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Friday, March 22, 2013

Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2013 at 11:20 PM

Performer Ben Sota’s troupe — now 10 years old! — is doing a cute little show called “Cake” as its first Pittsburgh performance in a bit. It’s performed for free, outdoors in Market Square, Downtown, through Sunday.

  • Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership

The four-person cast tells the kid-friendly story of a little girl’s birthday party that gets messed up by a mischief-maker but redeemed by the sort of home-made fun you can have if mom and dad have a sense of humor … and some circus skills.

Sota (as the dad) does some nice juggling and other tricks; Erin Carey some fine trapeze work (that’s her pictured, and bundled up); and Becca Bernard (as the birthday girl) and Bob Shryock contribute clowning and other talents, plus audience—participation hijinks. Cream pies are also involved.

The half-hour show had it first performance at noon today. I caught the 5 p.m. performance; the audience was just a couple dozen but appreciative (even if the applause was somewhat muffled by mittens).

“Cake” is on courtesy of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. There are six more performances, at noon, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. tomorrow, and 2, 5 and 8 p.m. on Sunday.

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Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2013 at 4:51 PM

A newly announced coalition meant to raise the environmental standards of shale-gas extraction has drawn favorable notice in the media. But a growing number of citizen groups and environmental organizations say the Center for Sustainable Shale Development won’t make fracking safer — and risks providing cover for risky gas extraction in the future.

The Center, spearheaded by the Heinz Endowments, was announced at a Downtown press conference Wednesday. The Center is a coalition of industry and environmental and philanthropic groups offering a voluntary certification process to make practices like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, less damaging to the environment and less risky to human health.

As noted this morning in Blogh, the Sierra Club criticized the Center’s standards as
“a Band-Aid” on the “gaping wound” of the climate crisis.

The Center was also taken to task by Ohio Citizen Action. In a release, the group points out that the Center has no representation by landowners, neighbors, taxpayers or medical experts. It also notes that the standards are voluntary — and that, while the Center’s certification would apparently apply to energy companies operating in Ohio, the Center doesn’t include any environmental groups based in Ohio, or the energy companies who dominate extraction there.

The whole press release is here.

And this afternoon, a coalition of Pennsylvania environmental groups issued a press release headlined “New Fracking Standards Not Supported by Environmental Organizations.” The groups — including Berks Gas Truth, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Green Party of Pennsylvania and the Mountain Watershed Association — say that evidence is mounting that “fracking cannot be done safely” and that it’s dangerous to think otherwise.

The release also points out that “sustainable shale” is an oxymoron (because natural gas is a nonrenewable resource). And the groups argue that the standards the Center touts as rigorous “don’t appear to be substantially different from the corresponding regulations the industry has been blatantly disregarding for years.”

The whole release is here.

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Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2013 at 11:22 AM

The Port Authority board of directors today voted to temporarily increase the salary of interim CEO Ellen McLean.

McLean's salary will increase from $138,000 to $167,500, and remain until a permanent agency chief is in place. Authority board chair Jeff Letwin proposed the raise because McLean is balancing her job as CFO and interim CEO and doing both well.

McLean has been leading the agency since the ouster of former CEO Steve Bland in February.

The agency retained a search firm to conduct a national search for a CEO and Letwin says he doesn't believe the job has been posted yet. He says there have been no candidates proposed so far.

"There's no set time-frame," he says. "We want to have a thoughtful process to get it right."

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Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2013 at 10:35 AM

Mike Krancer, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, will step down April 15.

“His guidance on a variety of issues related to the environment has been vital,” Gov. Tom Corbett said in a press release announcing the move. “DEP has been in good hands under his leadership.”

Krancer, a former assistant general counsel for energy firm Exelon Corp. and a former judge for the state's environmental hearing board, was a proponent of natural gas drilling and often touted its economic impacts. He's been a target of environmental and public health activists, who have criticized him for not being tough enough on natural gas drillers, disputing studies linking gas drilling to drinking water contamination and not fully disclosing waste-water contamination reports in the state.

E. Christopher Abruzzo, Corbett's deputy chief of staff, will serve as acting secretary until Corbett names a successor. Krancer will return to his Philadelphia-area lawfirm, Blank Rome LLP.

Updated 10:50 a.m.
We've received a statement from industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition CEO Kathryn Klaber:
"Secretary Krancer's constructiveness and pragmatism have served our Commonwealth well. Under his leadership, Pennsylvania has implemented world-class regulatory requirements for the industry, and responsible natural gas production has soared, resulting in more local jobs, cleaner air and strengthened American energy security. On behalf of our entire organization, we wish Secretary Krancer the very best in his future pursuits."

Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Mayoral Candidates and students at last weeks debate

Pittsburgh Community Television will rebroadcast the mayoral debate held March 17 at the Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 School.

The air times are as follows:
— 3/25 7:00 p.m.
— 3/27 7:30 p.m.
— 3/28 6:00 a.m.
— 3/28 2:00 p.m.
— 4/1/ 7:00 p.m.
— 4/3 7:00 p.m.
— 4/4 6:30 a.m.
— 4/5i 4:00 p.m.

Viewers can also search for broadcast times on PCTV21's website and the broadcast will run until the Primary election. It will also be available on the station's on-demand player below:

Viewers can tune in online, or channel 21 for Comcast subscribers and channel 47 for Verizon subscribers. John Patterson, executive director of the station, says he anticipates recording and broadcasting future mayoral debates as well.

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Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2013 at 8:36 AM

The court battle over UPMC's tax-exempt status -- challenged by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- is a long way off. But in the meantime, here's a primer on some of the legal questions, and a discussion of how a Supreme Court decision last year really helps the city's cause. Meanwhile, plans to basically nullify that decision are making headway in Harrisburg, where Republicans are leading the charge for an amendment to the state constitution. The amendment process is time-consuming -- it involves two separate bills passing the legislature, and a public referendum -- and the earliest such a measure could pass is 2015. But I don't think UPMC would have too much trouble dragging out a court battle to that point, do you? (Still, it's kind of funny to see UPMC's cause being championed by Republicans, who also oppose a state Medicaid expansion that would help hospitals tremendously.)

Remember how just yesterday I was saying what a nice change-of-pace it was not to have include any police-related headlines in this feature? Alas. The Tribune-Review claims that an indictment of former police chief Nate Harper is in the offing. The Trib also follows up on a KDKA story previously noted here: The lawyer for Edward Lojack Jr., who claims to have been roughed up by Pittsburgh police on St. Patrick's Day is pointing to a similar incident involving the same officer three years ago. Oh, and the jury has that trial involving former detective Bradley Walker, so one way or the other there's another headline coming down the pike.

Earlier this week, there was a flurry of reports about a strange-bedfellow partnership between environmental groups and the natural-gas drilling industry: Representatives from both sides had hashed out a certification process for trying to elevate environmental standards at drilling sites. Well, turns out the Sierra Club is not amused. "The majority of natural gas must stay in the ground if we want any chance of avoiding climate disaster," says a spokesperson for one of the nation's most prominent environmental groups. And somewhere, a gas company executive is smiling.

In other drilling news, you probably don't recall, but some time ago a Washington County property owner and a gas driller settled a lawsuit alleging environmental problems on the site. But the settlement, and other court documents, were sealed -- over media objections. Now that material has been unsealed, and -- surprise! -- the papers suggest lax DEP oversight ... carried out in part by a DEP employee who then went on to work for Range Resources, the very company who was operating the well in question. (Hundreds of court documents are unveiled for your reading pleasure here.)

Oh, and maybe you heard that the state House passed a bill privatizing liquor stores? Now it goes to the Senate, where the troubles really begin. But in the meantime, enjoy this story, complete with a somewhat disconcerting close-up photo of Republican House leader Mike Turzai.

Oh, and my condolences to Pitt fans everywhere.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Posted By on Thu, Mar 21, 2013 at 3:14 PM

The Birds
  • The Birds

The AB Film group at Carnegie Mellon regularly schedules current and classic films. Movies screen at McConomy auditorium on campus. Admission is $1 for CMU students (with ID), and everybody else only pays $3. More info and complete schedule here.

It's Hitchcock week, at CMU, with two of his classics and a recent bio-doc about the filmmaker.

Thu., March 21
The Birds: All the birds go crazy in a Northern California town, in this 1963 thriller. You'll never look at birds hanging out in the playground the same way again.
7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Fri., March 22
Hitchcock: Recent bio-doc looks at the making of Psycho; Athony Hopkins plays Alfred Hitchcock, with Helen Mirren as his wife and collaborator, Alma.
9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.

Sat., March 23
North by Northwest: A man falsely accused is chased by a crop-duster, scales Mount Rushmore and takes a train ride with a beautiful woman. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint star in this 1959 comic-thriller-romance.
7 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 21, 2013 at 11:24 AM

Pittsburgh City Paper, the city's only alternative weekly newspaper, is seeking a music intern for summer, 2013. And fall, 2013, while we're at it. Experienced writers with an interest in all types of music are encouraged to apply for this position. The internship schedule is flexible, requiring about 15 hours of work a week on average. (This is negotiable if an internship is required to be more intensive.) There is a small stipend involved.

City Paper covers Pittsburgh: local bands, artists and DJs; touring acts hitting town; the interesting and quirky characters who make the music scene. If you have an eye for what's going on beneath the average person's radar, and an interest in music new and old, you might be right for the job. A working knowledge of AP style is a major plus — a knowledge of music is preferred, but above all, this is a writing internship. People who should apply included but are not limited to: college-paper A&E writers; music bloggers; college-radio DJs who know their grammar; people who write news but have always had a hankering to write music; people who have read City Paper before.

To apply, please email your resume and three relevant writing samples to Any questions should be emailed as well. No phone calls, please! Seriously! We're busy over here!

Deadline for applications is Friday, April 5, at 4 p.m. The summer internship should start in May and run until August; the fall internship should start in early September and run until December.

Flier attached in PDF format if you'd like to post it in your English department, college radio station, coffeeshop, etc. Good luck!



Posted By on Thu, Mar 21, 2013 at 11:02 AM

An unusual coalition of industry, environmental and philanthropic organizations yesterday announced an initiative to certify shale-gas producers for their environmental practices.

The Center for Sustainable Shale Development has established 15 performance standards for shale-gas extraction in the Appalachian Basin, governing air and water emissions and climate impacts related to hydraulic fracturing.

Starting later this year, energy companies in shale fields including the Marcellus can apply for review by independent, third-party consultants hired by the Center. The certification is a voluntary process, meant to complement rather than replace government regulation and enforcement.

The Center’s board boasts big names including former New Jersey governor and U.S. EPA head Christine Todd Whitman; former Treasury Secretary and ALCOA CEO Paul O’Neill; Carnegie Mellon University president Jared Cohon; top executives of Shell, Chevron, EQT Corporation and CONSOL Energy; Heinz Endowments president Robert Vagt; and Environmental Defense Fund president Paul King.

The press conference touting the Center was moderated by Andrew Place, EQT’s corporate director for energy and environmental policy and the Center’s interim executive director. Other speakers included O’Neill, Vagt and Conrad Schneider, of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (whose executive director, Armond Cohen, also sits on the board).

The event, held in Downtown’s EQT Plaza, was an odd place to do environmental reporting — and not just because you wonder how it’s possible to have “sustainable development” of a nonrenewable resource like shale gas. It was also odd because some of the enviros a reporter would normally hit up for comments about such an initative were sitting up there with reps from Shell, Chevron and EQT.

One of them was Joe Osbourne, legal director for the Group Against Smog and Pollution, probably Pittsburgh’s most venerable grassroots environmental group. After four decades, it’s still a vocal advocate for greener standards.

As recently as a couple years ago, GASP favored a moratorium on shale-gas drilling, at least until more is known about its impacts. But Osbourne says that with thousands of wells already drilled, hundreds of compressor stations pumping away, and a pro-drilling governor in Harrisburg, “it became inescapable, the conclusion that this is here regardless of whether you’re pro shale gas or anti shale gas.” Therefore, he says GASP decided, “We should be focusing our effort on reducing the environmental impact."

Osbourne says he joined the Center’s planning team in late 2011, partway into what became a two-year process.

GASP, which back in the 1970s cut its teeth serving on air-quality committees with the likes of U.S. Steel, is no stranger to hashing things out with corporations. I asked Osbourne whether GASP believed certification would be effective.

“We have something of a reputation to maintain,” he said. “GASP wouldn’t stake our credibility on just another industry PR campaign. I do think this has promise.”

Other environmental groups involved include the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (whose president, Paul King, sits on the Center’s board) and Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future.

The initiative was spearheaded by the Heinz Endowments, whose president, Vagt, says the goal is achieving “the safest possible natural-gas drilling outcomes.” He added that the Center’s performance standards are “rigorous,” with measurable outcomes specified, and not merely based on best practices. Schneider, of the Clean Air Task Force, said that the standards represent “the state of the art” in shale extraction.

The standards (most of which won't apply until 2014 or later) would, among other things, prohibit gas producers from any discharge of wastewater into surface waters; require that drillers recycle a minimum of 90 percent of water contaminated in the drilling process; better protect groundwater from wastewater; reduce the toxicity of fracking fluid; and reduce air emissions from wastewater, onsite engines and on-road trucks. They’d also require pre- and post-drilling tests of local water quality. That’s important because neighbors of wells who say their water has been fouled often have a hard time proving it to the authorities.

Place said that all the standards are stricter than current Pennsylvania law, except for limits on emissions from engines of nitrous oxide, which is slightly less strict than a recently revised state reg and will itself be revised.

One problem the Center’s standards don’t address directly is habitat fragmentation in local fields and woodlands caused by access roads and pipelines. I brought this up with Environmental Defense Fund representative Mark Brownstein, of the Center's planning group. He said the Center's standards requiring a reduced footprint for drilling operations would help alleviate fragmentation. He added, “As stated, [these standards are] a good start, but over time more will be done.”

Speakers at the meeting also generally seemed to accept the notion that switching more of our energy generation from coal and oil to natural gas will help alleviate climate change — a debatable proposition.

A more immediate question is how many energy companies will actually request certification. Board member Paul Goodfellow, a Shell vice president, promised that Shell, for one, would have all its gas operations in Pennsylvania certified. Bruce Niemeyer, president of Chevron Appalachia, said many companies are already meeting or exceeding the Center’s standards — including some of the most profitable firms, because more careful environmental practices correlate with high efficiency. (“Doing the right thing does not cost more money,” chimed in O’Neill.)

A reporter asked why other big players — presumably names like Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy — were not involved in the planning. Place said the group was kept small to help it reach consensus. “There was no effort to exclude anyone,” he said. The next step, he said, is recruiting firms for certification.

Why would those companies bother? Schneider, of the Clean Air Task Force, says it will be crucial to reward certified companies in the marketplace. In other words, they’ll seek certification if it’ll sell more gas. But that will depend largely on whether consumers can choose their own gas supplier — which, unlike with electricity, they can’t really do in Pennsylvania. Someone asked we’d ever have “green gas” — letting consumers choose certified over uncertified suppliers. “We would hope so,” said Schneider.

A cynic might ask whether even the possibility that some companies will get certified might tone down public criticism of the industry in general.

But GASP’s Osbourne says that while a shale-gas moratorium would have been ideal, efforts like the Center’s are worth it. “You’re not going to eliminate risk,” he says. “Any energy-generation process has environmental impact ... It’s how do we minimize that?”

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Posted By on Thu, Mar 21, 2013 at 9:04 AM

The big news yesterday, obviously, was Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to challenge the tax-exempt status of UPMC. Plenty of coverage out there of course; a decent primer is here, with some discussion of the long-term political implications here. Stay tuned for plenty more. For now, I'll just observe that in the past week, the mayor has been grousing about police conduct and tilting at the UPMC windmill. People are going to speculate that he's pitching for a job at Highmark when he leaves office next year ... but looks to me like, if anything, he's angling for a column at City Paper.

A bill currently idling in a state House committee would make it a crime to photograph or document what goes on at a farm without the permission of the owner, report our friends at PublicSource. The most obvious motive for the legislation is PETA-style videos of mistreated chickens, but in the Age of Marcellus, could the measure also keep gas drilling under wraps?

In other ideas-you-wish-legislators-would-keep-to-themselves news, pro-choice groups are sounding the alarm about bills to prohibit coverage of abortion in insurance policies offered by state "insurance exchanges". The exchanges, set up by Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul, allow people to buy insurance if they can't get it from their employer ... so naturally this is an opportunity for Republicans to press an anti-choice agenda.

Contrariwise, most folks will be excited that a bill to advance the privatization of state liquor-store sales is poised to advance farther than it has at any time in living memory. The state House could take a vote as early as this afternoon ... though the Senate may be a harder sell. And this is Pennsylvania, so the real action is always out of sight. Apparently, part of the GOP calculus here is trying to ensure that Gov. Tom Corbett's first term isn't a complete embarrassment.

An unusual coalition of environmental groups and natural gas drillers unveiled a plan to minimize the impact of natural-gas drilling. It relies on drillers seeking a newly created environmental certification at drill sites around the state. We'll have more on this in a bit, but for now, it's worth noting that the program is strictly voluntary ... and Range Resources, one of the region's most active drillers, wasn't at the unveiling.

Political analyst Stu Rothenberg says Pennsylvania is key to Democrats (very slim) hopes of retaking the US House of Representatives next year. He cites two districts in particular as ripe for a Democratic coup ... but neither are around here. While Rothenberg acknowledges that Keith "Regular Guy" Rothfus isn't on the list, he notes that Rothfus' district was carried easily by Mitt Romney last year, and says the chance of a Democrat victory here "doesn't look promising."

Wait a minute ... did I actually get through one of these without mentioning the city's police department? JOB WELL DONE, GUYS.