWh annually from the wind.

Thousands Call For Local Regulation On Drilling

Nov 23, 2011

When Pennsylvania lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving recess, they'll face thousands of names on petitions urging them not to strip municipalities of their rights to regulate drilling.

In separate actions, the House and Senate approved HB 1950 and SB 1100 respectively, which limit local regulation. That led Ron Slabe of Westmoreland County to start an online petition drive urging members of the House and Senate to reconsider their positions.

It's a common perception that making a large-scale switch to renewable energy would mean a less reliable power supply and higher costs for the consumer. A new report says just the opposite is true, and projects a net savings of $83 billion over the next 40 years.

Future Costs

Pittsburgh Councilman Doug Shields has accepted that natural gas drilling will likely go on in Pennsylvania, but he is introducing legislation to hold companies responsible for any water contamination they might cause.

Shields said that drilling pollutants can be troublesome when mixed with other chemicals in the region's rivers.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has released its Fukushima Nuclear Accident Report, explaining the agency's response and findings after the March nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. The nuclear crisis followed the devastating tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan.

About 120 municipal leaders, non-profits and conservationists gathered in downtown Pittsburgh for a forum on creating sustainable communities. While that is a broad term, the conference focused mainly on green infrastructure, healthy communities, and low-cost land management practices.

Women Take Charge of Their Woods

Oct 29, 2011

Nancy Baker stands in the pantry of her farmhouse in Bradford County. It's layered in family history, from the floorboards up. "All the woodwork trim in this old part of the house is American Chestnut. My mother had it painted white, it looks very nice, but I like the chestnut," says Baker.

Like some Pennsylvania forest owners, Baker inherited the family home and the acres of forest land that came with it. But unlike many women woodland owners, she isn't intimidated by it: she's a retired forest ecologist.

The National Wildlife Federation released a report outlining ways for Congress to reduce the federal deficit while also protecting programs they say are critical to public health and the environment. The Conservation Works report outlines how the U.S. would be affecting by cuts to conservation programs. In Pennsylvania, one of the areas that would take a hit is outdoor recreation.

More than 40 organizations and a growing number of individuals are taking on the challenge of improving Pittsburgh's air quality as part of the so-called Breathe Project. That's a multi-million dollar effort that includes scientific research, public awareness campaigns and calls to action.

As the temperatures begin to drop, residents of Allegheny County start to take advantage of their outdoor fireplaces, fire pits, and chimineas.

County Health Department Spokesman Guillermo Cole said that's a great idea, but people should know the restrictions.

"Our [county] regulations generally allow the use of such outdoor burning units because it's considered recreational burning, but we do have some requirements that do apply to their use," Cole said. "For example, you should only use dry, clean wood in wood burners and not use any garbage or debris."