Energy. Environment. Economy.

Susan Phillips


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.

Senator Casey tells Obama Administration to speed up rail safety initiative

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


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

In the wake of the fiery oil train derailment last week in West Virginia, which forced dozens of residents to evacuate and had the state’s governor declare a state of emergency, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey says the Obama Administration should speed up authorization for rail safety improvements. Casey says the rules, which included new funding approved last year as part of an omnibus bill, are stalled at the Office of Management and Budget.

Casey sent a letter to OMB Director Shaun Donovan, urging him to speed up their review of the rule.

“If we don’t push hard to get it through the process, the process will take as long as people want it to take,” Casey told reporters on a conference call.

The rules include strengthening tank cars, reviewing speed limits, improving training for first responders, as well as funds to hire 15 new rail safety inspectors and retain 45 inspectors hired last year. Continue Reading

Federal court weighs in on air emissions controversy in Pa. gas fields

A compressor station pumps natural gas into the Tennessee Pipeline in Dimock, Pa.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

A compressor station pumps natural gas into the Tennessee Pipeline in Dimock, Pa.

A federal court weighed in on a contentious debate over air emissions from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas sector this week. In Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future v. Ultra Resources Inc., Pennsylvania’s Middle District Court ruled against the environmental group, more commonly known as PennFuture, and in favor of the gas company. But in the 31-page decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani laid out for the first time in this region, how state environmental regulators can make sure natural gas companies can comply with the Clean Air Act without gaming the system.

The issue is how to determine what’s known as “aggregation,” or combining multiple pollution sources into one, something allowed under the federal Clean Air Act. Typically, it’s a tool that industry doesn’t like. That’s because when smaller sources of air pollution become regulated as one large source of air emissions, they can be subject to stricter regulatory standards. It also triggers a lengthier review process by state regulators, and subsequently, could mean more public input. If the Department of Environmental Protection decides that a company’s natural gas facilities are aggregated, this tends to force gas drillers to install more pollution controls than would be the case otherwise.

Environmental groups like the Clean Air Council and PennFuture have argued that the DEP should aggregate natural gas facilities, thereby forcing the gas companies to comply with stricter air emissions standards. In this case, PennFuture objected to Ultra Resources building a series of eight compressor stations, which help move natural gas along pipelines, without pulling a permit that would have those facilities aggregated into one source. Ultra Resources instead applied for permits for each compressor station, located in Tioga and Potter counties, and the Department of Environmental Protection granted them. In 2011, PennFuture filed suit, saying when combined, the compressor stations emitted more than 100 tons of nitrous oxide each year, and should be subject to the more stringent regulatory regime as a major source.   Continue Reading

Senate committee approves shale gas health bill

Edna Moten says nearby gas drilling has polluted her water and air.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Edna Moten says nearby gas drilling in Washington County has polluted her water and air.

A bill to create a Marcellus Shale health advisory panel, which never made it out of committee last year, was approved by the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee unanimously today.  Senate Bill 375, introduced by Senate Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R-Jefferson), would create a nine-member panel to advise the legislature on the health impacts of shale gas production. The board would be chaired by the state’s health secretary, and include the head of the Department of Environmental Protection. The General Assembly would appoint seven advisors, who would be required to have an expertise in either public health, earth and mineral sciences, environmental studies, shale gas extraction or the use of natural gas.

All members of the bipartisan committee voted in favor of the bill.

The panel would meet at least twice a year and review health data related to shale gas drilling, consult with researchers and submit an annual report on their activities.

In 2011, former Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission recommended that the state monitor public health impacts from drilling, however the legislature never allocated funding for it.

Last June StateImpact Pennsylvania reported on allegations by two former state health workers who said they were instructed to ignore public complaints about drilling. In response, the Department of Health changed its Marcellus Shale policies.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the vote was nearly unanimous. It was unanimous among all the members of the committee not on leave.

A bottom up and top down approach to methane detection

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University use "tracers", inert gasses, to detect methane leaks at well sites.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University use "tracers", inert gasses, to detect methane leaks at well sites.

Scientists looking to figure out how much natural gas leaks from shale gas production sites are taking both a bottom up and top down approach. Using NOAA aircraft usually reserved for flying through hurricanes, researchers from the University of Colorado flew over shale plays in Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas to measure how much methane was escaping into the atmosphere. Their study was published last week in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. While flying over Northeast Pennsylvania one day in 2013, researchers detected a natural gas leak rate from the Marcellus Shale of just 0.18 to 0.41 percent of production. Those results are much lower than the researchers fly-over detections in Utah’s Uinta Basin, which were reported at 6.2 to 11.7 percent of production.

But the research is limited in that it was just one day, and emissions can vary daily as well as hourly. Writing in a post on the Environmental Defense Fund blog, EDF’s associate vice president Mark Brownstein says it’s not yet time to “pop the champagne corks.”

More robust studies that cover longer time periods actually suggest methane emissions are often higher than previously estimated. EDF’s own studies – including two released last week looking at the transmission and storage and gathering and processing sectors of the oil and gas industry – have repeatedly shown that random leaks and malfunctions are a major source of emissions.

Because these events are random, a one-day overflight will not give a full picture of emissions coming from a basin over a day, a month, or a year. What is needed is regular and ongoing monitoring.

Continue Reading

Changes at DEP could delay new oil and gas rules

A gas production unit (foreground) cleans, depressurizes, and moderates gas temperatures at a  Cabot Oil & Gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A gas production unit (foreground) cleans, depressurizes, and moderates gas temperatures at a Cabot Oil & Gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa.

Long awaited changes to the state’s oil and gas rules may run into some snags with new faces in Harrisburg. But DEP secretary for oil and gas, Scott Perry, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that missing the March 2016 deadline to upgrade regulations would be a “failure.”

The state’s new oil and gas law, known as Act 13, required an update to Chapter 78 of the Pennsylvania Code. The rules guide construction and operation of oil and gas wells, including waste, spills, and pipelines. The DEP has received thousands of public comments to the proposed revisions. In a surprising move last week, the agency announced changes to the oil and gas Technical Advisory Board, which helps guide DEP on the rules. More from the Tribune-Review:

Current members were waiting to be told whether their service is still wanted.

“No other administration has really touched the makeup of the board,” said Gary Slagel, the government relations coordinator at the Cecil office of the law firm Steptoe & Johnson who has served on the board since 1989.

Perry said the department wants new members focused solely on shale drilling since it announced last week the formation of a board for advice on rules for conventional oil and gas drilling.

The department is adding three nonvoting members to the five engineers and geologists on each board, Perry said.

To accommodate the changes, a planned March 5 meeting of the existing board was postponed to March 20, and the new conventional board will meet March 26.

The boards’ new members will consider revisions to proposed rules that initially went out for public review a year ago and garnered 25,000 comments. Perry said those comments dictated the latest changes, as did a review by Wolf administration officials who took office last month, including acting DEP Secretary John Quigley and former department leaders John Hanger and Katie McGinty.


Heavy flaring at Philadelphia refinery sends black smoke into the air

Flaring at the PES oil refinery in southwest Philadelphia Friday morning caused concerned residents to call 911.


Flaring at the PES oil refinery in southwest Philadelphia Friday morning caused concerned residents to call 911.

Some Philadelphia residents woke up to a large plume of black smoke drifting up through the sky, wondering what was on fire. But it turns out it was a flare coming from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in southwest Philadelphia. PES is the single largest consumer of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota. The refinery turns that crude into gasoline, which supplies a large portion of the region’s gas stations.

PES spokeswoman Cherice Corley says the cold weather caused problems at the plant, which led to the flaring and smoke both this morning and this afternoon. Flaring is actually a safety valve used to limit the number of air pollutants released during start-ups or shut-downs of facilities. The flare was not the result of burning oil, but of other hydrocarbons that would have been released into the atmosphere. “We quickly conducted air monitoring in the surrounding communities, which were negative,” Corley wrote in an email. “There was no impact to the community.” NBC10 has more:

A flare up at a South Philadelphia oil refinery has prompted emergency calls from concerned citizens.

The incident took place around 6:30 a.m. Friday at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex along Pennrose Avenue, fire officials tell NBC10.

The refinery is burning off additional flammable fuel through a tower at the complex. The flare-up is producing a larger than usual flame that’s causing thick black smoke to billow into the sky.

Residents called 911 concerned by what they saw, but officials said the situation is under control. The Philadelphia Fire Department responded to the scene as a precaution.

Oil trains on Pa. tracks getting more scrutiny after W. Va. explosion

In this aerial photo made available by the Office of the Governor of West Virginia shows a derailed train in Mount Carbon, WV., Tuesday Feb. 17, 2015.  The train carrying crude oil derailed Monday night, causing a large fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes and temporarily shutting down water treatment facilities. (AP Photo/ Office of the Governor of West Virginia, Steven Wayne Rotsch)

Steven Wayne Rotsch / AP/Office of the Gov. of West Virginia

An aerial photo shows a derailed train in Mount Carbon, WV., Tuesday Feb. 17, 2015. The train carrying crude oil derailed Monday night, causing a large fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes and temporarily shutting down water treatment facilities.

The fiery oil train derailment in West Virginia on President’s Day, which forced the evacuation of nearby residents and sent Bakken crude into the Kanawha River, has environmentalists and local lawmakers taking a more critical look at the oil trains running across Pennsylvania’s tracks.

The burning CSX rail cars in the West Virginia accident carried shale oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. Dozens of those same oil trains role across Pennsylvania each day on their way to Philadelphia area refineries.  And driving, walking or biking around Philadelphia these days it’s hard to miss the rows of black cylindrical tanker cars lining the city’s railroad tracks.

Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution Thursday urging the city’s Office of Emergency Management and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to work together and make more information about the oil train routes and safety plans available to the public. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown says the 2014 oil train derailment that had tanker cars hanging over the Schuylkill River close to the downtown area of the city was a warning.

“If there’s ever an accident it would be a bad thing so we need to be proactive and figure out what type of prevention measures they have in place to avoid an accident,” said Reynolds-Brown. “We don’t want to be in a ‘I wish I shoulda coulda place.’”

Just last month another oil train derailed in South Philadelphia. Neither of those incidents resulted in fires, spills or injuries.  Continue Reading

Shale gas boom has utilities rushing to increase electricity supply

Andrew Rainville of Northern Realm Power of Colchester, Vt., works on a Vermont Electric Cooperative substation on Tuesday, July 26, 2011 in Johnson, Vt.

Toby Talbot

Andrew Rainville of Northern Realm Power of Colchester, Vt., works on a Vermont Electric Cooperative substation in Johnson, Vt.

One of the largest electricity providers in the Marcellus Shale gas region is planning to spend $35 million in infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the increasing need for power at natural gas processing plants and compressor stations. FirstEnergy Corp. recently announced plans to expand electric substations and upgrade large electric power lines.

Tim Myers, a spokesman for the utility West Penn Power, a FirstEnergy company serving western Pennsylvania, says the amount of electricity used by plants that separate methane from natural gas liquids like ethane and butane, are enormous.

“We’re seeing these [electrical] loads accelerating very quickly,” said Meyers. “And it’s a new world for us.”

Myers says processing natural gas uses much more electricity than the typical manufacturer, or even coal operations.

“We have a [natural gas processing] plant in nearby West Virginia that wasn’t there four years ago,” said Myers. “In that time, it used as much or more electricity than all the coal mines we serve in that area of West Virginia, and it took those coal mines 30 years to use that much electricity.”

In other words, Myers says power use at that natural gas processing plant has already eclipsed 30 years of electrical consumption by coal mining activities in the same service area.

Another complication for utilities is that natural gas wells, compressor stations and processing plants are in rural areas, where high voltage transmission lines and substations are typically not installed.

The bulk of the investment by FirstEnergy, $31 million, will be spent on a substation in Washington County, close to Burgettstown, where a new Marcellus Shale gas processor is planned. Substations take high voltage electricity traveling through transmission lines, and convert it to a lower voltage that can be safely consumed by the new plant. FirstEnergy says the substation, scheduled for completion in 2016, would also help improve reliability for the more than 40,000 residential and business customers in Washington and Allegheny counties.

Continue Reading

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 banc 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

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