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.

Obama says he will veto bill to fast track pipeline permits

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington.

AP Photo / Mandel Ngan

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington.

A bill that would set a strict deadline for approving new pipeline project applications was voted out of a House committee on Tuesday but President Obama says he will veto it if it reaches his desk. Industry groups are pushing for the “Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act,” (HR 161), which is sponsored by Kansas Republican Mike Pompeo.

The bill would give FERC one year to decide on pipeline permits. Other federal agencies would then have 90 days to weigh in. If these deadlines aren’t met, the project would be considered approved. Tamara Young-Allen, a spokesperson for FERC, says on average the process takes 12 to 18 months. In a letter supporting the bill, America’s Natural Gas Alliance says the environmental review process required under the National Environmental Policy Act “lacks any real enforcement mechanism to ensure timely decisions by appropriate permitting agencies.”

The industry is in a rush to build new pipelines as a result of increased production in places like Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. Pipeline capacity is full, and producers have seen the price of natural gas drop as a result.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the White House says it strongly opposes the measure.

“H.R. 161 could create conflicts with existing statutory and regulatory requirements and practices related to agencies’ programs, and preclude opportunities for engaging the public and potentially impacted communities, thereby causing confusion and the risk of increased litigation.”

A version of the bill was voted out of the House in 2013, but died when it reached the Democratically controlled Senate.

 

Study: Radioactive gas drilling waste not a threat to public health

A worker holds a brick of solid waste from gas drilling operations.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A worker holds a brick of solid waste from gas drilling operations.

A Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection study looking at radiation exposure from oil and gas development says there is “little potential for harm to workers or the public.”

DEP released the peer-reviewed report Thursday, which Governor Corbett initiated in January 2013. DEP hired PermaFix, an Atlanta-based company that specializes in nuclear and industrial waste disposal, to conduct the research. The study looked at the radioactivity levels in waste resulting from gas drilling, including fracking wastewater, drill cuttings and waste solids. It also measured radioactivity through the waste transport, storage and disposal process. A DEP official says the study is the most thorough to date:

“The study report is the culmination of a multi-year effort and represents what we believe to be the most comprehensive radiological study of the oil and gas industry ever conducted,” Vince Brisini, DEP Deputy Secretary for Waste, Air, Radiation and Remediation said in a press release. “While the recommendations for future actions contained in the report call for additional studies and efforts, we now have data to inform the management of natural gas resources and resultant wastes for environmental and health protection.”

Attempts to reach Brisini, or any of the authors of the study directly, were unsuccessful. The DEP press office did not return calls or email.

Marcellus Shale, like other rich fossil fuel deposits, can contain naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). This radioactive material, including uranium (U-238), thorium (Th-232), potassium (K-40), and radon can be brought to the surface through oil and gas production and released. Continue Reading

Obama aims to limit methane emissions from oil and gas industry

A worker stands by a natural gas well in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A worker stands by a natural gas well in Susquehanna County, Pa.

President Obama has made methane his latest target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In an announcement today, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency laid out plans to enact new regulations limiting methane emissions from oil and gas production. The goal is to cut methane leaks by 40 to 45 percent by 2025, using 2012 as the baseline.

Environmental activists and climate scientists have been urging Obama to tackle methane emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, which is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide emissions in the short term. The announcement marks the president’s latest effort to take on climate change using his executive authority. The White House says it has the authority to use the Clean Air Act to impose regulations, and does not have to go through Congress.

Mark Brownstein, vice president in charge of the U.S. climate and energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund says he’s very pleased by the announcement.

“This is a landmark moment,” Brownstein told StateImpact. “Direct federal regulation of methane is essential. The administration set the right goal.”

The EPA’s plan will target new and modified sources of methane leaks within the production process and along the supply chain. But Brownstein says in order to reach 40 to 45 percent reductions, current natural gas and oil production would also have to be regulated.

“It’s a watershed moment but the job is not done,” said Brownstein. Continue Reading

Commonwealth Court: Governor not the decider on leasing public land

A drilling convoy heads through the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY/Newsworks

A drilling convoy heads through the Loyalsock State Forest.

Decisions to lease state park and forest land to natural gas drillers lies with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, not the Governor’s office, according to a decision issued today by the Commonwealth Court. The court also ruled that the General Assembly can decide how to spend the royalty money generated from current and future leases. Up until 2009, proceeds from oil and gas drilling on state land were funneled directly back into the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources through the oil and gas lease fund. But as Marcellus Shale drilling ramped up, and the money multiplied, the legislature used much of it to balance the budget.

Governor Corbett’s energy secretary Patrick Henderson called the decision a “resounding victory for the Commonwealth.” “We’re extremely happy with the court’s recognition of the authority of the executive and the legislative branch,” Henderson told StateImpact.

Today’s Commonwealth Court en banc decision, written by Judge Kevin Brobson, stems from a case filed back in 2012 by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation seeking to halt all drilling in state forests. It also challenged how the drilling royalties were spent.

John Childe, the environmental attorney who brought the case, argued that the state’s environmental rights amendment prevented the General Assembly from using the funds for anything other than environmental conservation. But in a unanimous decision the seven Commonwealth Court judges disagreed.

Childe also wanted the court to rule that both former Governor Ed Rendell and Governor Corbett violated the state constitution by leasing land to drillers. The court did not do so.

The court did however, rule that the Conservation and Natural Resources Act put the decision on whether and how to lease public land squarely within the purview of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, not the Governor’s office.

Under the direction of Governor Rendell, DCNR leased 132,000 acres to Marcellus Shale drillers despite opposition from the agency’s leadership. Just before leaving office, Rendell then issued an executive order placing a moratorium on future leases. But Governor Corbett lifted that moratorium last year, while saying the new leases would prohibit any surface disturbance. For now, the issue seems moot because incoming Governor-elect Tom Wolf opposes any new leasing of public land. Continue Reading

EPA delays climate change rules for power plants

The Environmental Protection Agency says it will postpone issuing new rules for cutting carbon emissions from power plants until the summer.  After receiving about 4 million comments on the proposals for new, existing and modified power plants, the agency says it needs more time to consider public input and incorporate overlapping issues among the three proposals. Janet McCabe, acting administrator for air and radiation at the EPA, says incorporating public input is a top priority.

“And since last year we have been following through on President Obama’s directive to engage extensively with the broadest possible range of perspectives as we work to develop a plan to cut energy waste, strengthen the economy, and leverage cleaner energy sources,” said McCabe.

More from The Hill:

Officials had planned to finalize the carbon dioxide rule for new plants Thursday, following the one-year timeline dictated by the Clean Air Act. The existing and modified plant rules should have come June 2 under an order from President Obama.

“It’s become clear to us … that there are cross-cutting topics that affect the standards for new sources, for modified sources and for existing sources, and we believe it’s essential to consider these overlapping issues in a coordinated fashion,” Janet McCabe, the EPA’s acting administrator for air quality, told reporters Wednesday.

The rules together represent the most ambitious effort yet by the Obama administration to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas believed to cause climate change.

Continue Reading

Times-Tribune: Small explosion at Wyoming County well pad

An explosion occurred at a natural gas well pad on the Proctor & Gamble plant in Wyoming County Wednesday morning, according to the Scranton Times-Tribune.  The company uses the gas beneath its property to help power its operations. Officials say it was quickly contained and caused no injuries. More from the Times-Tribune:

Around 9:45 a.m., P&G employees heard a loud sound from Warren Resources Inc.’s pad on Route 87, across from the company’s paper products plant, spokesman Alex Fried said.

“We heard it,” Mr. Fried said. “Within minutes, Warren called us and assured us there was no gas leak, injury or environmental incident.”

A few extra pickup trucks stood near the pad’s entrance within 12 minutes of dispatches by the Wyoming County Emergency Management Agency. Nothing else looked out of the ordinary.

Warren Resources vice president for corporate development Jeff Keeler confirmed a small volume of gas ignited on the pad. Workers on site were able to extinguish it, he said. The incident will cause no impact to Warren’s operations, he said.

Penn students jump into the fracking fray with a new technology

Model of graphene structure.

via Core Materials

Model of graphene structure.

One of the pressing questions regarding fracking is whether or not the chemicals used to help pry the gas from tight rock formations like the Marcellus Shale leaks or migrates to drinking water supplies. But testing water for contamination and linking it directly to gas drilling has proven problematic. Imagine if you could determine whether fracking caused ground water contamination using a thin strip of single carbon atoms. That’s what two seniors studying at both the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school and its bioengineering department, are trying to do. Teddy Guenin and Ashwin Amurthur are finalists for a $5000 prize through the University. They’ve proposed using graphene, an ultra thin strip of carbon first produced about ten years ago, to measure minuscule amounts of the hydrocarbon benzene — down to the level of a picomolar.

“Our initial thought was that benzene is a very toxic compound that does not occur naturally, and is used in very low concentrations in [fracking fluid],” said Amurthur. “Graphene can detect [benzene] at a very low concentration.”

If frack fluid contaminates ground water, it would get diluted, and could migrate. Amurthur says graphene is several million times thinner than a piece of paper, which gives it a very high surface to volume ratio. And that makes it easier to detect such tiny amounts of benzene. Continue Reading

Clean up at PA nuclear waste site to cost $350 million

An aerial view of the Parks Township site.

An aerial view of the Parks Township site via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The bill for cleaning up a nuclear waste site in western Pennsylvania has jumped from $44 million to $350 million, according to a report by the Associated Press. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the project will take more than 10 years to remove all the hazardous waste from a site in Parks Township, which includes highly radioactive materials like uranium and plutonium. More from the AP:

The site was once owned by Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp., which operated fuel plants for nuclear submarines in Parks and nearby Apollo. NUMEC owned the dump site from 1957 until the 1980s, but Babcock & Wilcox Co. most recently owned the land.

The Army Corps already spent $62 million on the cleanup, meaning the final cost will be $412 million – nearly 10 times the original amount.

“Presuming that this this goes forward – and barring any other sidesteps at the political or legal levels – I am hoping that all agencies that are involved will work in concert to effectuate a safe and comprehensive cleanup of this site,” said Patricia Ameno, a 63-year-old local environmental activist who has led the fight to clean up the related waste dump since 1988.

Ameno spearheaded litigation over airborne pollution from the nuclear plants that has led to $92 million in legal settlements from Atlantic Richfield Co. (NUMEC’s parent for part of the time the plants operated) and Babcock & Wilcox, for scores of nearby residents who claimed they developed cancer.

The Army Corps of Engineers says the remediation is planned to begin in 2016.

2014: DEP stepped up enforcement of industry with hefty fines

The entrance to the Chevron well pad where a natural gas well exploded in Dunkard Township, Greene County.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

The entrance to the Chevron well pad where a natural gas well exploded in Dunkard Township, Greene County last February killing a worker. DEP has not yet issued a fine. The company blocked DEP inspectors from accessing the site for two days after the incident.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection ended the year with some pretty large lumps of coal for a few misbehaving natural gas drillers. And those penalties contrast sharply with previous years.

In September, the DEP issued a $4.1 million dollar fine against driller Range Resources – the highest penalty it has levied against a driller. The agency then stepped up the price tag in October against driller EQT, announcing plans to seek a $4.5 million dollar penalty. And just this last week state environmental regulators announced a nearly million-dollar fine against the independent driller Vantage Energy for a landslide and illegal waste dumping. A separate $800,000 settlement with Tennessee Gas Pipeline was also announced.

With the exception of a $1 million penalty against Chesapeake Energy in 2011, fines against drillers and other violators tend to be in the thousands, and at most hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even in the high profile case of contamination in the Susquehanna county village of Dimock, Cabot Oil and Gas has paid $259,916 in fines over the course of several years for 473 violations. (Those fines were separate from the multi-million dollar settlement agreement reached between Cabot and DEP in 2010.)

“DEP was sending people a message,” said Dave Hess, who served as DEP secretary from 2001 to 2003 under the Ridge and Schweiker administrations. “That if they do these kinds of violations, and particularly this week they were flagrant — not having erosion and sedimentation controls in the case of the Tennessee Pipeline, and the landslide case was just, I think, negligence on the part of the people operating that well site.” Continue Reading

Feds fine Marcellus driller XTO $2.3 million

A natural gas well operated by Northeast Natural Energy on Saturday, Aug.  6, 2011. The well is the subject of a dispute over a drilling ban recently enacted by the city of Morgantown, which is directly across the Monongahela River from the well. (AP Photo/David Smith)

AP Photo / David Smith

A natural gas well in West Virginia.

The Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Department of Justice, have fined XTO, a subsidiary of ExxonMobile, $2.3 million for violating the Clean Water Act. The damage to streams and wetlands took place in West Virginia and includes an estimated $3 million remediation price tag. During drilling operations at eight separate sites, the company dumped sand, dirt, rocks and other material into streams and wetlands while constructing well pads, roads, and pits.

“American communities expect EPA and our state partners to make sure energy development is done responsibly,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “This case will help to protect clean water in West Virginia, and support a level playing field for energy developers that play by the rules.”

This isn’t the first time the EPA has sanctioned XTO. In July 2013 the EPA fined XTO $100,000 for dumping frack water into the Susquehanna river system in Penn Township, Lycoming County. Between 6,300 and 57,373 gallons of waste water contained high levels of strontium, chloride, bromide, barium, and total dissolved solids and flowed continually for more than two months in the fall of 2010, according to the EPA.

XTO is one of the top violators in Pennsylvania, with the most recent data showing 177 violations for a total of $227,199 in fines. The company also faces criminal charges stemming from the Penn Township incident.

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