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.

New year, new severance tax proposals

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Phila.) is proposing a five percent severance tax on shale gas to help the city's struggling public schools.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Phila.) at a press conference in 2014, where he proposed a 5 percent tax. The Senator now plans to introduce an 8 percent tax.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers say they’ve got the right formula for getting a natural gas tax through the legislature. It would include a 3.2 percent tax on gas production, while keeping the current impact fee.  The group led by Bucks county Republican Representative Gene DiGirolamo, say keeping the impact fee, which helps boost the budgets of small towns and rural counties where drilling occurs, is key. And DiGirolamo says a 3.2 percent tax along with the impact fee, is equivalent to a 5 percent tax. Governor Wolf campaigned on a 5 percent tax as a way to solve the state’s education funding crisis. Another group of liberal lawmakers led by Philadelphia state senators Art Haywood (D-4) and Vincent Hughes (D-7) will announce a proposed 8 percent tax today. Last year Hughes proposed a 5 percent severance tax, which like all the drilling tax proposals never gained traction. Pennsylvania charges a per well impact fee, but is the only major gas producing state not to tax production at the wellhead. DiGirolamo says his proposal, which combines the two, will get that discussion going.

More from the Times-Tribune:

“It’s important to keep the impact fee in place so that communities directly dealing with drilling can still be protected,” said Mr. DiGirolamo. He said lawmakers representing shale counties want to keep impact fees because they are popular with local officials. Local governments use the revenue for road and other infrastructure projects, public safety and environmental purposes.

Keeping the impact fee is viewed as necessary to getting the votes to pass a severance tax in the Legislature.

“Virtually all the discussions I’ve had keep the impact fee in place,” said Sen. John Yudichak, D-14, Plymouth Twp., ranking Democrat on the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. He has introduced severance tax bills in recent years.

State Rep. DiGirolomo says most of the revenue from his proposed 3.2 percent tax would be split between education and pension obligations, with some portion going toward human services and the environment. Continue Reading

Commonwealth Court rejects appeal on state forest leasing

A drilling rig in the Tioga State Forest.

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drilling rig in the Tioga State Forest.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court rejected an appeal by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation on Tuesday regarding drilling in state forests. The Court issued its original ruling last month in a case filed by the environmental law firm, which challenged the leasing of public land to natural gas drillers. In an en band decision on January 7, the court ruled that the state could lease the land, as long as the decisions rested with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The Court also upheld the decision by the Corbett administration to divert royalty income from those leases to the general fund. PEDF attorney John Childe has argued that the state constitution, under the environmental rights amendment, grants ownership of the state’s natural resources to the people, not the government. Childe explains this in his appeal:

The plain language of the public trust under Article I § 27 states: “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come” (emphasis added). The Court overlooked this plain language, which states that the people own the public natural resources, not the Commonwealth. The public natural resources are the corpus of the trust established by Article I § 27. The Commonwealth cannot lease or sell those natural resources, including the natural gas and oil, and take the money out of the public trust to carry out its other responsibilities. Continue Reading

Gas industry hopes to score points with Super Bowl ads

How hot is shale gas? Hot enough to warrant ad buys during the Super Bowl on Sunday. The American Petroleum Institute has purchased local ad time during the big game in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Colorado, touting the benefits of shale gas development. National advertisers are spending $4.5 million for 30 seconds of air time during Super Bowl XLIX. The local runs are a lot cheaper, but still pretty steep compared to regular rates. API wouldn’t disclose the price tag. Nor would NBC 10. But a media buyer in Philadelphia says the offer for Super Bowl time was $150,000 for 30 seconds two weeks ago. That’s a lot of money compared to the cost of a typical local ad during Monday Night Football, which can run between $35,000 and $40,000. And Temple University says it spent about tens of thousands of dollars for its local ad time during Sunday’s game.

API’s new campaign, “Energy from Shale,” focuses on local community benefits, and features the experiences of local residents.

So in addition to watching a puppy get saved from a big bad wolf by a bunch of horses, or learning how masculinity means giving your kid a bath, Super Bowl watchers in parts of Pennsylvania will be hearing from Washington, Pa. restaurant owner Laura Ross talk about the benefits of fracking for her small town. Continue Reading

Gov. Wolf bans new drilling in state parks and forests

Gov. Tom Wolf signs an executive order reinstating the moratorium on new leases for oil and gas development in state parks and forests. The event took place at Benjamin Rush State Park in Northeast Philadelphia.

Emma Lee / WHYY/Newsworks

Gov. Tom Wolf signs an executive order reinstating the moratorium on new leases for oil and gas development in state parks and forests. The event took place at Benjamin Rush State Park in Northeast Philadelphia.

Governor Tom Wolf fulfilled a campaign promise today by reversing course from his predecessor Tom Corbett and imposing a moratorium on leasing any more state park and forest land to Marcellus Shale drillers. Standing in a cold and windy meadow at Benjamin Rush state park, in the northeast section of Philadelphia, surrounded by a handful of state lawmakers, Wolf said he wants the gas industry to succeed but state land should be off limits.

“This is a place where, lets agree, that we can suspend the hostilities,” said Wolf. “In these areas we’re not going to be doing anymore drilling and the purpose of these parks is to allow people to enjoy nature at its best.”

Wolf’s executive order overturns Governor Tom Corbett’s executive order, signed last May. Corbett wanted to open up 25,000 new 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. Corbett’s order lifted a moratorium put in place by former democratic Governor Ed Rendell just before he left office in 2011.

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. John Quigley, who Wolf recently appointed to run the Department of Environmental Protection, had fought Rendell on expanding gas drilling when he served in Rendell’s cabinet as secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Continue Reading

Fracking protests grow in North Africa

One of the high-tech natural gas plants at the Algerian showpiece at Tin Fouye Tabankort simmers in the Saharan desert sun, Friday August 11, 2000. Algeria's exports of natural gas gives it real economic clout

Bruce Stanley / AP

A natural gas plant at Tin Fouye Tabankort simmers in the Saharan desert sun, Friday August 11, 2000.

Some of the earliest protests against fracking, and natural gas drilling, began here in Pennsylvania. They spread to New York, and then overseas to Europe. Like New York state, countries like France, Germany, and Bulgaria responded with fracking bans. Others like South Africa, have moratoriums. Now, the oil and gas rich nation of Algeria has grassroots protests bubbling up from the sands of the Sahara Desert. The demonstrations began earlier this month in the small town of In Salah. More from Vice News:

Residents of In Salah, a town of 36,000 that is located 750 miles south of the capital Algiers, have been protesting relentlessly since January 1 against the government’s proposed plans to extract shale gas through the use of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, following initial drilling tests in the region.

Last week, the protests spread to other cities across southern Algeria, and also to the northern coastal cities of Algiers and Oran. In a country where 60 percent of the national budget comes from oil revenue, the government has been trying to diversify its income stream by developing unconventional resources such as shale gas, which it says will aid in the country’s energy transition.

Algeria is the top natural gas producer in Africa, but has yet to tap it’s shale gas reserves through fracking.  Continue Reading

Obama says he will veto bill to fast track pipeline permits

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington.

AP Photo / Mandel Ngan

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington.

A bill that would set a strict deadline for approving new pipeline project applications was voted out of a House committee on Tuesday but President Obama says he will veto it if it reaches his desk. Industry groups are pushing for the “Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act,” (HR 161), which is sponsored by Kansas Republican Mike Pompeo.

The bill would give FERC one year to decide on pipeline permits. Other federal agencies would then have 90 days to weigh in. If these deadlines aren’t met, the project would be considered approved. Tamara Young-Allen, a spokesperson for FERC, says on average the process takes 12 to 18 months. In a letter supporting the bill, America’s Natural Gas Alliance says the environmental review process required under the National Environmental Policy Act “lacks any real enforcement mechanism to ensure timely decisions by appropriate permitting agencies.”

The industry is in a rush to build new pipelines as a result of increased production in places like Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. Pipeline capacity is full, and producers have seen the price of natural gas drop as a result.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the White House says it strongly opposes the measure.

“H.R. 161 could create conflicts with existing statutory and regulatory requirements and practices related to agencies’ programs, and preclude opportunities for engaging the public and potentially impacted communities, thereby causing confusion and the risk of increased litigation.”

A version of the bill was voted out of the House in 2013, but died when it reached the Democratically controlled Senate.

 

Study: Radioactive gas drilling waste not a threat to public health

A worker holds a brick of solid waste from gas drilling operations.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A worker holds a brick of solid waste from gas drilling operations.

A Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection study looking at radiation exposure from oil and gas development says there is “little potential for harm to workers or the public.”

DEP released the peer-reviewed report Thursday, which Governor Corbett initiated in January 2013. DEP hired PermaFix, an Atlanta-based company that specializes in nuclear and industrial waste disposal, to conduct the research. The study looked at the radioactivity levels in waste resulting from gas drilling, including fracking wastewater, drill cuttings and waste solids. It also measured radioactivity through the waste transport, storage and disposal process. A DEP official says the study is the most thorough to date:

“The study report is the culmination of a multi-year effort and represents what we believe to be the most comprehensive radiological study of the oil and gas industry ever conducted,” Vince Brisini, DEP Deputy Secretary for Waste, Air, Radiation and Remediation said in a press release. “While the recommendations for future actions contained in the report call for additional studies and efforts, we now have data to inform the management of natural gas resources and resultant wastes for environmental and health protection.”

Attempts to reach Brisini, or any of the authors of the study directly, were unsuccessful. The DEP press office did not return calls or email.

Marcellus Shale, like other rich fossil fuel deposits, can contain naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). This radioactive material, including uranium (U-238), thorium (Th-232), potassium (K-40), and radon can be brought to the surface through oil and gas production and released. Continue Reading

Obama aims to limit methane emissions from oil and gas industry

A worker stands by a natural gas well in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A worker stands by a natural gas well in Susquehanna County, Pa.

President Obama has made methane his latest target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In an announcement today, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency laid out plans to enact new regulations limiting methane emissions from oil and gas production. The goal is to cut methane leaks by 40 to 45 percent by 2025, using 2012 as the baseline.

Environmental activists and climate scientists have been urging Obama to tackle methane emissions. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, which is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide emissions in the short term. The announcement marks the president’s latest effort to take on climate change using his executive authority. The White House says it has the authority to use the Clean Air Act to impose regulations, and does not have to go through Congress.

Mark Brownstein, vice president in charge of the U.S. climate and energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund says he’s very pleased by the announcement.

“This is a landmark moment,” Brownstein told StateImpact. “Direct federal regulation of methane is essential. The administration set the right goal.”

The EPA’s plan will target new and modified sources of methane leaks within the production process and along the supply chain. But Brownstein says in order to reach 40 to 45 percent reductions, current natural gas and oil production would also have to be regulated.

“It’s a watershed moment but the job is not done,” said Brownstein. Continue Reading

Commonwealth Court: Governor not the decider on leasing public land

A drilling convoy heads through the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY/Newsworks

A drilling convoy heads through the Loyalsock State Forest.

Decisions to lease state park and forest land to natural gas drillers lies with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, not the Governor’s office, according to a decision issued today by the Commonwealth Court. The court also ruled that the General Assembly can decide how to spend the royalty money generated from current and future leases. Up until 2009, proceeds from oil and gas drilling on state land were funneled directly back into the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources through the oil and gas lease fund. But as Marcellus Shale drilling ramped up, and the money multiplied, the legislature used much of it to balance the budget.

Governor Corbett’s energy secretary Patrick Henderson called the decision a “resounding victory for the Commonwealth.” “We’re extremely happy with the court’s recognition of the authority of the executive and the legislative branch,” Henderson told StateImpact.

Today’s Commonwealth Court en banc decision, written by Judge Kevin Brobson, stems from a case filed back in 2012 by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation seeking to halt all drilling in state forests. It also challenged how the drilling royalties were spent.

John Childe, the environmental attorney who brought the case, argued that the state’s environmental rights amendment prevented the General Assembly from using the funds for anything other than environmental conservation. But in a unanimous decision the seven Commonwealth Court judges disagreed.

Childe also wanted the court to rule that both former Governor Ed Rendell and Governor Corbett violated the state constitution by leasing land to drillers. The court did not do so.

The court did however, rule that the Conservation and Natural Resources Act put the decision on whether and how to lease public land squarely within the purview of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, not the Governor’s office.

Under the direction of Governor Rendell, DCNR leased 132,000 acres to Marcellus Shale drillers despite opposition from the agency’s leadership. Just before leaving office, Rendell then issued an executive order placing a moratorium on future leases. But Governor Corbett lifted that moratorium last year, while saying the new leases would prohibit any surface disturbance. For now, the issue seems moot because incoming Governor-elect Tom Wolf opposes any new leasing of public land. Continue Reading

EPA delays climate change rules for power plants

The Environmental Protection Agency says it will postpone issuing new rules for cutting carbon emissions from power plants until the summer.  After receiving about 4 million comments on the proposals for new, existing and modified power plants, the agency says it needs more time to consider public input and incorporate overlapping issues among the three proposals. Janet McCabe, acting administrator for air and radiation at the EPA, says incorporating public input is a top priority.

“And since last year we have been following through on President Obama’s directive to engage extensively with the broadest possible range of perspectives as we work to develop a plan to cut energy waste, strengthen the economy, and leverage cleaner energy sources,” said McCabe.

More from The Hill:

Officials had planned to finalize the carbon dioxide rule for new plants Thursday, following the one-year timeline dictated by the Clean Air Act. The existing and modified plant rules should have come June 2 under an order from President Obama.

“It’s become clear to us … that there are cross-cutting topics that affect the standards for new sources, for modified sources and for existing sources, and we believe it’s essential to consider these overlapping issues in a coordinated fashion,” Janet McCabe, the EPA’s acting administrator for air quality, told reporters Wednesday.

The rules together represent the most ambitious effort yet by the Obama administration to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas believed to cause climate change.

Continue Reading

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