Is West Virginia Prioritizing The Past Over The Future?

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West Virginia Governor Jim Justice made one of the most curious gubernatorial moves in recent years recently, when he vetoed a bill that would have directed money to plug the Mountain State’s approximately 4,000 abandoned gas wells.

The bill, which had strong bipartisan support, would have decreased the State’s severance tax on low producing wells and directed other monies to a fund for the plugging of the abandoned ones.

To show how strong support was for the legislation, the House passed the bill 89-11 and the Senate 33-1. At a time when different political camps have difficulty agreeing on anything, the bill was supported by the oil and gas industry, landowners, the West Virginia Farm Bureau, and the environmental community. That kind of agreement from notoriously warring factions is almost unheard of.

Given that level and breadth of support, why did Governor Justice veto the bill? In his veto letter, the Governor objected to the tax rate cut on the low-producing wells and stated that the money to plug the abandoned wells should come from West Virginia’s General Fund. That seems a curious position given the positive environmental goal and the amount of public support.

Some see a nefarious purpose behind the Governor’s move. The “Marcellus Drilling News” suggested that the Governor vetoed the bill as a payoff to his supporters in the coal industry, specifically big coal mine operator Robert Murray. Indeed, last week the Governor signed a bill lowering the tax rate on steam coal used in power plants, but then turned around and rejected a cut in the gas tax rate payable by low producing wells and raising other funds to help clean up West Virginia.

It’s not a pretty picture. At best, the Governor committed political malpractice by blindsiding nearly everyone in the State. At worst, the Governor made a terrible choice to reward certain large coal operators at the expense of the citizens of West Virginia.

This all comes at a time when West Virginia is about to receive a massive $2.5 billion investment in an ethane cracker plant to support the gas industry. How Governor Justice explains his veto to the industry that is plowing money and resources into his economically depressed State will be interesting to watch in the weeks to come.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

2019 – The Marcellus In Winter

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To nobody’s surprise, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf began his second term by calling for a mineral extraction tax to be layered upon the State’s local impact fee.  Of course, the Governor never mentioned the impact fee in his budget address, continuing his administration long policy of seeking to portray Pennsylvania as the only state that doesn’t tax the natural gas industry.

When the Governor first took office in 2015, he advocated the extraction tax as a way to pay for Pennsylvania schools. Now, he seeks the extra revenue to pay for Pennsylvania infrastructure.  Should the tax be approved, the connection to the schools would have been more beneficial to the industry (think of the public relations possibilities it would have brought the industry in every part of the State).  The infrastructure tie-in will not be as helpful, but given current economics the industry will fight the tax under any circumstances.

One thing that’s been made clear by a week-long trip to Texas and conversations with top gas company executives is the disconnect between the public’s perception of the financial health of the natural gas industry and its actual financial condition.  A decade of overproduction combined with insufficient pipeline capacity and low gas prices has caused gas company stock prices to plummet.  Now, the future viability of these companies is at risk.  As one executive put it, “we have no choice but to fight the extraction tax.  We don’t generate enough revenue to pay it.”

In a sense they’ve been trapped by their own success.  The Marcellus has yielded far more gas than most thought possible ten years ago.  Improved production techniques have decreased the cost of extraction, leading to overproduction.  Add that to the lack of pipeline capacity, the antiquated Jones Act prohibition against transporting liquid natural gas on the high seas from one American port to another except on American-flagged ships (of which there are none), and the proximity of gas to the oil being produced in the Permian Basin of South Texas (which has actually dropped the marginal cost of natural gas in that region to negative numbers), and you have the dire economic times facing Marcellus gas producers.

Another source of the gas producers’ frustration is the lack of coordination and communication among themselves and with the pipeline companies.  “We’re not the pipes,” said one.  “We don’t like a lot of things they do, and we think they can portray the entire industry in a bad light, but they don’t care about what we say.”

That’s partially true, although some producers do have ownership stakes in some of the pipelines.  As a general rule, residents of the Northeast lump upstream, midstream and downstream together as one industry.  Together they have risen, and together they now are at risk of falling.

Producers have little left in their budgets to expand outreach to places in Pennsylvania that currently don’t “feel” the industry, like Philadelphia and the Southeast.  That’s bad for us all, as the Southeast stands to gain the most from effective, conscientious and environmentally sensitive development of this resource.  We have the train lines, the interstate highways, the Marcus Hook refinery and the Port of Philadelphia pretty much all in the same place.  That we’ve failed to capitalize on this could be the greatest missed opportunity for the Philadelphia region in the last century.

As for pipeline companies, they face years of delay while well-funded and organized environmental groups, and unsympathetic politicians, place roadblock after roadblock in their way.  Some of this, of course, is nobody’s fault but the pipeline companies for their both perceived and not infrequently actual disregard of local law and sensitivities. Overall for the industry in all of its myriad forms, Winter 2019 is not a pretty picture.

Nobody wins under the current scenario.  Environmentalists temporarily will celebrate the problems in the gas industry, but that glee will be short lived.  Despite breathless claims in the press and among certain politicians, those opposing natural gas can provide no alternative.

Ironically, environmentalists may be the salvation of the industry, as they push politicians into unsustainable, ridiculous policies. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rapidly is running out of options to counter his “No Nukes, No Fracking, No Pipeline” stance. Already Westchester County feels the pinch as its main utility, Consolidated Energy, now prohibits any further growth due to a lack of power supply. New York City soon may face the same fate.  Jeff Bezos had better be sure that Long Island City will have enough power to handle his new Amazon sub-headquarters.  Where will that energy come from?

Under current conditions, many in the industry expect a further wave of consolidation. The fracking industry was created not by the large oil companies but by the smaller independents.  Those smaller companies now may have to sell out.  That will not be good news for the Northeast.

It’s getting more likely that in the future Governor Wolf and his successors will not deal with six or seven producers based in Houston, Dallas or Oklahoma City, each with major Pennsylvania operations.  Instead, he will find himself trying to get the better of two or three companies based in London, the Netherlands or other foreign countries, for whom Pennsylvania is but a blip on their radar screen.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

Venezuela, Iran and American National Failure

While President Trump and House Speaker Pelosi bicker about nonsense, two very important parts of the world are on a hair trigger today.

The country with the largest supply of oil reserves, Venezuela, is teetering on the brink of revolution, while the country with the fourth largest oil reserves, Iran, is threatening all out war against Israel over Israeli bombing of Iranian positions in Syria.  Both of these situations could spiral out of control any minute, with profound consequences for the world’s energy supply, American national interests, and indeed our own security.

Both Iran and Venezuela are led by deeply unpopular governments.  In Venezuela, it is the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro.  In Iran, it is the theocratic government of Ali Khamenei.  Khamenei has as his underpinnings the concept of Shiite Islamic Fundamentalism.  Maduro only has his economic system.

Both governments have run their countries into the ground.  Khamenei has spent so much of his country’s wealth on seeking nuclear weapons and financing military adventures – creating Hezbollah in Lebanon, arming Hamas in Gaza, backing Assad in Syria and supporting the Houthi Rebels in Yemen – that the world slapped sanctions on the country.  President Obama, whose foreign policy team was Class D at best, lifted those sanctions in 2015 as part of a multi-party Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but President Trump reestablished them in 2018.

Maduro, successor to the socialist revolution of Hugo Chavez, has established government control over the energy sector and many other parts of the Venezuelan economy.  In doing so, he has turned what once was one of the richest countries in South America into such an economic basket case that the average Venezuelan has lost over twenty pounds in the last year from malnutrition and starvation.

In a desperate attempt to stave off national default on Venezuela’s foreign debt, Maduro has given the Russians large ownership interests in his country’s energy industry and raised the possibility of establishing a Russian military base in Venezuela.  That would be the first in the Western Hemisphere and a direct challenge to the Monroe Doctrine.

Khamenei at least can fall back on his religious fanatical supporters.  Large demonstrations broke out last year in many Iranian cities, but the Iranian Revolutionary Guard put them down.  The mullahs use a combination of religious fervor and selective payments to favored political and military supporters to maintain their control.

Maduro has no such religious backing.  That he continues to hold power shows two things.  First, there remains a deep seated sense of class division in Venezuela to the point that many people will accept the catastrophic state of the economy so long as those who formerly were on the top of the economic and social pyramid no longer remain there.  Second, the opposition is so fractured it has been unable to convince the junior officers in the Venezuelan military and the regular soldiers, who after all are the ones that must put down any rebellions, that Maduro is driving the country to ruin and they can provide a better future.  Whatever happens, this does not portend well for the future.  The Venezuelan energy sector is so rundown it will take time, and massive investment, to rehabilitate.

In the Middle East, Iran has been trying to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, right on Israel’s border.  Israel, facing Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in the South, has reached its red line.  It has begun carrying out continuous military raids against Iranian positions in Syria.

Yesterday, Maduro broke off diplomatic relations with the United States.  Also yesterday, Iranian Air Force Commander Brigadier General Azaz Nasirzadeh stated that the Iranian Air Force is “ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the Earth.”  Of course, both Iran’s and Israel’s actions are complicated by the large presence of Russia in Syria, another byproduct of incoherent Obama era foreign policy.

So now we have two grave crises happening simultaneously in different parts of the globe affecting the world’s largest sources of energy.  Attempting to manage this will be an untried President with little respect at home or abroad and with a government partially shut down over a petty squabble between two politicos, each of whom make themselves look smaller by the minute.  Fortunately, we have our shale gas and oil to cushion the economic blow sure to come from such international uncertainty, but we still can’t move the oil and gas where we need it.  Despite an abundance of domestic energy, whole geographic areas of our nation, most notably New York and New England, rely on imports.  If President Trump embargoes all Venezuelan oil, who will pick up the slack?  Putin?

All of this was foreseeable.  That it is happening at the same time may be some bad luck, but anyone looking at the world over the last few years could anticipate these problems occurring.  The fact that as a nation we are where we are is an example of national failure.  Perhaps it partially explains why both political parties revolted against their establishment candidates in 2016, and why they might do so again in 2020.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

 

When Governors Face Real World Energy Choices

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Last week, New York City area utility Consolidated Edison notified regulators that, as of March 15, it would accept no new natural gas customers in Westchester County due to supply shortages.  It is possible that cutoffs in the City itself may follow.  While this is happening, New York City is requiring customers to switch out of dirtier burning fuel oil.  Most are seeking natural gas.  Already, over 5000 buildings in the City have made the switch.  Meanwhile, as prior commentary in this blog has noted, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration have stymied all attempts to build a new pipeline that would be capable of supplying the City and other areas, like New England, with plentiful and inexpensive natural gas from the nearby Marcellus Shale region.

Once again we are seeing the Alice in Wonderland effects of New York State environmental incoherence.  It desperately needs energy to grow, and also to improve environmental air quality, but does everything possible to prevent that energy from being available.

New York’s inconsistent energy policies make Amazon’s decision to build massively in Long Island City quite curious.  The metropolitan New York area has numerous advantages, but it simply may not have access to enough energy needed to power the growth it seeks.

The energy dilemma cannot just be wished away.  The implications of not building pipelines and securing our energy future are real and starting to bite.  Without reliable energy supply, regions can’t grow.  Without growth, there will be no jobs for an expanding population.  Intellectual discussions and arguments about the large job opportunities available in the renewable sector are nice, but where are they?  More to the point, where is the consistent supply of energy that will be provided by these renewable sources?

Out west in Oregon, newly reelected Governor Kate Brown, who ran on a progressive, clean energy platform, faces a challenge from her left with a new Clean Energy Jobs bill.  Back in 2007, Oregon set goals for reducing its carbon emissions in 2010, 2020 and 2050.  It met its goals for 2010 but admits it will not do so for 2020.  In fact, the Oregon Global Warming Commission predicts the State will over-pollute in 2020 by 20%.  There is an interim goal for 2035, but lawmakers may choose to ignore that and concentrate on 2050.  This has environmental advocates alarmed.

Ironically, one proven way for the environmental advocates to reduce CO2 emissions is through increased use of natural gas.  They have not been inclined to accept that option, however, putting all their eggs in the basket of renewables.  Governor Brown then likely will face the problem Governor Cuomo faces.  She will run a left-leaning state with a well-meaning yet unrealistic program for achieving goals about which most of us can agree.  Governor Cuomo has chosen one path.  It won him electoral platitudes but now faces future trauma.  It will be interesting to see which way Governor Brown goes.

In Pennsylvania, the long battle over the Mariner East 2 pipeline appears over.  Last week the Public Utility Commission ruled that a landowner group had failed to show that safety concerns necessitated an emergency shutdown of the pipeline.  In typical fashion for this matter, two days later another sinkhole exposed a section of the older Mariner 1 pipeline.  Chester County emergency service officials stressed there was no damage to the pipeline and no danger, but the entire situation continues to be messy and delicate.  It does not help public perception that a horrific gasoline pipeline explosion in central Mexico predated the Mariner 1 sinkhole occurrence by a few days.

Internationally, and ironically, the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela, falls deeper and deeper into turmoil.  President Nicolas Maduro’s security forces put down another mini-uprising Monday, but nationwide demonstrations have been called for Wednesday, the anniversary of the end of the most recent military dictatorship in 1958.  Venezuela’s oil production has plummeted along with the rest of its economy, and President Maduro has given away large amounts of it to Russia in exchange for needed foreign reserve to service its enormous debt.

Despite starving his nation, Maduro retains the loyalty of large segments of the military command.  Those commanders don’t carry the guns that fire on the starving people, however.  The weapons themselves are in the hands of individual soldiers commanded on the street by junior officers.  It remains a confounding question as to why the opposition, which still exists in Venezuela, has been so unsuccessful in convincing the junior officers that their long term interests do not lie with Maduro and the senior military commanders but with the starving people in the streets.

Of course, should Maduro’s regime eventually fall, it would set in motion the need for some fancy diplomatic footwork and military readiness, something neither the Trump Administration, nor its predecessor, have shown much capability to implement.  Under those circumstances, energy markets would be thrown another huge curve ball.  Both our government and companies retaining any interest in Venezuela, either directly or indirectly, should be planning for these scenarios right now.

For those of you in most of the country, try to stay warm.  I’ll be in Texas in two weeks.  Hopefully the wind chill will be in the positive numbers down there at that time.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

 

2018, The Year in Review

Year in Review - Marcellus Shale Update by Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg PC

2018 began with the United States producing immense amounts of oil and natural gas; pipeline companies struggling to build out the national pipeline system but not being transparent about how they are doing it; Europe, led by Germany, continuing to move toward 100% reliance on renewable energy yet becoming even more dependent on Russian gas as a result; and New York and New England continuing to block energy generation and pipeline construction in their areas so that they, too, had to import gas from Vladimir Putin.

2018 ended with the United States still producing immense amounts of oil and natural gas; pipeline companies still struggling to build out the national pipeline system but not being transparent about how they are doing it; Europe, led by Germany, still continuing to move toward 100% reliance on renewable energy yet becoming more dependent still on Russian gas as a result; and New York and New England still continuing to block energy generation and pipeline construction in their areas so that they, too, may have to continue to import gas from Vladimir Putin.

As the saying goes, the more things change….

Meanwhile, here in Pennsylvania, the biggest news was the reelection of Governor Tom Wolf and the confusion over the time-honored “rule of capture”. Wolf’s reelection, along with Democratic gains in the State House and Senate, mean the severance tax issue will be back on the table come budget season. The Governor almost had his severance tax in 2017 but threw it away in a move that remains inexplicable following agreement from Senate Republicans to support it. The “rule of capture” means that whatever gas flows into the producer’s pipes belong to the producer, subject to paying royalties to the landowner. In the hydraulic fracturing context, the argument is that the gas may have been taken illegally because it emanated from an adjacent landowner’s property. How an adjacent landowner could prove any of this, or more importantly how a gas company could disprove it, remains a mystery. Now, it will be up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to make a decision.

In West Virginia, the State Legislature in 2018 voted overwhelmingly to uphold the State’s “marketable product” doctrine for paying royalties. The votes followed a 2017 West Virginia Supreme Court decision in the Leggett case changing the calculation rule, which is unusual but also used in states such as Oklahoma and Kansas. The difference between “at the wellhead” states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and “marketable product” states like West Virginia is that in West Virginia a producer cannot deduct its costs from the overall royalty payments it makes to the landowner until the gas has been reduced to a “marketable product”. Of course, exactly what that means often is a subject of controversy. Regardless, West Virginia made sure it stayed in the “marketable product” group of states, and the overwhelming votes in both houses of the State Legislature shows how popular that concept is.

Ohio ended 2018 leading the region in development of the Utica Shale. The Utica is deeper than the Marcellus. Companies such as Cabot Oil and Gas now actively are exploring the Utica in Ohio. Combined with the Marcellus, the two basins portend an enormous potential for energy production in the Marcellus-Utica Region.

Then there’s New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo won reelection easily in 2018 so we can expect his anti-natural gas policies to continue. The Governor is about to shut the Indian Point nuclear reactor and claims there will be sufficient power from renewable sources – mostly hydroelectric from something called the “Champlain Hudson Power Express” – to make up the shortfall. That hasn’t worked in New England and is unlikely to work in New York. Already New York is importing gas from Russia.

In November, FERC gave Governor Cuomo and unusual setback when it granted the Constitution Pipeline a rare time extension to finish construction. The Constitution remains stalled solely because of Governor Cuomo’s power grab regarding the Section 401 Clean Streams Permit.

New York has refused other pipeline permits and seems determined to follow its renewable idealism regardless of the practical consequences. While the Mueller Commission continues to investigate the possibility of collusion between Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump, Putin’s best friends in the United States may be Andrew Cuomo and the other New England governors. They insist on ensuring that Russia will continue to have influence over the energy security of the Northeastern United States.

Cuomo’s international energy champion is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since 2010 Merkel has pursued her energy policy of “Energiewende”, trying to shift the German economy from nuclear power and fossil fuels to renewable energy. It hasn’t worked. Germany now has the highest energy prices in Europe, is increasingly dependent on Russia for supply (hence “Nord Stream 2”), needs to burn coal for decades in order to make up for the intermittent nature of solar and wind, and actually has to pay foreign governments to offload extra supply from solar and wind sources when they actually are producing because the supply is so uneven it would damage the German power grid.

Merkel and Cuomo are environmental “Idealists”. They are not to be confused with true “Environmentalists”, for whom improvements to the environment are paramount. Environmentalists likely will encourage the switch to natural gas from coal as a bridge to hopefully even cleaner fuels in the future. Idealists like Merkel and Cuomo will fight it at every turn. They will continue to preach and pursue policies that are lovely in the abstract. In real life, however, those policies make our environment dirtier, our economies weaker, and the respective national securities riskier.

Finally to pipelines. As with people like Merkel and Cuomo, pipeline proponents often are their own worst enemies. Energy Transfer Partners has been consistently non-forthcoming in its information regarding construction of the Mariner East 2 and Rover pipelines, but ETP is not alone. Two weeks ago a MarkWest Energy natural gas processing plant in Chartiers Township, Pennsylvania, suffered an accident that killed one person and injured three others. Some press reports stated there was an explosion, others that it was a flash fire. The owners of the pipeline involved, including Marathon Petroleum, won’t clarify publically what happened.

Coming on the heels of other pipeline explosions recently in places like Lawrence, Massachusetts, it would seem in the industry’s best interest to clear up what occurred. Without transparency, new pipeline projects such as Jordan Cove in Oregon and Atlantic Coast in Virginia and North Carolina will face more opposition and trouble.. If Cuomo and Merkel are pursuing self-defeating policies on behalf of their constituents, the pipeline companies are doing the same on behalf of their industry. Hopefully honesty, clarity and transparency will be in greater supply in 2019. That would benefit us all.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

Pipelines, Courts and Reports

Storage Tanks and pipelines in the refinery.

Pipeline issues continue to dominate the natural gas news.  Last week, the pipeline industry got some good news, some bad news, and some news potentially so devastating it could threaten the entire industry.

Good news came for Mariner East 2.  First, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a challenge from the Clean Air Council and some landowners in Delaware and Chester Counties to the utilization by the pipeline builder, Sunoco Logistic, of eminent domain along its 350 mile route.  Later in the week, an Administrative Law Judge for the Pennsylvania State Public Utilities Commission rejected a request from seven citizens in Delaware and Chester Counties to shut down finishing of Mariner East 2 and to stop existing operations on Mariner East 1.

Sunoco Logistics repeated again that it would get Mariner East 2 in service by the end of the year, but not in the form originally intended.  In certain areas, Mariner East 2 only will be 20 inches in diameter, with older pipe being attached to newer pipe.  Sunoco Logistics never has fully explained why this is happening.  Is it because of an operational problem?  A cost cutting move?  A supply issue?  A timing issue?  Especially with the use of older pipe that was never part of the original plans and the use of smaller diameter pipe than was originally proposed, concern with safety should be paramount.  At the very least, the public is entitled to a full explanation from the pipeline company.

Make no mistake, Mariner East 2 is a very important project.  It secures the supply of gas to Marcus Hook, where it either can be exported to help free Western Europe from reliance on Vladimir Putin or it can be moved domestically to ensure our national supply.  It’s for this very reason that the PUC should demand answers.  For years, Mariner East was proposed as a certain type of project.  In the end, Sunoco Logistics is delivering another one, with a slightly different route, less capacity, and older pipe in certain places.  If the PUC doesn’t know why this is, it needs to find out and publicize its findings.

While Sunoco Logistics received its good news on Mariner East 2, Penn East Pipeline, which will go from Northeastern Pennsylvania to Central New Jersey, also got positive court results.  On Friday, US District Court Judge Brian Martinotti ruled that PennEast Pipeline Co. LLC, the owner of the pipeline, can use eminent domain to take properties in New Jersey – although initially, PennEast may only be seeking survey access to those properties as it still needs to address local environmental concerns for which the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has still not given State blessing.  The pipeline will go through Hunterdon and Mercer Counties in New Jersey, allowing connection to pipelines that serve New Jersey and potentially the New York City Metropolitan Area.  The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office had no comment.  Since the election of Democrat Phil Murphy in 2017, New Jersey has done an about-face and is not friendly to natural gas development.  As with other opponents, however, Governor Murphy has no real plan to live without it.

There was bad news also.  On Friday a pipeline owned by Mark West exploded in Washington County in Western Pennsylvania, injuring four people, one critically.  It is believed that workers were cleaning the pipeline when vapors caught fire and ignited other combustible material.  No matter how you slice it, pipelines are serious business, and safety should always be, but sometimes is not, given the full attention that it deserves.

More bad news for the pipeline industry came further south.  A panel of judges for the Fourth Circuit vacated certain permits issued by the United States Forest Service to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would have allowed the pipeline to be built through the George Washington and Monongahela national forests. Atlantic Coast would run 600 miles from West Virginia through Virginia and into Eastern North Carolina.  Twenty one of those miles would be through national forests.  The Forest Service repeatedly told Dominion Energy, Duke Energy and the Southern Company, co-owners of the pipeline, that the pipeline might violate environmental standards.  In 2017, however, the Forest Service issued permits allowing for the pipeline’s building through these forests.  The Fourth Circuit Panel vacated the permits, stating in effect that the Forest Service isn’t doing its job properly.  The pipeline owners intend to fight the decision, saying the judges are undermining the judgment of seasoned professionals.

Finally, the really devastating news came from California, where the California Public Utilities Commission charged utility Pacific Electric & Gas with falsifying safety and maintenance records.  PE&G in effect admitted the accusation.  Now the utility is facing massive criticism in light of the recent wildfires that were the most destructive in California history.  While there is no evidence tying natural gas pipelines to the wildfires, PE&G’s system is antiquated and poorly maintained.  It also doesn’t have enough inspectors to fulfill its reporting obligations.

Should any evidence arise that ties the pipelines to the fires, and then to PE&G’s malfeasance, the entire industry could be at risk.  Once again, it is up to the industry, and its trade groups like the Marcellus Shale Coalition, to start supporting the industry and not just reflexively opposing all government regulation and involvement.  Like all of our nation’s infrastructure, the pipeline system is antiquated and wearing out.  It needs to be rebuilt, using new materials and state of the art construction techniques, and it needs companies willing to do so.  It also needs government both willing to let them do so and to hold them to the highest standards.  Let’s all focus on that.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

 

Russia, Ukraine and Marcellus

russian ships blocking access to ukrainian ports

The simmering dispute over waterway rights between Ukraine and Russia broke into armed conflict this week. Its implications are enormous both for the energy world as a whole and especially for us in the Marcellus Shale region. But some background is required to appreciate the connection.

Briefly, when Vladimir Putin seized the Crimea in 2014 he gained control of the Kerch Strait, which cuts off the sea lanes from Southeastern Ukraine between the Azov Sea and the Black Sea. Until 2014, Russia had controlled the eastern shore of the Kerch Strait but Ukraine had controlled the west. The two countries had reached an agreement in 2003 allowing for shared access of the Kerch Strait and the Azov Sea. However, Russia’s military and political moves in Crimea in 2014 changed that.

Eager to connect the Crimea to the Russian mainland, Putin ordered the building of a 12 mile bridge over the Kerch Strait after the annexation, which he formally opened himself this year in May by driving a truck across it. Russia then placed more armed vessels in the waters around the bridge. The Russians claimed they needed better security. In practice, the extra traffic increased delays to ships trying to access and use the Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea, increasing the costs of doing business there and undermining the utility of these ports in international trade.

Ukraine responded with a military show of force, but this was overwhelmed by Russian naval power. Russia then used the supports of the bridge, which had been built at a strategic distance, to permit its own warships to blockade the Ukrainian ports. Weaker militarily, Ukraine has few cards left to play and access to its Azov Sea ports is now very much under Russian de facto control.

As I noted in July during the controversy over the Nord Stream II pipeline that Germany is building with Russia and which will bypass Ukraine and Poland, Ukraine currently gets over 2% of its GDP from transfer payments for the trans-shipments of Russian gas and oil to Western Europe. Thanks to Angela Merkel, that transport route may become irrelevant. Nord Stream II brings Putin’s dreams of Russia once again dominating Eastern Europe one step closer. However, more than just Ukraine’s loss of access to its ports and its lost revenue from diverted oil and gas trans-shipments, thanks to this new pipeline Russia can cut off energy supplies to Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States any time it wishes, without worrying that Western Europe will react harshly as their supplies are also cut off. While economically in the short term this direct pipeline access to Russian gas and oil may be better for Germany, Nord Stream II is a geo-political disaster due to its implications for further expansion of Russian power and influence over former Soviet states, if not more globally.

For these reasons, President Trump was right in calling the Germans out on the new pipeline at the NATO summit in July. However, the President has not been forthcoming with an appropriate condemnation of Russia’s actions, leaving our allies confused and leaving UN Secretary Nikki Haley to act as the lone Voice of America while the President – inexplicably but not unexpectedly – dithers on calling Putin out for what is obviously going on.

Meanwhile, with Putin again showing his aggressive nature, the rest of the West is scrambling.  Cyprus, Israel, Greece and Italy agreed this week to build a $7B pipeline for the Eastern Mediterranean from the Leviathan Field in the Mediterranean Sea. Germany, perhaps belatedly realizing the folly of putting all of its energy eggs in Putin’s basket, now is partnering with Dow Chemical also to build a liquefied natural gas import facility in the German city of Strade, near Hamburg.

Who will supply the gas to feed Western Europe should Russia turn out to be unreliable or if Nord Stream II becomes another pawn on Putin’s chess board to regained Soviet dominance? It could and should be us from right here in the Marcellus. By building out our pipeline system in the US, we can supply Strade and other future European gas import terminals, thereby helping thwart Putin’s aggression, and projecting American “soft power” – which is what critics of an aggressive American foreign policy often demand. At the very least, this will help keep American troops out of harm’s way, but it could also serve as a geopolitical foil to Russia’s attempts to use its energy largesse for political, military, and evident expansion purposes.

Will we have the political will to do it?

In order to do so, the natural gas industry in this country must first recognize the strategic reasons why this is important which, in turn, requires understanding the interconnections between domestic energy policy, international trade, and political, military, and diplomatic events in far away places. Few Americans presently understand how Russian moves in the Azov Sea could eventually end up causing young men and women in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and elsewhere to be sent overseas in military uniforms. Fewer still comprehend how the pipeline build out and export terminals in this country can help (1) secure our future militarily while simultaneously (2) creating good jobs for people in our region and (3) decreasing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. None will understand if they are not told.

Tom Wolf just won reelection handily as Governor of Pennsylvania. He is no friend of the natural gas industry. Unlike his counterparts in New York and Maryland, however, he hasn’t moved to try to shut it down. There will be more pressure on him to do so now that the National Climate Assessment has been released.

Wolf, though, lives in the real world. He must perform for Pennsylvanians. Strange as it sounds, the Governor and the industry need each other. The gas industry has to provide him with the explanation as to why working with the it not only is in Wolf’s own best interests politically but is also in the best interests of all Pennsylvanians, and indeed all Americans. Somehow this message has not gotten through as forcefully as it should.

Further, our newly elected representatives from the Marcellus States in their state legislatures and in the United States Congress must understand – and not be hesitant to educate the public about – the international dynamic. Some, like Chrissy Houlahan of my home district in Southeastern Pennsylvania, are military veterans who have dealt with the intricacies of international relations. Others are untested. It will be up to all of them to work to keep American men and women safe. It will be up to all of us involved with the industry to explain how it can be instrumental – indeed, strategically essential – in doing so.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin will be watching, waiting, and planning his next chess move.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.