Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Susan Phillips

Reporter

Susan Phillips tells stories about the consequences of political decisions on people's every day lives. She has worked as a reporter for WHYY since 2004. Susan's coverage of the 2008 Presidential election resulted in a story on the front page of the New York Times. In 2010 she travelled to Haiti to cover the earthquake. That same year she produced an award-winning series on Pennsylvania's natural gas rush called "The Shale Game." Along with her reporting partner Scott Detrow, she won the 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Journalism Award for her work covering natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. She has also won several Edward R. Murrow awards for her work with StateImpact. She recently returned from a year as at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.

Poll shows support for Obama’s Clean Power Plan among Pa voters

A new post-election poll shows a majority of Pennsylvanians who voted in the November election support limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The Sierra Club commissioned the multi-state survey, which included about 100 Pennsylvania voters. Those polled included an equal mix of Democrats and Republicans. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed nationwide limits on climate change causing emissions. Pennsylvania’s goal is to reduce the state’s power plant carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

Sixty-six percent of Pennsylvanians polled say they support reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, while 28 percent oppose limiting emissions at power plants. Those results mirrored the concerns over climate change itself. About two-thirds surveyed said climate change is a serious problem, while 35 percent disagreed.

Pennsylvania gets no property tax from expanding pipelines

Workers prepare to lay a new Marcellus Shale gas pipeline in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Kim Paynter / WHYY/Newsworks.org

Workers prepare to lay a new Marcellus Shale gas pipeline in Susquehanna County, Pa.

While Pennsylvania gains no tax revenue from expanding pipelines, that’s not the case across the river in New Jersey. The Allentown Morning-Call reports on how the proposed Penn East pipeline is expected to generate $54,000 for Delaware Township, New Jersey, and $329,000 each year to the local county and school district. But on the Pennsylvania side of the river, the towns, counties and school districts hosting new pipelines get zero tax dollars from the project. That’s because Pennsylvania charges no property tax on oil and gas operations, which includes an exemption for pipelines.

More from the Morning-Call:

Tax policy differs from state to state, but in states that tax pipelines as property, they can produce significant revenue.

Some 10,775 miles of pipeline in Iowa generate $50 million to $60 million a year in property tax revenue for local municipalities, counties and school districts, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue.

Iowa towns could get an additional $27 million and North Dakota and South Dakota may see $13 million in new property tax revenue from a planned 1,100-mile crude oil pipeline from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois, according to a study released last week by Dakota Access LLC, which plans to build the pipeline.

With the severance tax debate, opponents of taxing Marcellus Shale oil and gas operations point to Pennsylvania’s high corporate income tax. Pennsylvania corporations pay 9.9%, while New Jersey is close behind at 9%. Texas, the country’s largest oil and gas producer, charges a severance tax as well as property taxes on oil and gas operations. The Penn East pipeline is just one of several new pipelines proposed to transport Marcellus Shale gas to East Coast markets.

EPA boosts rules for methane reporting by oil and gas producers

Workers at a frack site in Harford Township, Pa. Under new EPA rules, gas drillers will have to step up their measurements and reporting of methane leaks.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Workers at a frack site in Harford Township, Pa. Under new EPA rules, gas drillers will have to step up their measurements and reporting of methane leaks.

The Environmental Protection Agency has moved to require oil and gas operators to improve how they measure methane leaks. Climate scientists and environmentalists increasingly worry about the warming aspects of methane. Although carbon dioxide has been the focus in the fight against global warming, methane is actually more potent in the short run. And as drilling for oil and gas continues in places like Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, more methane escapes. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told a room full of Wharton students on Friday that fracking operations don’t have to exacerbate global warming.

“And it’s about using some tremendously creative new technologies that actually allow us remotely to look at all this work that is going on across the U.S.,” said McCarthy, “And figure out where those leaks are, where those releases are, and how best to change our operations to get at a significant source of carbon pollution.”

McCarthy spoke at the Wharton Energy Conference at the Union League in Center City Philadelphia, where she urged support for Obama’s climate change action plan. The new rules would allow EPA to gauge how much methane escapes from oil and gas drill sites.

“This is about best management practices, this is about proper construction of a well,” said McCarthy. “I read about that when I was 24. We’ve learned those lessons, we can do this.”  Continue Reading

Republicans win big with gas industry donations

A drill rig in Susquehanna County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

A drill rig in Susquehanna County.

The gas industry has spent almost $50 million to lobby state lawmakers, and try to influence elections since 2007. That’s according to a report out Thursday by Common Cause of Pennsylvania. “Marcellus Money” tracks campaign and lobbying dollars that must be reported to Pennsylvania’s Department of State. But Common Cause director Barry Kauffman says the total does not account for donations to the “independent” non-profits, which are not required to disclose donations following recent Supreme Court rulings.

“In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, the gas industry can channel campaign money into other organizations that will hide the industry’s fingerprints,” said Kauffman.

As an example, Kauffman points to donations made by shale executives John Hess, of Hess Corp., and Trevor Rees Jones from Chief Oil and Gas, whose combined contributions total more than $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which subsequently donated more than $5.8 million to Tom Corbett’s failed re-election bid. Governor Corbett has gained the most from industry largess over the years. Natural gas industry interests have given the governor $2,084,241 since 2007. That figure includes industry employees as well as industry political action committees. In contrast, Common Cause calculated industry donations to Governor-elect Tom Wolf as $53,500.

Wolf also received support from billionaire environmentalist Tim Steyer’s Next Gen Climate Action Committee, which spent money nationwide to defeat climate change deniers. Common Cause says the group spent at least $1.1 million on television ads attacking Corbett’s doubts surrounding climate change science. Continue Reading

Pennsylvania’s frack ponds now number more than 500

A sign warns against trespassing on a fracking wastewater impoundment in Bradford County.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks/WHYY

A sign warns against trespassing on a frack wastewater impoundment in Bradford County.

In 2005, Pennsylvania had 11 frack water pits. Just eight years later, aerial maps show that number has jumped to 529. It’s unclear how many of these sites store fresh water used for fracking, and how many store the toxic wastewater that results from oil and gas drilling operations. The Department of Environmental Protection could not provide the data to public health researchers working with Geisenger on an NIH funded health impact study. So the researchers turned to the nonprofit data sleuths from SkyTruth, who have documented the impoundents with the help of USDA aerial imagery and citizen scientists from around the world. Smithsonian.org recently reported on how the project was initiated by public health researchers from Johns Hopkins:

Brian Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and his colleagues have teamed up with Geisinger Health System, a health services organization in Pennsylvania, to analyze the digital medical records of more than 400,000 patients in the state in order to assess the impacts of fracking on neonatal and respiratory health.

While the scientists will track where these people live, says Schwartz, state regulators cannot tell them where the active well pads and waste pits are located. Officials at Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) say that they have simply never compiled a comprehensive list.

A spokesman for DEP told the Observer-Reporter that the department can’t produce a list of impoundments that include smaller wastewater storage sites because they have a different classification. The DEP sent the reporter to another nonprofit that tries to fill the state’s data and information gap – FracTracker. But FrackTracker says the data they get from DEP on the location of frack ponds is “woefully incomplete.”

“We are big fans of the SkyTruth dataset here at FracTracker, but it is a shame that it is needed,” said Matt Kelso, manager of data and technology at FracTracker Alliance.  ”We wish that the PA DEP would publish better data about this aspect of the oil and gas extraction business.”

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Changing climate changing forests: How best to help Pennsylvania’s woods

In a 19th-century farmhouse deep in northern Pennsylvania’s Bradford County, Nancy Baker is looking at family photos dating back four generations.

One shows her grandfather with a team of horses on clear cut land. Another shows her mother and aunt on the same farm as a small child. Baker also has a series of aerial photos going back to 1939, which show how the forest cover has evolved in the past 70 years.

Her home was built by her great grandfather, Joseph Morrow Gamble, a Scots-Irish immigrant who cut timber from the virgin forest and shipped it down the Susquehanna River.

The story of how Baker’s family used its land to make a living was replayed up and down the East Coast after European settlers arrived. Her great grandfather cut down woods for timber. Then he turned to farming, yanking rocks from the stony soil to mark out cow pastures. His children inherited the land. But in the 20th century, their children left for better jobs in town. Baker’s own parents became teachers.

With the land left to itself, the forests returned. So Baker grew up playing in the woods and learning how to fell a tree ambidextrously with an axe.

“When we inherited this land from my mother I said, ‘OK, it’s our turn to steward the land,’” said Baker. “But how are we going to do this?”

 


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What Wolf’s win means for energy and the environment

Governor-elect Tom Wolf on the campaign trail.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pa

Governor-elect Tom Wolf on the campaign trail.

Now we know. Democrat Tom Wolf will indeed be taking the reins from Gov. Corbett in just over two months.

For the first time since 1954, an incumbent Pennsylvania governor did not either win re-election or cede power to someone from their own party. 

That’s an historic loss for Pennsylvania’s GOP, which has been supportive of the gas industry, so reaction to Wolf over Corbett broke down along predictable lines.

Lou D’Amico of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association says Wolf’s policies could lead to job loss.

Cindy Dunn, director of PennFuture said, “For the environmental voters, it was a referendum of Gov. Corbett’s handling of the gas industry.”

Let’s take a look at what Wolf’s win might mean for energy and environment.

Marcellus Shale tax battle lines

Wolf’s plan to replace the current impact fee with a 5 percent tax on the market value of natural gas may run up against more opposition than he seems to expect.

He says at current production levels this tax could bring in $1 billion, which is about $800,000 more each year than the current impact fee. He says he’ll use that money to help boost funding for the state’s failing public school systems.

But he’s got to contend with a Republican legislature. And ideas that poll well with voters during a campaign pre-election does not always translate well to momentum in Harrisburg post-election. Still, drillers are worried, and not so sure they’ve got the support in Harrisburg they need to head off a tax hike.

D’Amico, president of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, says some drillers are talking about leaving the state if Wolf succeeds in imposing a new severance tax. And although he says the industry does enjoy bipartisan support in Harrisburg, D’Amico worries about lawmakers from non-drilling areas like Philadelphia.

“If you’re not seeing your hotels full, if you’re not seeing the local Ford dealer selling trucks to drillers, then you’re not concerned as much in Philadelphia [with the potential slow-down of gas drilling] as you are in Bradford, Tioga, or Susquehanna counties where they are benefiting from us being here.” Continue Reading

Second lawsuit filed to halt drilling in state parks and forests

A drilling convoy heads through the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY/Newsworks

A drilling convoy heads through the Loyalsock State Forest.

An environmental group has filed a lawsuit challenging the Corbett administration’s plan to lease more state park and forest land for oil and gas development. The Corbett Administration lifted a moratorium on new leases in state parks and forests with an executive order last May to help plug a budget gap. The lawsuit filed by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network is the first to challenge that executive order directly, but is the second suit aimed at preventing more drilling on state lands.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s challenge, filed Thursday in Commonwealth Court, is based on the state’s environmental rights amendment and is a direct result of the Riverkeeper’s successful challenge of Act 13. In that case, the Supreme Court invoked article 1, section 27 of the state constitution, also referred to as the environmental rights amendment, to strike down key aspects of the state’s new drilling law. The Riverkeeper’s latest challenge of Corbett’s executive order could serve as a test case for how the courts continue to interpret the state’s environmental rights amendment.

Riverkeeper Maya Van Rossum said Corbett’s executive order on opening up more state land to natural gas development “invites and encourages the frackers to come right up to the edge of our public parks, destroying the adjacent communities as well as destroying the park lands themselves.”

Continue Reading

Cancer causing air toxins detected at frack sites

A compressor station pumps natural gas into the Tennessee Pipeline in Dimock, Pa.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

A compressor station pumps natural gas into the Tennessee Pipeline in Dimock, Pa.

A peer reviewed study published Thursday in the journal Environmental Health reveals dangerous levels of air toxins near fracking operations. The carcinogen formaldehyde was the most common chemical found to exceed federal safety levels, according to Denny Larson, one of the report’s authors. Larson works with the nonprofit Global Community Monitor.

“The number of [chemicals] that we found near these sites are alarming,” said Larson in a call with reporters. “They are, as the title of our report clearly says, a warning sign.”

The deadly chemical hydrogen sulfide was also found in high levels in Wyoming samples. Hydrogen sulfide is known to kill oil field workers. A recent report by EnergyWire documents the dangers to shale oil production workers from air toxins.

Volunteers in six states, including Pennsylvania, took air samples for the study. Pennsylvania’s samples show high levels of formaldehyde near compressor stations. The research was led by David Carpenter, a physician and director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at New York State University at Albany. Carpenter says he’s most concerned about the high levels of benzene and formaldehyde measured by the volunteers. Continue Reading

PA Congressman launches frack waste investigation

A truck delivers fracking wastewater to a Susquehanna County recycling center

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A truck delivers fracking wastewater to a Susquehanna County recycling center.

The state’s new acting secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection, Dana Aunkst, has lots of questions to answer regarding how the state oversees frack waste disposal and transportation. On Wednesday, Congressman Matt Cartwright, a democrat from Schuylkill County, sent Aunkst a 3-page letter seeking information as part of an investigation into how states monitor waste generated by shale gas drilling. The states have responsibility for the waste because it’s exempt from federal oversight. The investigation comes on the heels of a report released by the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s office in July, which criticizes the DEP’s role in protecting drinking water from contamination by gas drillers.

“The audit concluded that Pennsylvania’s current system for oversight of fracking waste “is not an effective monitoring tool” and “it is not proactive in discouraging improper, even illegal, disposal of waste,” wrote Cartwright in the letter.

Cartwright is leading the investigation through the Economic Growth, Job Creation, and Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Aunkst was just recently appointed acting secretary after former secretary Chris Abruzzo resigned in the wake of the porngate scandal. Aunkst has until November 12 to respond. Read the letter and Cartwright’s questions below. Continue Reading

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