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.

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

DEP reverses decision over waste water disposal well

Diagram of a deep well injection disposal site.

Adapted from the National Energy Technology Laboratory / Environmental Protection Agency

Diagram of a deep well injection disposal site.

The Department of Environmental Protection took the unusual step of reversing its approval of a frack waste water disposal well in Indiana County this week. The decision took both the energy company and the opponents of the disposal well, by surprise.

“This is novel, this has not happened previously,” Pennsylvania General Energy vice president Lisa McManus told StateImpact. “So it came as a complete surprise to us.”

Pennsylvania General Energy, or PGE, received the green light from the DEP in October to convert a former gas producing well in Grant Township into a disposal well. This came after the Environmental Protection Agency approved the project last spring. The EPA has overseen deep injection wells in Pennsylvania since 1983. Those wells are designated as Class 2 wells and are regulated by the underground injection control program, via the Safe Drinking Water Act. Although about 1,860 Class 2 wells are permitted in Pennsylvania, less than ten of them are approved for oil and gas waste disposal.

Still the DEP needed to sign off on the conversion of the Grant Township well’s function. DEP issued PGE a permit in October, but two residents of Grant Township appealed the decision.

Continue Reading

Measuring the climate trade-off between coal and natural gas

President Obama’s plan to combat climate change relies heavily on replacing coal with natural gas as a way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide electric power plants pour into the atmosphere. But natural gas comes with it’s own climate problems.

 

 

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is also a powerful greenhouse gas, which can be 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide within twenty years.  And with so many opportunities for unburnt methane to escape on its way from the wellhead to the power plant, those leaks could offset any benefits from burning natural gas instead of coal. Scientists have just begun to try to measure those leaks. One team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, spends their days chasing methane plumes. Continue Reading

Railroad chief says oil companies need to do more for rail safety

A CSX unit train delivers a load of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to a refinery in South Philadelphia.

NAT HAMILTON/WHYY NEWS

A CSX unit train delivers a load of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to a refinery in South Philadelphia.

The head of the Federal Railroad Administration says oil companies need to do more to insure the safety of crude by rail shipments. FRA acting administrator Sarah Feinberg says that the railroad companies carrying the highly volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota have done all they can do and the energy industry needs to step up. More from Reuters:

Sarah Feinberg, acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the energy industry must do more to control the volatility of its cargo.

“(We) are running out of things that we can put on the railroads to do,” she said. “There have to be other industries that have skin in the game.”

Recent oil train derailments and explosions in West Virginia and Illinois, which incinerated areas along the tracks, have created momentum in Congress to enact new rail safety laws. Senator Bob Casey has sponsored legislation that would create a new division within the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and provide new funds for training first responders. The RESPONSE Act was introduced by North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Casey was in Philadelphia on Monday, promoting the legislation, which he says has bipartisan support. Continue Reading

Pennsylvania DEP trying to forge new strategy for pipelines

Crews weld a pipeline the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Crews weld a new pipeline in the Loyalsock State Forest.

John Quigley, Acting Secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection, says he wants to try to incorporate planning strategies for what some say is now a maddening and chaotic rush to build new natural gas pipelines across every county in Pennsylvania.

“We’re not under any illusion to reduce impact to zero,” Quigley told StateImpact. “There’s going to be impact but are there opportunities to plan smarter? Share rights of way for example? Can companies work together to optimize development? I don’t know the answers to those questions but I think they’re worth asking.”

Quigley says he wants to get the pipeline companies, and local authorities to sit down together at the table and start a conversation. It would be completely voluntary. That’s because states don’t have authority when it comes to large interstate pipeline construction. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, makes decisions on pipelines. Rules and regulations are set by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, or PHMSA. But Quigley says the companies so far have responded enthusiastically. Grassroots opposition to new pipeline projects has reached a fevered pitch in some parts of the state, in part due to the fact that local authorities have little to no impact on the projects and local residents have expressed frustration with trying to influence the FERC process.

“We’re not contemplating any additional regulatory action or regulatory grab,” said Quigley. “This is about having a conversation to see if we can facilitate this whole development process in a way that makes sense for everybody.” Continue Reading

Large reserve of Utica Shale gas could lie beneath state forest land

Marcellus Shale wells flare in Tioga County. When a test well is drilled and there are no pipelines to carry the gas, the gas is burned.

Scott Detrow/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Marcellus Shale wells flare in Tioga County. When a test well is drilled and there are no pipelines to carry the gas, the gas is burned off and then the well is shut in.

Tapping the Utica Shale in north central Pennsylvania could become the state’s next natural gas drilling boom, at least once the pipelines get built. Seneca Resources has announced the successful completion of a well on state forest land in Tioga County. Seneca, a subsidiary of National Fuel Gas Company, says its test well generated 22.7 million cubic feet of natural gas daily.

National Fuel Gas Company CEO and President Ronald J. Tanski praised the results in a release, saying the development could lead to more Utica Shale gas drilling on state forest lands in Tioga County and other parts of the state.

“This well, along with wells drilled by other operators in the area, have de-risked the Utica potential of our 10,000 acres on DCNR Tract 007. We estimate resource potential on this tract alone of approximately 1 trillion cubic feet. With these strong results in hand our team is evaluating options to develop this acreage in the next few years, depending on local gas prices and pipeline take-away capacity. We have additional Utica potential not only in Tioga County, but across much of our large Pennsylvania acreage position. Our next Utica exploration well is planned for fiscal 2016.”

One trillion cubic feet is a lot of untapped natural gas. But right now, that test well is shut in because there’s no pipeline infrastructure in that part of the state to take it to market. Tioga County is one of the most remote parts of Pennsylvania, and includes the prized “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” popular with hikers and campers. The 10,493 acres of forest land where the Seneca test well lies was leased to the gas producer by the Rendell Administration back in 2010 for $48,530,125. So far, that DCNR lease has not seen much development.

Continue Reading

Pipeline opponents target Drexel University

A natural gas pipeline runs through Lycoming County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A natural gas pipeline runs through Lycoming County.

Academics are now getting caught up in mounting opposition to Pennsylvania’s pipeline building boom. Twenty local anti-fracking and pipeline opposition groups have signed off on a letter calling on Drexel University to distance itself from an economic analysis of the PennEast pipeline published by the Philadelphia-based Econsult and Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business. The groups say the study is more of a marketing ploy than an objective academic treatise.

Their letter is addressed to Drexel University president John Fry:

“This analysis provides a distorted economic analysis of the PennEast Pipeline project that demeans your institution and damages your credibility as an academic institution interested in providing good quality training and education to students seeking to secure a high quality and credible economic education.”

A consortium of companies behind the proposed PennEast pipeline commissioned the study, which found the project would generate $1.62 billion for the Pennsylvania and New Jersey economies during the construction phase. It also projects design and construction of the pipeline would support 12,160 jobs and pay about $740 million in wages. Econsult released a similar analysis several weeks ago, projecting $4.2 billion in economic benefits for Pennsylvania from the Mariner East pipeline project. Continue Reading

Wolf’s budget would restore bulk of funding for Delaware River Basin Commission

A view of the Delaware River from Morrisville, Pa.

Kim Paynter / WHYY

A view of the Delaware River from Morrisville, Pa.

In a reverse from the previous administration’s budget, Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed plan would restore much of Pennsylvania’s share of funding to the Delaware River Basin Commission. Former governor Tom Corbett had slashed in half Pennsylvania’s contribution to the multi-state commission in last year’s budget. Corbett cut the DRBC’s funding while maintaining funds to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. Some speculated that the move was retribution for the DRBC’s continued moratorium on natural gas drilling in Pike and Wayne counties, which lie within the commission’s jurisdiction. Corbett was unsuccessful in convincing other members of the DRBC to lift the moratorium on gas drilling in the basin.

Wolf’s budget proposal includes $750,000 for the DRBC, a 73 percent increase over last year’s funding.

“We welcomed the news because it means we’re heading in the right direction from what we experienced the previous year,” DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert told StateImpact. “But that’s still subject to the legislature.”

The Delaware River Basin Commission oversees water quality for the length of the Delaware river, and until New York Gov. Cuomo’s decision to ban fracking, the DRBC stood as one of the most cautious regulatory bodies when it comes to shale gas drilling. It’s governed by a compact signed back in 1961 by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government to protect the drinking water supplies for millions of residents of those states dependent on the river. Continue Reading

USGS: Fracking water quality data “scarce”

Joanne Martin collects a sample of water from Brady Run, a stream in South Beaver Township in western Pennsylvania. She is a citizen scientist monitoring the water for potential pollution from nearby natural gas drilling.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Joanne Martin collects a sample of water from Brady Run, a stream in South Beaver Township in western Pennsylvania. She is a citizen scientist monitoring the water for potential pollution from nearby natural gas drilling.

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey say there’s just not enough data to figure out the impact of fracking on water quality. The American Geophysical Union’s Water Resources Research published an article about the USGS study today.  

“We mined the national water-quality databases from 1970 – 2010 and were able to assess long-term trends in only 16 percent of the watersheds with unconventional oil and gas resources,” said Zack Bowen, USGS scientist. “There are not enough data available to be able to assess potential effects of oil and gas development over large geographic areas.”

The researchers say public information on how hydraulic fracturing impacts water quality is “scarce,” and point out that no nationwide water-quality monitoring focusing on shale gas and shale oil production exists. Working within the limits of existing data, researchers found “no widespread and consistent trends in water quality, such as chloride and specific conductance, in areas where unconventional oil and gas wells are prevalent.”

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to publish its water quality study this spring. But a recent report by Inside Climate News shows how the EPA’s own data collection efforts were stymied by industry.

StateImpact Pennsylvania recently reported on how “citizen scientists” have stepped in to fill the gap in data collection.

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