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September 19, 2016
by David Conti

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Editor’s note: Assistant Business Editor David Conti is leaving the Tribune-Review after more than 20 years at the paper.

When we launched Flowback and the Tribune-Review’s On the Grid energy news pages two years ago, several key issues dominated the oil and gas industry’s attention.

Pipelines had become a flashpoint. Opponents of drilling and fracking looked to block pipeline projects involving Bakken crude oil or Marcellus gas as their best shot of slowing shale development.

Complaints from landowners who signed royalty leases with companies but thought drillers were unfairly deducting fees reached a fever pitch as courts took up their cases.

Shale gas producers in Pennsylvania were constantly defending the hundreds of millions of dollars they paid annually in impact fees as a valid alternative to a proposed severance tax.

And about 2,000 industry reps were heading to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center to discuss hot topics during the annual Shale Insight conference.

Today, pipelines remain the frontlines in the battle between environmentalists and drillers, as evidenced by permit delays in the Marcellus and the tense standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Elected officials in Bradford County — a pro-drilling region for years — are so angry over royalty deductions they have hired a PR firm to help make their case.

Producers are still defending the impact fee as per-well revenues have dropped to their lowest levels since the collections began.

And Shale Insight again kicks off at the convention center this week, this time with a little added attention as GOP presidential nominee Donald J. Trump is scheduled to give a keynote address.

None of this is to say nothing has changed in the oil and gas landscape over those two years.

Indeed, since last fetching more than $4 per million British thermal units in 2014, the benchmark price of natural gas fell to a 16-year lows — $1.67 — before “recovering” to nearly $3 over the past few months.

That price drop prompted a massive pullback from the Marcellus and other shale plays. Companies had fewer than 30 drilling rigs working in the Marcellus this month, compared to 80 in September 2014.

And a few questions that nagged the industry two years ago have been answered. Shell will build that ethane cracker in Beaver County after all. Exports of ethane and liquefied natural gas have begun. Gas can replace coal as the dominant fuel for U.S. power plants.

The point is, there seem to be a few constant sticking points in the oil and gas landscape.

Harnessing the benefits of U.S. oil and gas requires pipelines, and they must go through someone’s yard. Landowners and governments will want a piece of the profits. Some environmentalists will do anything to block more drilling.

If the industry or general public or elected leaders can’t get past those points, little will change.


September 7, 2016
by David Conti

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Not the usual campaign drill


In a presidential election where so much has been made about how unpopular the major-party nominees are, perhaps it’s no surprise that a candidate with a negative perception in some circles should throw its hat in the ring.

Fracking revolutionized how this country obtains energy. Now it — or she, as campaign organizers refer to the candidate — is looking to shake up this already topsy-turvy election.

“Presidential candidate Fracking is visiting Pittsburgh this week, her second stop in the Commonwealth, where she is emphasizing the role natural gas development has played in boosting the local economy,” the Fracking for President campaign announced in a news release issued today.

“From drilling and production to new manufacturing investments, Western Pennsylvania is well positioned to gain from natural gas development in the Marcellus and Utica for years to come,” Fracking was quoted as, um, saying in the release.

No, the oil and gas industry advocates behind this campaign haven’t completely lost their minds. And neither have we reporters, though another eight weeks of covering the real election could change that.

The groups behind Fracking for President — FrackFeed and North Texans for Natural Gas — acknowledge the tongue-in-cheek aspect of this campaign.

“It is intended for educational purposes only, although we can’t help it if people laugh too,” they wrote in the release and in a disclaimer on the campaign site.

The candidacy is an opportunity to promote what they consider the top benefits of oil and gas development with what they call campaign stops in different areas.

The Pittsburgh “stop” focused on jobs. For the Philadelphia announcement last week, the message was manufacturing. For the Boston audience, the campaign pushed the benefit of lower energy bills. The Maryland message promoted LNG exports.

Don’t expect to see Fracking at the upcoming debates or even during commercial breaks on TV. It’s a digitally driven campaign focused on a few key issues.

And that focus on issues might be the biggest thing that sets this fake campaign apart from the real ones.


August 25, 2016
by David Conti

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Still in the running


In case you missed it, the Trib this week outlined a proposal from the state Department of Community and Economic Development to spur redevelopment of shuttered coal-fired power plants.

The state has at least 10 such sites that would be good candidates for reuse, the department says. It wants to pay for outside assessments of those sites.

So it applied for federal funding through the Obama administration’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) initiative, which plans to award $65.8 million to projects that support communities impacted by the collapse of the coal industry.

Yesterday, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Agency announced awards representing about $39 million of the available money. The DCED’s power plant project was not on the list of approved projects. In fact, most of the award winners hail from West Virginia.

But spokespeople for both the commission and the EDA said that doesn’t mean Pennsylvania is out of the running. The agencies will be announcing more project awards in the coming weeks.

This was good news to many state and civic leaders who gathered yesterday in Washington County for a meeting with DCED Secretary Dennis Davin. Two of the power plants targeted for potential assessment are in Washington County — in fact they’re both in Union Township.

Several people at the meeting said they hope new use can be found for the closed Elrama and Mitchell plants along the Monongahela River.


August 22, 2016
by David Conti

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Hand in hand


A story that recently became a popular talking point on social media contained a curious word at the top.

“Turns out wind and solar have a secret friend: natural gas,” read the headline on The Washington Post report on a new study. The research showed how integrating more renewable energy sources into electric grids goes hand in hand with more natural gas-fired power.

That this conclusion required the work of three researchers from Italy, Syracuse University and the French Economic Observatory is a bit surprising.

It seems like a no-brainer that maintaining reliability on a grid powered by wind turbines and solar panels requires fast-reacting power sources that can be turned on when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

Coal and nuclear generally cannot provide that fast reaction. Natural gas generally can.

That’s not exactly new. Energy researchers such as Greg Reed, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Energy and a professor of electrical engineering, have been saying this for some time.

Without cheaper, efficient storage batteries that don’t take up gymnasium-sized rooms and are capable of holding enough juice to power whole neighborhoods, intermittent renewables can’t cut it without fossil-fuel backups.

It’s why companies such as North Shore-based IMG Midstream are building more midsized gas-fired plants that can come online in just six minutes when needed.

“Our type of product is very good at complementing those (renewable) resources that are being brought into the market,” IMG’s CEO Ron Kiecana told the Trib this year.

It could help explain why some natural gas advocates have appeared more friendly toward the renewable industry lately.

When American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard delivered his state of energy address in January, he introduced American Wind Energy Association CEO Tom Kiernan as being among the VIPs at the head table.

“We’re a partner there — we’re not an opponent,” Marcellus Shale Coalition President Dave Spigelmyer told WPGP radio in March. “Natural gas is the most important partner renewables have.”

Perhaps the only secret here is the one that fierce gas opponents have wanted to keep. Those fighting against drilling and fracking have taken to using the argument that investments should be made in more renewables instead of new pipelines to fuel power plants.

But you can’t have one without the other, according to the researchers quoted in the Post story.

“When people assume that we can switch from fossil fuels to renewables, they assume we can completely switch out of one path to another path,” lead researcher Elena Verdolini told the paper.


August 10, 2016
by mneistein

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Count of clean energy jobs iffy


Clean energy advocates in Pennsylvania recently got their hands on an attractive number to boast about.
The state had more than 66,000 clean energy jobs last year, according to a report commissioned by Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) and the Keystone Energy Efficiency Alliance.
That number is growing, the groups say, and tops the number employed by fossil fuels, one prominent environmentalist argues.
That all depends on who is counting. And how.
The who is important. E2 and KEEA both state in the report that they exist to fight for the types of policies that promote more jobs among renewable energy and efficiency industries.
So perhaps it’s no surprise their report would paint a rosy picture of the sector they’re promoting. Which raises the question of how the number is counted.
The easy answer is that the data came from federal labor statistics. But they actually are based on an index extrapolated from those statistics, combined with a survey. Of the 16,202 firms called, 400 — or less than 3 percent — participated.
Based on its formula, the report’s authors estimated “Pennsylvania’s clean energy industry supported 66,021 workers at 5,900 businesses and establishments.” The biggest chunk of them — 53,175 — work under the heading of energy efficiency.
Nearly 27 percent of that subgroup are listed under the heading of “traditional HVAC goods and services.” Sharon Pillar, Pennsylvania consultant for E2, explained that those 14,000 workers might not work for a clean energy company but “devote at least some days a week” to working on high-efficiency air and heating systems.
The report also lists a combined 17,000 workers under two categories titled “Other.” Pillar said these are people supporting the industry or only spending part of their time on clean energy work.
All of this makes comparing that 66,000 apples to the oranges counted in other industries a tough task. Former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley took on the challenge.
In a blog post for his new employer at the University of Pennsylvania, Quigley declared that clean energy jobs outnumber those employed by fossil fuel industries. He cites a figure of 33,000 Pennsylvanians employed directly by oil and gas and 8,000 in coal.
Yet those numbers are well below a figure published last year by the administration of Quigley’s former boss, Gov. Tom Wolf. When you factor in the supply chain, the natural gas industry alone supports 89,314 jobs, Wolf’s administration says.
You can always count on advocates to advocate.


July 25, 2016
by David Conti

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Dismal results ahead


A nearly 50 percent jump in natural gas prices during the second quarter could inject some joy into what has been a dour discussion around finances in the Marcellus shale.

Demand is clearly rising, as more power plants switch from coal to gas and warm weather is pushing those plants to run more often to keep up with the hum of air conditioners.

And the oversupply in storage has shown signs of leveling off. Weekly deposits into the inventory have generally come in below estimates, analyst David Holt of S&P Capital IQ wrote in a research note last week.

Such news might brighten the forecasts we will hear this week from executives at publicly held Marcellus and Utica gas producers as they start reporting financial results from that second quarter. Among major Western Pennsylvania companies, Consol Energy and Range Resources will report on Tuesday and EQT Corp. will release its figures on Thursday.

Holt identified EQT, Range and Cabot Oil & Gas as companies to watch as the longer-term outlook for prices and demand improves.

“We think low cost producers that exhibit financial flexibility in 2017 … remain well positioned to navigate through the current commodity cycle,” Holt wrote.

Don’t expect another gas boom to move through the Marcellus anytime soon, though, analysts warn. Although a short rally in crude oil prices in the past few months resulted in an uptick in drilling in some areas such as the Permian Basin of Texas, the Marcellus remains a very quiet place.

A few numbers tell the tale.

The number of drilling rigs working in the Marcellus remained under two dozen this month, down from 59 a year ago and a peak of 140 at the end of 2011.

Companies drilled only 73 shale wells in Pennsylvania during the second quarter, down from 201 during the same period last year.

That big jump in the national benchmark price to nearly $3 per million British thermal units between April 1 and June 30 was coming off a winter of 17-year lows. The price had nowhere to go but up, and has since fallen back to about $2.75.

Companies are likely to report dismal results from the second quarter. The Associated Press predicted the worst corporate performances for the quarter to come from energy producers. Natural Gas Intelligence predicts companies in the S&P oil and gas exploration and production fund will post a combined loss of $2.34 per share, compared to a profit of $20.67 during the same quarter last year.

Look for executives to accentuate potentially positive moves over the next few months, since the past few have provided mostly negative news.


Southwestern Energy said it will boost drilling in the Marcellus region despite posting a big loss during the second quarter.

The Houston-based company, which is among the top five producers in this region, said it would put five drilling rigs back into service, four of which will be in Appalachia.

Southwestern reported a net loss of $620 million during the quarter, but that was an improvement over a loss of $815 million in the same period last year.


July 11, 2016
by David Conti

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Airing out a permit


Air pollution from coal-fired power plants has been kind of a big deal lately.

Some environmentalists blame the emissions coming from those big smokestacks for ailments ranging from heart disease to asthma. Some business leaders blame tighter environmental regulations on what comes from those smokestacks for the recent collapse of the American coal industry as more plants close or switch to natural gas.

Tension and controversy dog nearly every discussion of coal-fired electricity, often ending in litigation. Allegheny County’s last coal-fired plant, NRG Energy’s Cheswick Generating Station along the Allegheny River, has been the subject of all the above, including a federal lawsuit that was dismissed last year.

So perhaps it was no surprise that the Sierra Club made a lot of noise over what it considers a victory for environmental advocates in a proposed permit renewal for the plant issued by the county Health Department late last month.

“We thank the Health Department and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald for clamping down on air pollution from this plant,” Sierra Club leader Thomas Schuster said in a news release touting a provision that the group says would require a 75 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions.

More surprising was how little noise the Health Department made, even though it apparently wants to hear from people what they think of the permits.

Unlike the Sierra Club, the department issued no news release to tell people about the permits or a public comment period lasting until Aug. 1. An email from department spokeswoman Melissa Wade — a day after being asked for details — indicated that drafts of the permits are available on the department’s website and details of how to provide comments were published in a newspaper (not the Tribune-Review) on June 29.

If you’re among the hundreds of thousands of people in the region who did not see that day’s edition, and you’d like to provide comment, good luck finding out how. The department’s website does not provide instructions. Wade did not respond to a question asking why.

In fact, good luck finding the permits themselves.

They’re not listed among the “Timely Topics” on the site’s front page, though you can find food safety tips for summer cookouts and a call for volunteers for the annual raccoon rabies baiting project next month.

You need to go to the navigation bar and click on “Bureaus,” then “Environmental Health,” then “Air Quality” to find the right page. Then scroll all the way to the bottom for a list of “Permits in Public Comment” to find links to the permit drafts.

NRG said it was studying the draft permits in detail. Given how the county is showcasing the drafts, it’s doubtful many people will join in such a review.


June 30, 2016
by David Conti

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Chipping in


Shale gas drillers and pipeline companies have rallied to help fund relief efforts in West Virginia, where massive floods killed two dozen people and ravaged some of the towns in which the companies work.

Early in the week, that state’s Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette took a minute while speaking at an industry conference in Pittsburgh to thank companies for pitching in.

“Your help is incredibly important to that part of the state as they try to recover from a 1,000-year flood. We’re very appreciative of that,” he said.

Companies and groups announced at least $425,000 in contributions. A group of 22 donors gave a combined $350,000 to the American Red Cross in West Virginia.

“West Virginians support each other during tough times, and the gas industry is proud to be part of that tradition,” said Robert Orndorff, who is state director of public affairs at Dominion Resources and a member of the Red Cross board of directors.

EQT Corp. and Mountain Valley Pipeline gave $75,000 to the West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

The list of donors to the Red Cross included: Antero Resources, Apex Pipeline Services, Blue Racer Midstream, Chevron Global Community Fund, Columbia Pipeline Group, Consol Energy, Crestwood Midstream Partners, Cunningham Energy, Dominion Resources, Energy Transportation/Applied Construction Solutions, Eureka Midstream, ExxonMobil and XTO Energy, Jackson Gas Co., Learned Leadership, Marathon Petroleum Corp., Mountaineer Gas Co., Noble Energy, Range Resources, Ryan Environmental, Southwestern Energy, Stone Energy and TransCanada.



June 27, 2016
by David Conti

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Enduring legacy


In a region dominated by the names of noted 19th century industrialists such as Carnegie, Frick and Mellon, the Westinghouse legacy endures.

Think about George Westinghouse and so many aspects of modern Pittsburgh come to mind, even 102 years after his death.

There’s the bridge over the Turtle Creek Valley that was home to many of his companies, the nuclear power giant that still bears his name, the Wabtec Corp. that was formed from Westinghouse Air Brake, the company he built around his most famous invention.

Many people know the hand he played in every power line that crisscrosses above our heads and attaches to our homes. Westinghouse famously teamed with inventor Nikola Tesla in the late 1880s to establish alternating current as the dominant technology for transmitting electricity.

Most people do not know the hand he played in every natural gas pipe that runs underneath the ground and into our homes.

“George Westinghouse really is one of the early pioneers in the natural gas business,” said Steve Schlotterbeck, president of Downtown-based EQT Corp., which can trace its lineage to a Westinghouse gas company.

In 1884, Western Pennsylvanians knew there was natural gas underneath their feet. They just didn’t know how to use it.

“We hadn’t figured out how to build pipelines safely,” Schlotterbeck said about the nascent industry during a recent breakfast speech on innovation hosted by the Pittsburgh Technology Council. “We hadn’t figured out how to regulate the pressures from the wells to the burner tip in a safe way. Your home or your business was likely to blow up.”

Westinghouse’s first foray into drilling nearly ended that way. According to an account at westinghouse, he felt a challenge to wrangle the volatile beast and had a crew drill a well outside his Point Breeze home, “Solitude.”

The result was far from in line with his home’s peaceful name, as the gushing well blew equipment all over lawns and an attempt to pipe it shot flames 100 feet into the sky.

Undeterred, Westinghouse filed his first patent within a month for a system to control gas pressure. Over the next two years, he “patented 28 innovations in the natural gas space that made it possible to pipe gas from a well to a business in Pittsburgh, bring it in and use it in a safe way,” Schlotterbeck said.

Westinghouse picked a distinctly un-Pittsburgh name for the company he formed to drill and manage what became a collection of gas wells in the region: the Philadelphia Co. That firm in 1889 formed Equitable Gas, which eventually took control of all the gas properties.

EQT a few years ago sold off the Equitable Gas utility but is now the fifth-largest natural gas producer in the country. In some ways, it has the notable name of Westinghouse to thank for that.


June 23, 2016
by David Conti

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A smaller gathering


Two years ago, walking into the exhibition space at Hart Energy’s Developing Unconventionals oil and gas conference at the David Lawrence Convention Center was an overwhelming experience.

The 100-page, full-size program for what’s known as DUG East listed about 300 vendors that filled the room at the Downtown center. It was loud, with some major shale producers and service companies showing off their operations from huge displays.

The industry has slimmed down quite a bit since then as drilling in the Marcellus has slowed drastically, and this year’s installment, which wrapped up this morning, showed it. The 12-page, pocket-sized conference program listed 145 exhibitors, who took up less than two-thirds of the space in the hall.

It was quiet, much like the shale fields.

Those who did attend — one host put the number at about 1,700 people — still heard some potentially good news on big, productive wells and a possible price boost next year, as outlined here.

Oleg Tolmachev, a senior vice president at Eclipse Resources, shared insights on the longest (and best named?) onshore well in the country, the Purple Hayes well in Ohio. The company drilled 27,000 feet in less than 18 days and fracked it in 23 days, time frames that might have been laughed off during the 2104 conference.

Range Resources announced that vice president Dennis Degner would lead Marcellus operations at the regional headquarters in Cecil. We profiled Degner in one of our first Energy Spotlight features in 2014.

Back then, executives and analysts were concerned about gas prices dipping below $4 per million British thermal units. Today, a prediction that they would get above that next year (from about $2.60 today) drew a few chuckles.

What a difference two years makes.

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