Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Susan Phillips

Reporter

Susan Phillips tells stories about the consequences of political decisions on people's every day lives. A native Philadelphian with roots in central Pennsylvania, Susan travels extensively around the state as both a reporter, and a hiker. 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 prestigious 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Journalism Award for her work covering natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.

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.”

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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

Energy companies donate more than $1 million to Corbett’s campaign coffers

Governor Corbett speaks to the Shale Gas Insight conference in September 2011.

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Governor Corbett speaks to the Shale Gas Insight conference in September 2011.

With the election less than a week away, Tom Corbett is way ahead when it comes to support from energy interests including coal, natural gas and power companies operating in the state. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has tallied up campaign contributions for the governor’s race and Tom Corbett’s campaign took in $1,148,351 in energy donations. That’s almost ten times the amount of energy dollars going to his opponent Democrat Tom Wolf. The Post-Gazette reports Wolf raised $192,985 from energy companies, including coal, wind and pipeline operators. Three of Wolf’s top individual energy contributors seem to have hedged their bets by also donating to Corbett.

Corbett’s highest individual donors are shale executives. Terrance Pegula from East Resources donated $250,000 to the governor, while John Monk of Energy Corporation of America gave $100,000. Third in line is Kelsey Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Group, which has plans to build a pipeline to transport Marcellus Shale gas.

Wolf and Corbett differ when it comes to taxing the natural gas industry. Corbett wants to maintain the status quo by charging $50,000 a well. But Wolf wants to impose a five percent tax on the market value of the gas produced. Even as the race tightens, it’s unclear what this money will mean to Corbett. Today’s Franklin and Marshall survey has Tom Wolf still leading in the polls.

Election 2014: Corbett and Wolf differ on approach to Obama’s carbon rules

The Homer City Generating Station, Homer City, Pa.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

The Homer City Generating Station, Homer City, Pa.

Election day is just a week away. And whoever ends up winning the race for Pennsylvania’s governor will have climate change on their agenda. That’s because states now have to implement new EPA rules decreasing carbon emissions at power plants. But the two candidates are far apart on their approach to reducing the state’s carbon footprint.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules would make Pennsylvania reduce its carbon emissions by 32 percent. And that means burning less coal.

Governor Corbett has criticized the EPA’s proposed rules.

“Those are aimed directly at the coal industry,” Corbett told StateImpact. “Right now [the rules are] going to cost Pennsylvanians 6200 miners jobs, tens of thousands of jobs beyond that, but also [they're] going to cause energy costs to go up because right now in Pennsylvania 40 percent of our electricity today is obtained through coal.” Continue Reading

Governor Tom Corbett says the impact fee is still the best deal for Pennsylvanians

Governor Tom Corbett speaks about taxing the Marcellus Shale in an interview at WHYY in Philadelphia

Emma Lee / WHYY

Governor Tom Corbett speaks about taxing the Marcellus Shale in an interview at WHYY in Philadelphia

StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Susan Phillips sat down with both candidates for governor and pressed them on energy issues. The candidates visited WHYY in Philadelphia, where several reporters interviewed them for about ten minutes each. Wolf has proposed taxing the Marcellus Shale gas differently than Governor Corbett. Wolf wants to charge a 5 percent tax on the market value of the gas at the wellhead. This is called a “severance tax” or some call it an “extraction tax.” Corbett wants to stick with the current impact fee, which charges a flat fee of $50,000 a well. The following is the transcript and audio of StateImpact’s interview with Governor Tom Corbett, edited for time and clarity.

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Democrat Tom Wolf talks extraction tax and protecting the environment

Democrat Tom Wolf talks to reporters at the WHYY studio in Philadelphia.

Lindsay Lazarsky / Newsworks/WHYY

Democrat Tom Wolf talks to reporters at the WHYY studio in Philadelphia.

StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Susan Phillips sat down with both candidates for governor and pressed them on energy issues. The candidates visited WHYY in Philadelphia, where several reporters interviewed them for about ten minutes each. Wolf has proposed taxing the Marcellus Shale gas differently than Governor Corbett. Wolf wants to charge a 5 percent tax on the market value of the gas at the wellhead. This is called a “severance tax” or some call it an “extraction tax.” The following is the transcript and audio of StateImpact’s interview with Democrat Tom Wolf, edited for time and clarity.

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2014 Governor’s Race: Face off over the sweet spot on taxing Marcellus Shale

Governor Pennsylvania Debate

Tom Gralish / The Philadelphia Inquirer

Governor Tom Corbett (L) with Democratic challenger Tom Wolf (R) at a debate in Philadelphia in October.

Here’s something Governor Tom Corbett and his democratic challenger Tom Wolf agree on: Each calls Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale natural gas a “game-changer” for the state’s economy. But they disagree on how to get the most out of the gas boom for all Pennsylvania residents. Comparisons to Texas keep coming up in the race. And natural gas production has recently put Pennsylvania second only to Texas. So how exactly does Texas tax the gas drillers, and how is it different in Pennsylvania. StateImpact Pennsylvania drills down into the sometimes taxing and dull fiscal policy to get at the answer.

 

How does Pennsylvania tax natural gas?

In 2012 the state implemented the “impact fee.” This is a flat fee charged to each well. The levy can change from year to year based on natural gas prices and the Consumer Price Index, but in 2013, gas companies paid $50,000 for each new well they drilled. Smaller, vertical wells were $10,000. The impact fee has so far generated $636 million in three years.

Sixty percent of the impact fee revenue stays at the local level, going to counties and municipalities hosting wells. The rest goes to various state agencies involved in regulating drilling and to the Marcellus Legacy Fund – which gets spread out around the state for environmental and infrastructure projects.

Like other businesses in Pennsylvania, the gas industry gets charged corporate taxes as well. At 9.99 percent, Pennsylvania’s corporate tax is considered high. It’s unclear how much the drillers actually pay, because many are not registered in the state and do business elsewhere. Governor Corbett says he has not done an analysis on what the drillers pay in corporate taxers. But he says when combined with the businesses that support and serve the industry, the total revenue is $2.5 billion for the past six years. Continue Reading

Fracking in Texas helps the state’s public school fund top Harvard’s endowment

Lenny Rodriguez works on a Choice Exploration Inc. natural gas rig near Devers, Texas. Drilling on state lands has helped create the largest public school endowment in the country.

Mike Fuentes / AP

Lenny Rodriguez works on a Choice Exploration Inc. natural gas rig near Devers, Texas. Drilling on state lands has helped create the largest public school endowment in the country.

A fund that collects rents and royalties from oil and natural gas development to Texas public schools recently became the largest education endowment in the country.

The publicly run endowment, called the Permanent School Fund, is worth $37.7 billion dollars. That’s $1.3 billion more than Harvard University’s $36.4 billion endowment. Jim Suydam, a spokesperson for the Texas General Land Office, says a big part of the story is the shale gas boom.

“We’re making a ton of money off natural gas,” said Suydam. “We made over a billion last year. The shale plays are huge down here. You can see them from space.”

Suydam says that from 1874 to 2003, $7.9 billion was deposited into the fund.  Since 2003, just before the shale gas boom began, oil and natural gas has helped increase the endowment by $8.1 billion. These deposits have generated enough return on investments to bring the grand total close to $40 billion. The Permanent School Fund doesn’t cover all expenses for Texas school children, but Suydam says it contributes an average of $400 per student per year. It also backs bonds by local school districts, allowing them to get a triple-A rating. Continue Reading

Environmentalists seek to halt construction at Cove Point LNG export plant

Dominion's offshore loading platform at Cove Point. Lusby, Maryland. Dominion wants to start exporting LNG from this platform.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY/Newsworks

Dominion's offshore loading platform at Cove Point. Lusby, Maryland. Dominion wants to start exporting LNG from this platform.

Environmental groups have filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to stop the current construction of Dominion’s liquefied natural gas export facility in Cove Point, MD. The groups also want FERC to reverse their recent decision approving the plant. 

Last month FERC approved Dominion Energy’s plan to transform the Cove Point plant from an import terminal to an export facility, which will ship out more than 5 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas each year. Cove Point is the fourth export terminal approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. It will be the first connected to the Marcellus Shale by pipeline.

Opponents of the plan say the plant will stimulate natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, thereby increasing pollution in shale gas communities. Jocelyn D’Ambrosio is an attorney with Earthjustice.

“In neglecting to prepare a thorough review of the environmental impacts of Dominion’s controversial project, FERC is prioritizing the desires of a powerful company over the health and safety of the people of Calvert County, Marylanders, and communities throughout the Marcellus shale region,” wrote D’Ambrosio in a release.  Continue Reading

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