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.

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.

DEP slaps Vantage Energy with massive fine for landslide and dumping

A Cabot Oil and Gas rig in Susquehanna County, which sits on one of the most productive "sweet spots" in the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Marcellus Shale gas rig.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined the Colorado-based Vantage Energy almost $1 million for more than a dozen violations of the state’s Clean Streams Law and the  Oil and Gas Act. The sanction stems from a landslide at the company’s Porter Street well site in Franklin Township, Greene County. But it turns out the landslide was just the start of the company’s violations. While checking on site remediation months later, DEP inspectors discovered a contractor dumped two truckloads of wastewater off the side of the damaged well site, further polluting two unnamed tributaries to Grimes Run.

“They dumped it down the side of the well pad, which undid what little work they did to correct the [original] problem,” said John Poister, from DEP’s Southwest Regional Office.

In a year of multi-million dollar fines handed down by DEP, this $999,900 fine, just $100 short of one million, still stands out as one of DEP’s largest for Marcellus Shale drillers.

“This points out just how serious the problems are at this well site,” said Poister.

Poister says the original landslide on January 16, 2014 took off a corner of the well pad, traveling forty feet downslope and landing on top of two unnamed streams. Although the company notified DEP of the incident, Poister says drilling continued without adequate remediation. During an inspection on March 19, two months after the incident, DEP employees documented how the landslide “continued to move and grow.” Continue Reading

Feds approve another pipeline expansion to accommodate Marcellus Shale

Workers lay a new interstate pipeline in Northeast Pennsylvania.

Kim Paynter / WHYY

Workers lay a new interstate pipeline in Northeast Pennsylvania.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved an addition to the interstate Transco pipeline that will help more Marcellus Shale gas get to New Jersey. The Leidy Southeast line is essentially a series of “loops” totaling about 30 miles planned for both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. FERC overruled objections from environmentalists who say the line would damage wetlands and farms. The $738 million project is part of a push to expand pipeline capacity in Pennsylvania in order to transport Marcellus Shale gas to places of high demand. More from NJ Spotlight: 

The proliferation of new gas and other pipelines has become a big issue in New Jersey, largely because many of the projects that have been approved go through lands set aside with taxpayer funds for preservation, including the New Jersey Highlands and the Pinelands Preservation Area.

Yesterday, the state Assembly approved a resolution with bipartisan support (AR-191) opposing a proposed oil pipeline that also would run through parts of central Jersey. The Legislature is working on a bill (S-570) that would increase compensation from energy projects on public lands.

The projects all are aimed at delivering cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formations in Pennsylvania to heat homes and power the plants that produce electricity — both at significant savings.

What New York’s fracking ban means for drilling along the Delaware river

A drilling protest sign sits on the lawn of a home along the Delaware River.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drilling protest sign sits on the lawn of a home along the Delaware River.

The surprise decision by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking and prevent the development of Marcellus Shale gas in that state could have ripple effects in eastern Pennsylvania. New York issued a lengthy scientific report on potential health and environmental impacts Wednesday. And Cuomo’s subsequent decision could mean a permanent ban on drilling in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, where the Delaware River Basin Commission has authority to regulate shale gas drilling.

The current de facto moratorium on drilling for gas along the Delaware river in both New York and Pennsylvania exists because the four states and a federal representative who comprise the Delaware River Basin Commission could not agree on how to do it. In 2010 the DRBC instructed staff members to propose new regulations. After receiving thousands of comments, the DRBC revised its proposals and scheduled a vote in the fall of 2011. But the lack of consensus among the commissioners prompted them to cancel the meeting, and they have not taken up the issue in a public forum since. At the time, Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Corbett was the strongest advocate for drilling. Delaware’s governor opposed it. New Jersey and the Obama Administration kept silent. And New York was on the fence.

But this week’s decision by Governor Cuomo has taken New York off the fence. And when combined with the promise by Pennsylvania Governor-elect Tom Wolf not to open the Delaware watershed to drilling, New York’s decision to ban fracking altogether changes the picture. This is good news to activists like Maya van Rossum, from the Delaware Riverkeeper. Van Rossum has been fighting to keep gas rigs out of eastern Pennsylvania since 2008. She says New York’s health and environmental study, along with Cuomo’s subsequent decision, means her work has paid off.

“It was an arms-length process really designed to secure a fair and earnest scientific analysis,” said van Rossum. “It was not a political process, which is what you had in Pennsylvania, a political process that tries to use faux-science as a shield for bad decision-making.” Continue Reading

PA lawmaker floats new severance tax proposal as industry pushes back

Cabot Oil & Gas operations in Susquehanna County include some of the most productive wells in the state.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Cabot Oil & Gas operations in Susquehanna County include some of the most productive wells in the state.

State senator Jim Brewster plans to introduce a bill that would enact a 5 percent tax on Marcellus Shale gas production, and dedicate all of that revenue toward education. The western Pennsylvania lawmaker, from McKeesport, says the tax would generate between $700 million to $1 billion for public schools.

“My ‘Extraction for Education’ proposal is simple, reasonable and credible because it uses the proceeds of an extraction tax to support education,” Brewster said in a release posted today on his website. His plan would maintain the current impact fee, which helps fund local municipalities that bare the brunt of natural gas drilling. Brewster says gas producers would be able to claim a credit for the impact fee, while all of the proposed tax would get funneled to education.

But natural gas industry representatives in Pennsylvania say they are already paying their fair share of taxes. On a call with reporters today, Dave Spigelmyer with the Marcellus Shale Coalition said attempts by the incoming Wolf administration to raise $1 billion in revenue through a severance tax would “damage this play forever in the commonwealth.” Spigelmyer says the state should first get spending under control through pension reform, and have the shale gas boom generate tax revenue indirectly. Continue Reading

Leaking city gas pipes pose climate hazard

Kevin McDonald, PGW Senior Pipe Mechanic uses a compressor to back fill soil covering main and service pipelines in North Philadelphia.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Kevin McDonald, PGW Senior Pipe Mechanic uses a compressor to back fill soil covering main and service pipelines in North Philadelphia.

Philadelphia has some of the leakiest natural gas distribution pipes in the nation.

This comes with an environmental cost, because natural gas is primarily made up of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Methane emissions are getting more attention from climate scientists, environmentalists and policy makers because they actually have a much more immediate impact on global warming than the greenhouse gas that gets the most ink, carbon dioxide.

Philadelphia’s recent failure to close a deal to sell the city-owned Philadelphia Gas Works to a private company means those leaks will continue to get fixed at a snail’s pace.

At current estimates many of us will be dead before all that leak prone pipe beneath city streets is replaced.

 

Miles and miles of leaks

Philadelphia’s natural gas infrastructure resembles that in other older industrial cities on the Eastern Seaboard.

Interstate transmission pipelines feed natural gas from well heads on the Gulf Coast, or Marcellus Shale to nine separate “city gates.” At these city gates, the high pressure gas, which comes in at 800 pounds per square inch, gets transformed into low pressure gas. By the time the gas gets to your stove, it’s about one-quarter pound per square inch. Continue Reading

Wolf appoints reviewers for DEP, DCNR, DOH and PUC

Democrat Tom Wolf talks to reporters at the WHYY studio in Philadelphia.

Lindsay Lazarsky / Newsworks/WHYY

Democrat Tom Wolf talks to reporters at the WHYY studio in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Governor-elect Tom Wolf has appointed a number of people to review departments and issues ahead of the January 20 inauguration. The reviewers will work with the current Corbett administration to “better understand the issues and challenges that face the executive branch,” according to a release.

Wolf’s spokesperson Jeff Sheridan said the goal would be to find out what works and what doesn’t work before Wolf takes office next month.

Christina Simeone and Robb Fox have been appointed to report back about the Department of Environmental Protection. Simeone used to work for the environmental group PennFuture, and is now at the Kleinman Energy Policy Center at University of Pennsylvania. Robb Fox is an environmental lawyer and partner at Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox.

Wolf has chosen Caren Glotfelty to review the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Glotfelty worked for the Department of Environmental Resources, a precursor to DEP and DCNR, under Governor Casey. She now runs the Allegheny County Parks Foundation. Continue Reading

Study: Abandoned wells could be significant source of greenhouse gas

An abandoned oil well in the Tamarack Swamp, Warren County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

An unplugged oil well in the Tamarack Swamp, Warren County.

A new study out this week shows that Pennsylvania’s abandoned oil and gas wells could be a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Pennsylvania is littered with old oil and gas wells that date back to the 1860’s. Unmapped and unmonitored, these wells can turn into pollution pathways for oil, gas and brine. About 12,000 of an estimated 300,000 wells have been found and plugged. But the peer reviewed report out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows even the plugged wells are leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Mary Kang is the lead author on the study.

“Surprisingly all the plugged wells that we measured emitted methane. We found that emissions varied by order of magnitude,” said Kang.

Kang’s research shows that both plugged and unplugged wells could be contributing significantly to global warming. Although she only tested 19 wells, her results showed that the abandoned wells could be spewing just as much fugitive methane as current oil and gas production in the state. Yet neither the federal Environmental Protection Agency, or the state keeps track of these emissions. And data and history about these wells was hard to come by. Only one of the 19 wells she found and tested was recorded in the state’s database on abandoned and orphaned wells.

 

Study: Greenhouse gas emissions from industry concentrated in two sources

A snow covered well site at night.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

A snow covered well site at night in the Tioga State Forest.

The Environmental Protection Agency says oil and natural gas production is the largest industrial source of methane emissions in the U.S. Methane is 84 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short term.  So climate scientists and activists are starting to focus more and more on reducing methane. And they say natural gas production sites are an easy place to start.

A new peer-reviewed study out Tuesday in the Environmental Science and Technology journal says two parts of the production process should be targeted for reduced methane emissions. Researchers from the University of Texas and the environmental firm URS concluded that pneumatic devices and liquid unloadings pose the most risk to fugitive methane. And just a small percentage of each device tested account for the bulk of emissions.

Pneumatic devices use natural gas to control valves. Researchers found that just 19 percent of the 377 devices tested accounted for 95 percent of the total measured emissions. Similarly with liquid unloadings, where most of those operations do not vent methane to the atmosphere, according to the report. Instead just 20 percent of 107 natural gas well liquid unloading events tested made up 65 to 83 percent of the emissions. Liquid unloadings refers to a process, usually in older wells, where accumulated liquids have to be cleared in order to continue producing gas.

The report was funded by the Environmental Defense Fund, along with ten oil and gas producers.

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