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.
Explaining science is something reporters, especially science reporters, must do. But most of us are not scientists. Instead, we rely on the type of scientist who is good at telling stories, good at translating what happens in the lab to people who may not have been around an Erlenmeyer flask since high school.
So what makes a scientist a good communicator? It turns out the scientific community has become more interested in figuring that out.
Workers keep an eye on well heads during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. oil well, near Mead, Colo.
A new study out this month reveals unconventional oil and natural gas workers could be exposed to dangerous levels of benzene, putting them at a higher risk for blood cancers like leukemia. Benzene is a known carcinogen that is present in fracking flowback water. It’s also found in gasoline, cigarette smoke and in chemical manufacturing. As a known carcinogen, benzene exposures in the workplace are limited by federal regulations under OSHA. But some oil and gas production activities are exempt from those standards.
The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) worked with industry to measure chemical exposures of workers who monitor flowback fluid at well sites in Colorado and Wyoming. A summary of the peer-reviewed article was published online this month on a CDC website. In several cases benzene exposures were found to be above safe levels.
The study is unusual in that it did not simply rely on air samples. The researchers also took urine samples from workers, linking the exposure to absorption of the toxin in their bodies. One of the limits of the study includes the small sample size, only six sites in two states. Continue Reading →
A health impact assessment starts with what is called “scoping,” reaching out into the community to find out what concerns and questions already exist. Then it gathers baseline public health information on the community. This takes a snapshot of residents’ current health status, which then provides a method for future comparisons should drilling occur in the area. The report does not predict future health impacts from natural gas development. Rather it looks at all the available epidemiological studies that form the basis of potential health concerns. In this case, the researchers then rated these concerns, with air pollution topping the list. Pennsylvania never did a similar health impact assessment for Marcellus Shale drilling. It would be impossible to do one now because the drilling boom began almost 10 years ago.
It’s important to note that the report was limited by the available research. The researchers did not rank water pollution as a high public health concern simply because they say there’s not enough data available to draw strong conclusions. Continue Reading →
The Homer City Generating Station, Homer City, Pa.
Overall, carbon dioxide emissions are decreasing nationally, down 12 percent in 2012 from a pre-recession peak of 6023 million metric tons in 2007. Pennsylvania is following that trend, not leading it, not lagging behind, but landing somewhere in the middle at 10.9 percent CO2 reductions between 2000 and 2011. Still the state ranks third in energy related CO2 emissions for 2011, behind California and Texas, according to a report out this week by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The term “energy-related” refers to the energy produced in the state. Some states, including Pennsylvania, produce more than they consume, exporting electricity to other states. But when it comes to per capita energy-related CO2 emissions, the rankings can look very different. Instead of Texas at the top of the list, Wyoming produced the highest per capita CO2 emissions, while Pennsylvania ranks 21st. Coal remains the state’s largest source of carbon dioxide pollution. Under newly proposed rules by the EPA, Pennsylvania needs to develop a plan to cut its carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent by 2030.
“We all agree that Pennsylvania needs to address climate change, the question is how,” says Funk. “I think the (Department of Environmental Protection) is talking about climate change but they haven’t shown to us that the steps they are taking are going to do anything. That we will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the percentage that is needed in our state.”
Funk filed the petition as part of a national campaign organized by the environmental group, Our Children’s Trust. It seeks a reduction in carbon emissions by six percent each year until 2050. The targets are based on the work of climate scientist Jim Hansen. The lawsuits appeal to the duty of governments to protect the “public trust,” a concept that dates back to Roman times, according to the organization’s website. Funk, who is represented by attorneys from Widener University’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, also drew on a section of the Pennsylvania Constitution known as the environmental rights amendment. Continue Reading →
Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission has appealed a recent Commonwealth Court decision, which stripped the agency of its authority to review local zoning ordinances regarding Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling. The state’s drilling law, enacted in 2012, gave the PUC authority to decide whether or not a municipality’s zoning ordinances complied with the state constitution and the new rules regarding natural gas drilling.
Act 13, the comprehensive legislation that amended the state’s oil and gas law, had implemented statewide zoning rules that the municipalities had to follow. It also allowed those who disagreed with the ordinances to bypass local zoning hearing boards, and appeal directly to the PUC or the Commonwealth Court. Several municipalities sued the state over this controversial law, and the case eventually made its way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The high court ruled in December that these restrictions on local zoning for natural gas development were unconstitutional.
But the Supreme Court sent some decisions in the case back down to the Commonwealth Court to decide. Among these included whether or not the Public Utility Commission’s authority superseded local zoning boards when it came to challenging a municipality’s zoning decision.
Workers at a hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County.
A new report out today reveals natural gas drillers could be using diesel to frack wells without the mandated federal permits. Unlike other chemicals used in gas drilling, Congress requires extensive oversight if diesel is present.
The so-called Halliburton Loophole in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing from federal oversight. But diesel is an exception. That’s because it moves quickly through water, and even small amounts of the neurotoxins within the liquid fuel cause liver and kidney damage.
But a public records request to the Environmental Protection Agency by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project shows no permit applications or approvals to frack with diesel. This despite the group’s finding that since 2010, 33 separate companies publicly reported a total of 351 wells fracked with diesel in 12 states. Mary Green is the group’s senior attorney.
“It seems that EPA was convinced this problem was largely if not completely eliminated,” Green told StateImpact.
A back and forth between the EPA and industry over fracking with diesel began back in 2011 when House Democrats, led by California Congressman Henry Waxman, sent a letter to the EPA with evidence that companies continued to use diesel to frack without obtaining the required permits under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Continue Reading →
Southwestern Energy Production company will have to pay $128,031 for drilling five unpermitted Marcellus Shale gas wells in Bradford County. The state Department of Environmental Protection announced the fine today after the Houston, Texas company continued to drill even after the DEP issued a “notice of violation” in January 2013.
A DEP investigation revealed that Southwestern had drilled at the Reeve Sutton 4H well pad in Herrick Township, Bradford County for nine days in October 2012, about 18 months past the permit’s expiration date. The department issued notice of violation (NOV) letters for this unpermitted drilling to Southwestern in January 2013.
Southwestern committed the same violations at four other wells in Bradford County in October 2012 and February 2013, conducting drilling four to 16 months after permits had expired. Two of the four wells were drilled after the company received the NOVs from the department in January 2013.
A gas drilling permit lasts for one year. If drilling does not begin within that year, the company has to apply for a new permit.
Steve Tambini began his job as executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission this week. He replaces Carol Collier who ran the organization for more than 15 years.
The Delaware River Basin Commission, the agency that oversees the water supply for more than 15 million people in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware has a new director. In recent years the DRBC has found itself in the eye of the storm over natural gas drilling in eastern Pennsylvania.
The new executive director, Steve Tambini, is an environmental engineer who comes from the water utility sector. His recent gig was with Pennsylvania American Water, and he says he’s spent his 30-year career as a water supply engineer primarily in New York and New Jersey. Tambini says his role at the DRBC is to focus on planning to insure supply meets demand.
“To make sure that those in the basin are using the water efficiently, so it’s not just a matter of building new supplies but it’s also a matter of taking a hard look at how water is being used throughout the basin,” said Tambini. “Conservation is also a critical part of our planning.”
Tambini says water quality is also a matter of planning. “Planning comes first,” he said. “Making sure we have good strong standards for water quality and making sure we do adequate planning is first and foremost.
But that planning may be more difficult with less money. Tambini begins the job with a budget that’s $500,000 less than expected. That’s because Pennsylvania recently slashed their payment to the multi-state agency in half. Continue Reading →
As coal is poured into a waiting barge, smoke billows from a coal powered electric plant August 26, 2001 in western, PA.
Global warming and climate change will be what everyone is talking about at a hearing today in Pittsburgh. The public forum is one of four meetings taking place across the country this week as the Environmental Protection Agency seeks input on their newly proposed rules to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants. But these hearings are just the first step in a controversial move by the EPA that will likely end up being challenged in the courts. Here’s what you need to know about how it may impact Pennsylvania.
For those seeking to stem the tide of climate change, these proposals are a long time coming. In 2007, the Supreme Court gave the EPA the green light to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Three years later, in 2010, a comprehensive climate change bill died in Congress. But Obama is committed to doing something about global warming before he leaves office in 2016. So last month the President proposed his Clean Power Plan with the goal of reducing carbon emissions from the country’s power plants by 30 percent by 2030.
The Obama Administration says tackling carbon dioxide emissions at power plants is important because these electrical generating facilities account for more than a third of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA used a complicated formula designed to take each state’s energy mix into account, along with their CO2 emission rates using 2012 as a baseline.
Pennsylvania’s CO2 Target
Pennsylvania’s CO2 emission rates from power plants in 2012 was about 106 million metric tons. The amount of energy produced from these plants was about 151 terawatt hours. So the state’s baseline emission rate based on 2012 data is 1,540 pounds/megawatt hour. Under EPA’s proposal, Pennsylvania needs to develop a plan to cut its carbon dioxide emissions to 1,052 pounds per megawatt hour in 2030. That comes out to a 32 percent reduction. Some states are lower and some are higher.