Energy. Environment. Economy.

Susan Phillips


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.

Obama Administration proposes billions to overhaul energy infrastructure

Vice President Joe Biden, right, accompanied by Mayor Michael Nutter tours the headquarters of PECO energy company in Philadelphia, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. The White House has released a four-year energy plan, Quadrennial Energy Review, designed to fight climate change, modernize power plants and find other ways to ensure the nation a steady supply of safe energy.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Vice President Joe Biden, right, accompanied by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter tours the headquarters of PECO energy company in Philadelphia, Tuesday. The White House has released the Quadrennial Energy Review, designed to modernize the nation's energy infrastructure.

The Obama Administration wants to spend billions of dollars to upgrade the nation’s energy infrastructure. That means replacing pipelines, making the grid more resilient against terrorism or cyber attacks, preparing the systems for rising sea levels, improving data on crude-by-rail, reducing emissions from natural gas infrastructure, and modernizing the electrical grid.

The White House chose to roll out the first ever “Quadrennial Energy Review” in Philadelphia, which has struggled to keep pace with replacing its own aging natural gas pipes, and is trying to position itself as an East Coast “energy hub.”

Vice President Joe Biden and Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz toured a PECO Energy facility in Philadelphia Tuesday before speaking to area business leaders.

PECO received a $200 million dollar federal stimulus grant back in 2009 to upgrade its transmission system. The electric and gas utility serves a six-county area that includes Philadelphia and its suburbs.

This first Quadrennial Energy Review focuses exclusively on infrastructure and is part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Continue Reading

Air pollution increases at Pennsylvania’s natural gas sites

A Cabot fracking site in Harford Township, Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A Cabot fracking site in Harford Township, Susquehanna County.

Sulfur dioxide emissions jumped 57 percent from 2012 to 2013 at the state’s natural gas production sites, according to data released today by the Department of Environmental Protection. Sulfur dioxide contributes to acid rain, and causes respiratory problems including asthma.  Other air pollutants that contribute to public health impacts also increased. These jumps in emissions coincide with the number of well sites reporting.

Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley said in a press release that the results were not a surprise.

“The industry is growing,” said Quigley. “And each year we are expanding the types and number of facilities from which we collect data so that we have a more comprehensive understanding of air quality issues.”

Quigley says overall the state’s air quality is improving, despite the increased emissions from the natural gas sector. Continue Reading

Philadelphia’s mayoral race has candidates talking shale gas

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest oil refining complex on the Eastern seaboard. Half of all Bakken Crude traveling across the country by rail ends up at the PES plant.

Nat Hamilton/WHYY

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest oil refining complex on the Eastern seaboard. Half of all Bakken Crude traveling across the country by rail ends up at the PES plant.

On Thursday evening business leaders and local politicians gathered at Drexel University in Philadelphia to talk about exporting Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas from the Port of Philadelphia, and got an earful from activists. But the export terminal is just one idea inside of a larger vision to turn Philadelphia into an “energy hub,” an issue that continues to come up in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary race.

So, what is an energy hub?

Here’s what the energy hub aims to do in a nut shell.

Take advantage of all that abundant Marcellus Shale gas flowing out of wells in the northeast and southwest parts of the state, places like Susquehanna County, or Washington County. Send all that gas to Philadelphia, instead of spreading it out to places like New York or Canada, or the Gulf Coast.

And once all those billions of molecules of gas get to Philly, turn them into trillions of dollars.

To do that, say the hub’s boosters, simply use cheap gas to power new factories, turn that cheap gas into plastics, or liquefy it and sell it abroad for lots of money.

And yes, create good jobs.

The energy hub’s most powerful advocate is Phil Rinaldi. Rinaldi runs Philadelphia Energy Solutions. That’s the company bringing in all that crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota across the state, inching along the city’s railroad tracks in black tank cars.

Continue Reading

Wolf appoints political insider as energy advisor

Gov. Wolf delivered his budget address Tuesday in Harrisburg.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Gov. Wolf delivering his first budget address in Harrisburg.

Attorney, lobbyist and political insider David Sweet will be advising Governor Tom Wolf on energy and manufacturing issues starting Monday. Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan says Sweet, who currently works for the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll, will serve as a special assistant to the governor, making $129,605 a year. In the position, Sweet will report directly to Governor Wolf and act as a deputy secretary at the Department of Community and Economic Development.

The position is a departure in some ways from the Corbett administration’s “energy czar,” or “energy executive”, a cabinet position held by Patrick Henderson, who made $145,000 advising the governor on energy issues.

In this new position, David Sweet will work on issues related to both energy and manufacturing.

Sweet told StateImpact that his role covers both issues because those are two of Wolf’s priorities for creating well-paying jobs in the state. The attorney and former state lawmaker says Wolf did not choose him for his energy expertise, but rather, his political savvy.

“I’m not touting myself as an expert on energy issues,” said Sweet. “What my role is, I believe, in those two areas is really figuring out ways to mobilize what government resources are there, work with [multiple] state departments…and develop consensus. I’m bringing more of the government and political experience to try to get things done.” Continue Reading

NPR: In Pa. gas industry jobs boom despite nationwide oil and gas bust

A worker checks paperwork on the monkey board of a Cabot Oil & Gas drill rig in Kingsley, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A worker checks paperwork on the monkey board of a Cabot Oil & Gas drill rig in Kingsley, Pa.

Oil and gas workers are facing unemployment in the country’s big oil producing states like Texas. But NPR’s energy reporter Jeff Brady took a trip to a shale gas training center in Williamsport and finds students optimistic about their future job prospects. The governor’s chief of staff, Katie McGinty, tells Brady that Pennsylvanians should be seeing less and less Texans on drill rigs. Listen to the NPR story here.

“Pennsylvania has gone from pretty much nowhere on the map in terms of natural gas production to now second in the country behind only Texas,” says McGinty.

When drilling rigs started showing up, McGinty says residents worried the good jobs would go to out-of-state workers, leaving locals with nothing but the environmental consequences of drilling.

“In the early days, those concerns were exacerbated by too many people seeing nothing but Texas and Oklahoma license plates,” says McGinty. That’s changing, she says, as more locals learn the skills necessary to work in the gas business.

The latest figures show more than 31,000 people in the state have jobs related to extracting natural gas. That’s nearly double what it was five years ago. State officials say the rate of employment growth in the gas fields has slowed recently, but for now it’s still growing.

Methods of calculating Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale jobs have always been controversial. The 31,000 figure includes workers in these six sectors:

  • Crude petroleum and natural gas extraction
  • Natural gas liquid extraction
  • Drilling oil and gas wells
  • Support activities for oil and gas operations
  • Oil and gas pipeline and related structures
  • Pipeline transportation of natural gas

New study raises possible link between gas drilling and radon levels

  A drill worker covered in mud, shale, and drill cuttings seals off a well and cleans the blowout preventer at a Cabot Oil & Gas natural gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A drill worker covered in mud, shale, and drill cuttings seals off a well and cleans the blowout preventer at a Cabot Oil & Gas natural gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa.

Radon levels in buildings near unconventional natural gas development in Pennsylvania are higher than those in other areas of the state, suggesting that hydraulic fracturing has opened up new pathways for the carcinogenic gas to enter people’s homes, according to a study published on Thursday. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer worldwide.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University analyzed radon readings taken in some 860,000 buildings, mostly homes, from 1989 to 2013 and found that those in rural and suburban areas where most shale gas wells are located had a concentration of the cancer-causing radioactive gas that was 39 percent higher overall than those in urban areas.

It also found that buildings using well water had a 21 percent higher concentration of radon than those served by municipal water systems.

And it showed radon levels in active gas-drilling counties rose significantly starting in 2004 when the state’s fracking boom began.

Overall, 42 percent of the buildings analyzed had radon concentrations at over 4 picocuries per liter, the level at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends remediation, and which is about three times the national average for indoor air. According to the EPA, there are about 21,000 radon-related lung cancers per year in the U.S.

The new study was based on data collected from the DEP which requires the reporting of radon tests, many of which are done when houses are bought or sold. The project was conducted with the Geisinger Health System, and is the first part of a long-term investigation of the health effects of unconventional gas development being done by Geisinger, based in Danbury, northeastern Pennsylvania.

But the study, titled “Predictors of Indoor Radon Concentrations in Pennsylvannia 1989-2013,” released today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, a publication put out by the National Institutes of Health, contradicts a report released by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in January.  Continue Reading

Pipelines: The new battleground over fracking

Crews from weld a pipeline connecting to a natural gas well in the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Crews weld a pipeline connecting to a natural gas well in the Loyalsock State Forest.

Forget the battles over the Keystone XL. Pipeline wars are now raging in Pennsylvania, where production is high and pipeline capacity is low. Marcellus Shale gas has the potential to alter the landscape of the global energy market. But right now a shortage of pipelines to get gas from the gas fields to consumers has energy companies eager to dig new trenches.  And activists opposed to more drilling see pipeline proposals as the new battleground over fracking.

Pennsylvania’s pipeline building boom could expand the nations’ and perhaps the world’s, supply of natural gas. And this boom includes an estimated 4,600 miles of new interstate pipes, tunneling under Pennsylvania’s farms, wetlands, waterways, and backyards. That’s on top of 6800 miles of existing interstate natural gas pipes, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Drillers eager to reach new markets are frustrated right now, because there’s just not enough room in the current pipeline system to transport their gas beyond regional markets.

That gas languishes and it builds up and now that price will drop,” said Rob Boulware, a spokesman for Seneca Resources. Continue Reading

Worker dies in accident at Sunoco’s Delaware County refinery

Sunoco Refinery

Emma Lee / WHYY

The Sunoco refinery in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating an accident at the Sunoco Logistics plant in Marcus Hook, which left one man dead. An OSHA spokesperson says the man worked for the engineering firm AECOM, a contractor at the site.

Sources told StateImpact the worker died from multiple blunt force injuries after a 1200 foot pylon fell on him.

A massive construction project at Sunoco Logistic’s Marcus Hook facility is converting the former oil refinery to a natural gas storage and processing plant. In addition to Sunoco employees, the project includes about 400 contract workers on site.

The worker, who has not been identified but sources say was in his 50′s, lived in New Jersey.

Sunoco Logistics spokesman Joseph McGinn confirmed that an accident killed a contract worker at the facility Monday afternoon.

“No words can express the sorrow and pain that come when such a tragic event happens,” McGinn wrote in an email. “Our deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends of the individual who died. They have suffered a devastating loss.”

Ed Mayer, a spokesman for AECOM, expressed sympathy for the family.

“We are tremendously saddened by the loss of one or our people,” wrote Mayer in an email. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, who have asked that their privacy be respected at this time.”

Mayer said the company is cooperating with the OSHA investigation and cannot provide details of the accident.

Clarification: This post has been updated with a statement from AECOM.

EPA releases first part of frack study, an analysis of chemical disclosure

A truck delivers drilling waste water to a frack water recycling plant in Susquehanna County

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A truck delivers drilling waste water to a frack water recycling plant in Susquehanna County

The Environmental Protection Agency released an analysis of frack water on Friday, based on data that drillers supplied to the website FracFocus. The EPA’s report is just one part of the agency’s long awaited fracking study, which will assess the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies. The full report is due out this spring.

The EPA researchers say less than one percent of frack fluid in their analysis of 39,000 wells contained additives, while water made up 88 percent of the fluid, and sand, or quartz, made up ten percent. The agency identified 692 separate frack water ingredients. Maximum concentrations of these chemicals were usually below 2 percent of the total mass, while half of the chemicals were below 0.3 percent of mass. EPA science advisor Tom Burke told reporters on a press call that the chemical additives and volumes of water varied greatly from well to well. Water usage for each fracked well ranged from 35,000 gallons to 7.2 million gallons.

“While these maximum concentrations [of chemical additives] are low percentages of the overall fracturing fluid,” said Burke, “more than half the wells had water volumes greater than 1.5 million gallons. So a small percentage may mean hundreds or thousands of gallons of chemicals could be transported to, and present on, the well pad prior to mixing on the fracking fluid. Remember one percent of a million gallons is a large number — 10,000 gallons.”

The three top chemicals used in the frack fluid were hydrochloric acid, methanol, and hydro-treated light petroleum distillates. Hydrochloric acid is used to keep the well casings free of mineral build-ups, while methanol is used to increase viscosity. Petroleum distillates are refined products like diesel, kerosene, or fuel oil, and are used to make the fluid “slick,” or soapy, and thereby reduce friction. Continue Reading

Preparing for the worst, Delco first responders simulate oil train accident

Delaware County EMS personal try to find a way to get their vehicles to the site of an oil train incident during a practice run.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Delaware County EMS personal try to find a way to get their vehicles to the site of an oil train incident during a practice run.

The increasing number of rail cars carrying crude oil through Pennsylvania means a rising risk of accidents. Recent derailments caused trains to explode and incinerate areas along tracks in Illinois and West Virginia, threatening waterways. So far, Pennsylvania has been lucky. Within the past year and a half, oil trains traveling through the state derailed in Philadelphia, Vandergrift and McKeesport, but none of them exploded.

Back in the sumer of 2013, that wasn’t the case in the Quebec village of Lac Megantic, where an oil train crash killed 47 people. Five bodies were never recovered, having been incinerated.

Nationwide, oil train traffic has increased 4000 percent since 2008. And Philadelphia is a top destination for these trains, which haul millions of gallons of volatile crude oil from the Bakken Shale fields in North Dakota to area refineries each week. With the increase in oil train traffic from North Dakota, the Department of Transportation predicts an average of 10 of these trains will derail each year.


While activists and politicians push Philadelphia’s emergency planning operation to disclose their response plans, neighboring Delaware County has forged ahead with practice runs.

About 150 first responders, from local, state, and federal agencies gathered at the Lazaretto Ballroom in Tinicum Township Delaware County last week. The training exercise was for this new danger – crude-by-rail shipments. The room was full of uniformed first responders from some of Delaware County’s 80 separate volunteer fire companies. Continue Reading

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