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.
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 →
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 →
Governor Tom Corbett says he’s thinks taxing natural gas could be an option. Just three weeks before the election, the governor is battling for his political future. In an exclusive interview with StateImpact Pennsylvania, Corbett said he thinks rather than the extraction tax advocated by his Democratic opponent Tom Wolf, it may be better to tax the transport of the gas within the state.
“Maybe the tax instead of being at the wellhead, should be in the transmission line,” said Corbett. “Now we can probably only tax it in the transmission line that is intrastate because if it goes into interstate, that is a Washington issue.”
Back in 2012 Governor Corbett enacted the impact fee, which charges Marcellus Shale gas drillers $50,000 per well. Critics, including his Democratic opponent Tom Wolf, say that method leaves a lot of money on the table. Pennsylvania is the only major gas producing state without a severance tax, which taxes the value of the gas extracted. Wolf has proposed a five percent severance tax. Corbett continues to oppose this kind of tax for now, saying it would cut too much into the drillers bottom line, causing them to move out of state. But he’s no longer calling it “un-American.” Instead, he says once the vast majority of the wells are drilled, it may be time to enact a tax.
“If this industry was 10-15 years old already, I think we’d be having a different conversation,” said Corbett.
Corbett gave no details of what a transmission gas tax would mean. But pipelines that cross state lines are regulated by the federal government, so the state would be limited to the transmission lines within Pennsylvania. Pipeline companies may be an easy taxation target because they already benefit from tax breaks. Natural gas transmission companies are exempt from both federal corporate income tax and Pennsylvania’s gross receipts tax. Continue Reading →
A sign posted in Susquehannock state forest, where land has been leased for gas drilling.
The fate of expanded natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s parks and forests is now in the hands of seven Commonwealth Court Judges. Governor Tom Corbett wants to lease 25,000 acres of additional state land to drillers in order to raise $95 million to plug a hole in the 2014-2015 fiscal year’s $29.1 billion budget. The Commonwealth’s seven judge panel heard arguments Wednesday from an environmental attorney challenging the Governor’s authority to lease that land, and to use the proceeds for the general fund.
Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation Attorney John Childe says both current Governor Tom Corbett, and former Governor Ed Rendell, violated the state constitution by disregarding the environmental impacts of drilling on state parks and forests. Childe’s case hinges upon the state constitution’s environmental rights amendment. The environmental rights amendment became relevant for the first time earlier this year when the Supreme Court upheld challenges to the state’s new oil and gas law in Robinson Township v. Commonwealth. Childe says the amendment clearly puts ownership of the state’s parks and forests in the hands of Pennsylvania citizens, not the governor or general assembly.
“The constitution describes basic rights for the people that are not to be impaired by other governmental decisions,” Childe told StateImpact outside the courtroom. “It’s the same as the right to freedom of religion.”
A total of 700,000 acres of state forest land is available to oil and gas drillers. Under the direction of Governor Rendell, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources leased 132,000 acres. (Not all of the mineral rights are under state control. About 315,000 acres of state forest land lies above natural gas deposits owned by private leaseholders.) The leases occurred despite opposition from DCNR’s leadership. Just before leaving office, Rendell then issued an executive order placing a moratorium on future leases.
The stacks of the Homer City Generating Station in Homer City, Pa.
A bill that would allow legislators to weigh in on a federally mandated plan to cut carbon emissions may see a final vote before lawmakers end this year’s session. President Obama’s new climate change plan set a goal for Pennsylvania to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent by 2030. The EPA left it up to the states to decide how to reach their targets. In Pennsylvania’s case, the state Department of Environmental Protection develops plans to meet EPA mandated rules. But state representative Pam Snyder, a Democrat from the southwestern corner of the state, wants lawmakers to approve the carbon reduction plan crafted by DEP before it gets submitted to the EPA.
The House has already approved HB 2354, and today the Senate’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee gave it a thumb’s up. Rep. Snyder says she worries Obama’s efforts to cut carbon emissions would include shutting down coal generated electricity plants, hurting the coal mining communities she represents. In the legislative memo for HB 2354, she writes that any plan that goes to the EPA for approval must go through the legislature first.
“In short, my legislation would make clear that the people who were elected to govern Pennsylvania will have the final say on what happens – not unelected, unaccountable regulators. While EPA managed to develop this rule without Congressional authorization, the Pennsylvania General Assembly will be the final arbiter of how the Commonwealth approaches greenhouse gas regulation.”
DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo (center) resigned from his post today. Dana Aunkst (right) will now serve as Acting Secretary. On the left is Deputy Secretary Jeff Logan. Here, the three testify at the department's senate budget hearing in Harrisburg in February.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Chris Abruzzo has resigned his position, according to a statement issued by Governor Tom Corbett. The resignation is effective immediately. It comes amidst a scandal involving several top Corbett officials exchanging lewd emails.
In a letter to Gov. Corbett, Abruzzo says he doesn’t remember the emails but accepts “full responsibility for any lack of judgement I may have exhibited in 2009.” At that time, Abruzzo worked under Corbett in the Attorney General’s office leading the Drug Strike Force. Current Attorney General Kathleen Kane says Abruzzo and others exchanged the lewd emails between 2008 and 2012, while Corbett served as AG.
In the letter, Abruzzo says he has not reviewed the emails Attorney General Kane has shown to reporters, but decided to resign because the issue has become a distraction.
“..it is my concern that these assertions have become a distraction from the great record of this administration; a record that has held the line on taxes for Pennsylvania families, invested the most state dollars for basic education in the history of the state, and put hard-working Pennsylvanians back to work.”
With the election just a month away, Corbett faces a tough fight against his challenger Democrat Tom Wolf. Continue Reading →
A federal regulatory agency has approved plans to ship Marcellus Shale gas from Pennsylvania overseas. The decision clears the way to begin converting a former import terminal in the Chesapeake Bay to export liquefied natural gas. Dominion Energy’s Cove Point plant can now move forward with plans to export 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.
Lindsay Lazarski/ WHYY
The offshore loading pier at Dominion's Cove Point facility now sits idle.
The switch from an idled import terminal to an export facility results from a domestic shale boom, and greater need for energy abroad. Dominion has agreements with energy companies in India and Japan to liquefy natural gas, and ship it overseas. The Japanese company, Sumitomo, made a deal with Cabot Oil and Gas last December to purchase 350,000 MMBtu per day of natural gas from Cabot’s Marcellus wells and send it through pipelines to plant on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. That agreement is to last 20 years, signaling how much gas Cabot has within its holdings in Northeast Pennsylvania. Figures released in August by Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection show Cabot’s wells to be some of the most productive in the state.
New Life for an Idled Plant
The project breathes new life into the idled plant, which Dominion Energy spokesman Jim Norvelle says will create thousands of new construction jobs during the 3 year project, and 100 new full-time workers at the plant. He says Dominion will be paying an additional $40 million dollars in property taxes to Calvert County, MD.
But Dominion Energy, Cabot Oil and Gas, and Calvert County’s coffers aren’t the only winners. Utilities in Japan and India also stand to benefit. Benjamin Gage is an LNG analyst with IHS International. Gage says Marcellus Shale gas provides a dependable alternative to Middle East and Southeast Asian natural gas for Japan’s Sumitomo, as well as the Indian company Gail. Continue Reading →
A man helps deliver donations of clean water to residents of Butler County who say gas drilling polluted their water supply. DEP officials had told residents that nearby drilling was not the cause. But gave no other explanation.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is having a rough week. On Thursday, the Attorney General’s office showed reporters evidence of how DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo exchanged pornographic emails with his pals on taxpayer time. And now, another state agency, the Auditor General’s office, has released a “citizens guide” to shale gas water complaints warning Pennsylvanians not to trust information on the DEP’s website.
“Users should exercise caution in accessing any information from DEP’s website as the information may not be accurate and may not be representative of actual conditions. DEP frequently posts data it obtains directly from operators without checking to see if the data is valid and reliable. In particular, drilling dates (or spud dates) may be inaccurate on DEP’s website. As we found in our audit work, the only way to really know when critical drilling activity occurred on a site is to conduct a file review at the applicable district oil and gas office or to speak with an operator’s representative.”
A worker collects a water sample at a natural gas wastewater recycling plant in Susquehanna County. At this facility, the wastewater reused in oil and gas drilling, and the solids that contain salts are sent to a landfill.
A new study shows how treated wastewater from oil and gas operations, when discharged into rivers and streams that travel toward drinking water intakes, can produce dangerous toxins. The research confirms what scientists have been warning about for some time. The high concentrations of salty brine, which flows up from deep underground once a well is fracked, are difficult to remove from the wastewater without the aid of an expensive technique called reverse osmosis or a cheaper method known as thermal distillation. If the wastewater is treated conventionally, which does not remove the bromides, chlorides or iodides, then it can be combined with chlorine at a drinking water facility, and create carcinogens such as bromines and iodines.
The peer-reviewed research was published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, and conducted by a team from both Duke University and Stanford University. Researchers from Duke University, who recently published a study on the impact of faulty well casings, had water samples from Pennsylvania and Arkansas frack sites, which they shared with the Stanford researchers. In the lab the researchers diluted the fracking wastewater with water samples from the Allegheny and Ohio rivers. What they found was that just .01 percent per volume of fracking wastewater, when combined with the disinfectant chlorine used by drinking water facilities, created trihalomethanes. The EPA limits the amount of these compounds in drinking water because of their link to kidney, liver and bladder cancer. Continue Reading →
Chris Abruzzo is the secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Chris Abruzzo is one of eight prominent state employees who “sent or received hundreds of sexually explicit photos, videos and messages from state email accounts between 2008 and 2012.” A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office confirmed to WITF that Abruzzo sent eight of the emails, and received 46.
Prior to being appointed as Pennsylvania’s top environmental regulator, Abruzzo worked under Gov. Corbett during his term as Attorney General, running the Drug Strike Force and prosecuting Medicaid fraud. He has no environmental background.
The sexually explicit emails were requested by the Inquirer and other newspapers under a Right-to-Know law request. They are related to the current Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s investigation of the Jerry Sandusky prosecution while Corbett was at the helm.
Kane released the names of eight emailers, which include the state’s top cop, and showed reporters some of the pornographic messages.
The emails include explicit photos and videos of women and men engaged in oral sex, anal sex and intercourse.
Kane’s office showed only what it called a sampling of the emails and their contents; it could not say specifically if the messages were opened, provide the dates they were sent, or if the pornography had been viewed by the intended recipients.
The office also could not say how many people received the e-mails, how often the emails circulated, or how many such e-mails the eight named recipients sent or received.
Kane’s office did not show reporters the images of actual emails – just the attached image or the video, which it then attributed to a specific person.