Energy. Environment. Economy.

Susan Phillips


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.

Pennsylvania Environmental Regulators Reject Teen’s Climate Change Petition

Mount Pleasant resident Ashley Funk sued the state to compel the DEP to reduce carbon emissions.

courtesy of Ashley Funk

Mount Pleasant resident Ashley Funk sued the state to compel the DEP to reduce carbon emissions.

Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board has rejected a petition from a Westmoreland County woman to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Ashley Funk was 18 years old at the time she sued the state to force the Department of Environmental Protection to take action on climate change. Funk, now 20 and a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, says she filed the petition as a way to take action on climate change.

“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

Public Utility Commission appeals Commonwealth Court decision on Act 13

A Lycoming County rig

Tim Lambert / WITF-FM

A drill rig in Lycoming County.

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.

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Report faults EPA for failing to regulate fracking with diesel

Workers at a hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

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 fined for drilling unpermitted wells in Bradford County

A drilling rig in Bradford County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drilling rig in Bradford County.

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.

Southwestern Energy has 229 active wells in the state as of the end of 2013. And although the DEP has issued 76 violations to the company, this is the first time the agency has issued a fine.

The wells were drilled in Herrick and Stevens townships after the original permits had expired. More from the DEP:

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.

Water engineer takes the reins at the Delaware River Basin Commission

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.

courtesy of DRBC

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

Pittsburgh Hosts Hearing on EPA’s New Greenhouse Gas Proposals

As coal is poured into a waiting barge, smoke billows from a coal powered electric plant August 26, 2001 in western, PA.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

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.

Why now?

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.

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Congressional Watch-Dog Warns Fracking Waste Could Threaten Drinking Water

A sign protesting a proposed deep injection well sits on the lawn of a home in Brady Township, Clearfield County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A sign protesting a proposed deep injection well sits on the lawn of a home in Brady Township, Clearfield County.

The Government Accountability Office says new risks from underground injections of oil and gas waste could harm drinking water supplies, and the EPA needs to step up both oversight and enforcement. The GAO released a study on Monday detailing the EPA’s role in overseeing the nation’s 172,000 wells, which either dispose of oil and gas waste, use “enhanced” oil and gas production techniques, store fossil fuels for later use, or use diesel fuel to frack for gas or oil. These wells are referred to as “class II” underground injection wells and are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Oversight of these wells vary by state, with some coming under the regulatory authority of the EPA, including the 1,865 class II wells in Pennsylvania. The GAO faults the EPA for inconsistent on-site inspections and guidance that dates back to the 1980′s. Of the more than 1800 class II wells in Pennsylvania, the GAO reports only 33 percent were inspected in 2012. Some states, including California, Colorado and North Dakota, require monthly reporting on injection pressure, volume and content of the fluid.

As more oil and gas wells across the country generate more waste, the GAO highlights three new risks associated with these wells — earthquakes, high pressure in formations that may have reached their disposal limit, and fracking with diesel. Continue Reading

Proposed Pipeline Project to Get Federal Scrutiny

Workers build the Laser pipeline in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks/WHYY

Workers build the Laser pipeline in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Federal regulators announced this week that a controversial pipeline expansion project will undergo an extensive environmental review. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate pipelines, will do an environmental impact statement on the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Expansion Project.

Oklahoma-based Williams has proposed an expansion to their Transco natural gas pipeline, which would run through parts of north and central Pennsylvania. The pipeline has garnered intense opposition in Lancaster County. As a result, the company has changed part of its original route to avoid nature preserves.

The Transco pipeline system moves natural gas through more than 10,000 miles of existing pipes. The expansion project is part of a larger effort to get Marcellus Shale gas to end users like power plants.

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Corbett agrees to hold off on new gas leases on state lands pending lawsuit

A caravan of trucks travel through the Loyalsock State Forest to a natural gas drilling site.  Fossil fuel production itself utilizes a lot of energy.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

A caravan of trucks travel through the Loyalsock State Forest to a natural gas drilling site. Fossil fuel production itself utilizes a lot of energy.

The Corbett administration has agreed to hold off on leasing any more state land for natural gas drilling until a case challenging the practice is settled.

In exchange, the environmental group suing the stateagreed not to challenge the use of state conservation money to fund the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation filed suit to halt all drilling in state forests back in 2012. But when Governor Tom Corbett announced earlier this year his plans to lift a moratorium on new forest leases to fill a budget gap, the Environmental Defense Foundation sought an injunction to halt any new drilling.

The group also asked the courts to prevent the Corbett administration from channeling funds from the state’s Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the general fund, or cover the budget of DCNR.

Leasing the state’s forests to Marcellus Shale drillers began under the Rendell administration, much to the chagrin of DCNR’s leadership and staff. In 2010, just before Rendell left office, he imposed a moratorium on any new forest leases. Continue Reading

Commonwealth Court throws out several challenges to Act 13, including ‘doctor gag rule’ [UPDATED]

The Commonwealth Court has upheld several sections of the state's oil and gas law,  including a provision dealing with doctors' access to the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court has upheld several sections of the state's oil and gas law, including a provision dealing with doctors' access to the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

This post has been updated to include additional comments on the ruling.

Pennsylvania doctors have nothing to worry about when it comes to the so-called “gag order” on chemical exposures from oil and gas drilling. That’s the message from the Commonwealth Court today in a much-anticipated ruling on provisions of the state’s two-year-old oil and gas law. The court issued the ruling after the Supreme Court passed on the controversy, sending it back to the lower court.

The “gag rule” stems from a section of Act 13, which requires nondisclosure agreements from healthcare providers who seek information on chemical exposures, which may be deemed “confidential” by industry. The law, which was drafted without the knowledge or consultation of healthcare providers, forces doctors to sign a nondisclosure agreement, thereby agreeing not to share any ingredients in the industry’s secret sauce used to frack and drill for natural gas.

Writing for the Commonwealth Court, President Judge Dan Pellegrini says the law is not unconstitutional, and it neither prevents healthcare providers from obtaining the necessary information or sharing it with other health practitioners.

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