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.

Feds issue new oil train safety rules

In this photo taken April 9, 2015, children play in view of train tank cars with placards indicating petroleum crude oil standing idle on the tracks, in Philadelphia. Rail tank cars that are used to transport most crude oil and many other flammable liquids will have to be built to stronger standards to reduce the risk of catastrophic train crash and fire under a series of new rules unveiled Friday by U.S. and Canadian transportation officials.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

In this photo taken April 9, 2015, children play in view of train tank cars with placards indicating petroleum crude oil standing idle on the tracks, in Philadelphia.

The Department of Transportation joined with Canadian officials Friday to announce stronger safety rules for shipping crude by rail. About 70 to 80 trains carrying more than a million gallons of crude oil from the Bakken Shale fields in North Dakota travel across Pennsylvania each week, heading to Philadelphia area refineries. The long-awaited rules come on the heels of a number of dangerous oil train derailments in both countries.

So far Pennsylvania has been lucky. Four crude oil trains have derailed in the state since January 2014. But none exploded into giant fireballs like the recent incidents in West Virginia, Illinois and Canada. in one case, an accident in Westmoreland County resulted in a crude oil spill.

New rules aimed at preventing those accidents include phasing out the current tank cars, implementing stronger tank car standards and requiring better braking systems.

Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration, told StateImpact that “stronger, better tank cars are on the way.”

“Some of the tank cars that are out there today, I think everyone would agree, are not strong enough to survive a derailment or an incident the way we would like them to,” said Feinberg. “So the good news is we’ve now landed on a new tank car standard. And so safer tank cars will be used in the transportation of this crude and also frankly with ethanol as well.” Continue Reading

Governor Wolf hires rail expert to evaluate oil train risks

Seven cars of a 101-car train traveling from Chicago to a refinery in South Philadelphia slid off the tracks on the Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge around 12:30 a.m. Monday.

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Seven cars of a 101-car train traveling from Chicago to a refinery in South Philadelphia slid off the tracks on the Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge in January, 2014.

Governor Tom Wolf has hired a rail expert to examine Pennsylvania’s railway infrastructure and report back on safety issues. The appointment is the latest move by Gov. Wolf to address increasing concerns about crude-by-rail transport. An oil train derailment and explosion in West Virginia earlier this year was touched off by a broken track, and led to a spill from defects in the tank cars, according to federal regulators.

Pennsylvania has experienced four train derailments since January 2014. Two of those derailments happened in heavily populated Philadelphia, but none resulted in a fire.

The Wolf Administration announced Tuesday that Allan M. Zarembski, a professor at the University of Delaware, will spend three months evaluating risks associated with transporting crude oil across the state’s freight rail lines. Zarembski will also make safety recommendations to the Wolf Administration.

Nationwide, crude by rail shipments have risen about 4000 percent in the past several years because of the shale oil boom in North Dakota, and the lack of pipeline infrastructure to carry all that crude to refineries on the East Coast. Continue Reading

Obama Administration proposes billions to overhaul energy infrastructure

Vice President Joe Biden, right, accompanied by Mayor Michael Nutter tours the headquarters of PECO energy company in Philadelphia, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. The White House has released a four-year energy plan, Quadrennial Energy Review, designed to fight climate change, modernize power plants and find other ways to ensure the nation a steady supply of safe energy.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Vice President Joe Biden, right, accompanied by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter tours the headquarters of PECO energy company in Philadelphia, Tuesday. The White House has released the Quadrennial Energy Review, designed to modernize the nation's energy infrastructure.

The Obama Administration wants to spend billions of dollars to upgrade the nation’s energy infrastructure. That means replacing pipelines, making the grid more resilient against terrorism or cyber attacks, preparing the systems for rising sea levels, improving data on crude-by-rail, reducing emissions from natural gas infrastructure, and modernizing the electrical grid.

The White House chose to roll out the first ever “Quadrennial Energy Review” in Philadelphia, which has struggled to keep pace with replacing its own aging natural gas pipes, and is trying to position itself as an East Coast “energy hub.”

Vice President Joe Biden and Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz toured a PECO Energy facility in Philadelphia Tuesday before speaking to area business leaders.

PECO received a $200 million dollar federal stimulus grant back in 2009 to upgrade its transmission system. The electric and gas utility serves a six-county area that includes Philadelphia and its suburbs.

This first Quadrennial Energy Review focuses exclusively on infrastructure and is part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Continue Reading

Air pollution increases at Pennsylvania’s natural gas sites

A Cabot fracking site in Harford Township, Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A Cabot fracking site in Harford Township, Susquehanna County.

Sulfur dioxide emissions jumped 57 percent from 2012 to 2013 at the state’s natural gas production sites, according to data released today by the Department of Environmental Protection. Sulfur dioxide contributes to acid rain, and causes respiratory problems including asthma.  Other air pollutants that contribute to public health impacts also increased. These jumps in emissions coincide with the number of well sites reporting.

Acting DEP Secretary John Quigley said in a press release that the results were not a surprise.

“The industry is growing,” said Quigley. “And each year we are expanding the types and number of facilities from which we collect data so that we have a more comprehensive understanding of air quality issues.”

Quigley says overall the state’s air quality is improving, despite the increased emissions from the natural gas sector. Continue Reading

Philadelphia’s mayoral race has candidates talking shale gas

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest oil refining complex on the Eastern seaboard. Half of all Bakken Crude traveling across the country by rail ends up at the PES plant.

Nat Hamilton/WHYY

Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest oil refining complex on the Eastern seaboard. Half of all Bakken Crude traveling across the country by rail ends up at the PES plant.

On Thursday evening business leaders and local politicians gathered at Drexel University in Philadelphia to talk about exporting Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas from the Port of Philadelphia, and got an earful from activists. But the export terminal is just one idea inside of a larger vision to turn Philadelphia into an “energy hub,” an issue that continues to come up in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary race.

So, what is an energy hub?

Here’s what the energy hub aims to do in a nut shell.

Take advantage of all that abundant Marcellus Shale gas flowing out of wells in the northeast and southwest parts of the state, places like Susquehanna County, or Washington County. Send all that gas to Philadelphia, instead of spreading it out to places like New York or Canada, or the Gulf Coast.

And once all those billions of molecules of gas get to Philly, turn them into trillions of dollars.

To do that, say the hub’s boosters, simply use cheap gas to power new factories, turn that cheap gas into plastics, or liquefy it and sell it abroad for lots of money.

And yes, create good jobs.

The energy hub’s most powerful advocate is Phil Rinaldi. Rinaldi runs Philadelphia Energy Solutions. That’s the company bringing in all that crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota across the state, inching along the city’s railroad tracks in black tank cars.

Continue Reading

Wolf appoints political insider as energy advisor

Gov. Wolf delivered his budget address Tuesday in Harrisburg.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Gov. Wolf delivering his first budget address in Harrisburg.

Attorney, lobbyist and political insider David Sweet will be advising Governor Tom Wolf on energy and manufacturing issues starting Monday. Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan says Sweet, who currently works for the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll, will serve as a special assistant to the governor, making $129,605 a year. In the position, Sweet will report directly to Governor Wolf and act as a deputy secretary at the Department of Community and Economic Development.

The position is a departure in some ways from the Corbett administration’s “energy czar,” or “energy executive”, a cabinet position held by Patrick Henderson, who made $145,000 advising the governor on energy issues.

In this new position, David Sweet will work on issues related to both energy and manufacturing.

Sweet told StateImpact that his role covers both issues because those are two of Wolf’s priorities for creating well-paying jobs in the state. The attorney and former state lawmaker says Wolf did not choose him for his energy expertise, but rather, his political savvy.

“I’m not touting myself as an expert on energy issues,” said Sweet. “What my role is, I believe, in those two areas is really figuring out ways to mobilize what government resources are there, work with [multiple] state departments…and develop consensus. I’m bringing more of the government and political experience to try to get things done.” Continue Reading

NPR: In Pa. gas industry jobs boom despite nationwide oil and gas bust

A worker checks paperwork on the monkey board of a Cabot Oil & Gas drill rig in Kingsley, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A worker checks paperwork on the monkey board of a Cabot Oil & Gas drill rig in Kingsley, Pa.

Oil and gas workers are facing unemployment in the country’s big oil producing states like Texas. But NPR’s energy reporter Jeff Brady took a trip to a shale gas training center in Williamsport and finds students optimistic about their future job prospects. The governor’s chief of staff, Katie McGinty, tells Brady that Pennsylvanians should be seeing less and less Texans on drill rigs. Listen to the NPR story here.

“Pennsylvania has gone from pretty much nowhere on the map in terms of natural gas production to now second in the country behind only Texas,” says McGinty.

When drilling rigs started showing up, McGinty says residents worried the good jobs would go to out-of-state workers, leaving locals with nothing but the environmental consequences of drilling.

“In the early days, those concerns were exacerbated by too many people seeing nothing but Texas and Oklahoma license plates,” says McGinty. That’s changing, she says, as more locals learn the skills necessary to work in the gas business.

The latest figures show more than 31,000 people in the state have jobs related to extracting natural gas. That’s nearly double what it was five years ago. State officials say the rate of employment growth in the gas fields has slowed recently, but for now it’s still growing.

Methods of calculating Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale jobs have always been controversial. The 31,000 figure includes workers in these six sectors:

  • Crude petroleum and natural gas extraction
  • Natural gas liquid extraction
  • Drilling oil and gas wells
  • Support activities for oil and gas operations
  • Oil and gas pipeline and related structures
  • Pipeline transportation of natural gas

New study raises possible link between gas drilling and radon levels

  A drill worker covered in mud, shale, and drill cuttings seals off a well and cleans the blowout preventer at a Cabot Oil & Gas natural gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A drill worker covered in mud, shale, and drill cuttings seals off a well and cleans the blowout preventer at a Cabot Oil & Gas natural gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa.

Radon levels in buildings near unconventional natural gas development in Pennsylvania are higher than those in other areas of the state, suggesting that hydraulic fracturing has opened up new pathways for the carcinogenic gas to enter people’s homes, according to a study published on Thursday. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer worldwide.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University analyzed radon readings taken in some 860,000 buildings, mostly homes, from 1989 to 2013 and found that those in rural and suburban areas where most shale gas wells are located had a concentration of the cancer-causing radioactive gas that was 39 percent higher overall than those in urban areas.

It also found that buildings using well water had a 21 percent higher concentration of radon than those served by municipal water systems.

And it showed radon levels in active gas-drilling counties rose significantly starting in 2004 when the state’s fracking boom began.

Overall, 42 percent of the buildings analyzed had radon concentrations at over 4 picocuries per liter, the level at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends remediation, and which is about three times the national average for indoor air. According to the EPA, there are about 21,000 radon-related lung cancers per year in the U.S.

The new study was based on data collected from the DEP which requires the reporting of radon tests, many of which are done when houses are bought or sold. The project was conducted with the Geisinger Health System, and is the first part of a long-term investigation of the health effects of unconventional gas development being done by Geisinger, based in Danbury, northeastern Pennsylvania.

But the study, titled “Predictors of Indoor Radon Concentrations in Pennsylvannia 1989-2013,” released today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, a publication put out by the National Institutes of Health, contradicts a report released by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in January.  Continue Reading

Pipelines: The new battleground over fracking

Crews from weld a pipeline connecting to a natural gas well in the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Crews weld a pipeline connecting to a natural gas well in the Loyalsock State Forest.

Forget the battles over the Keystone XL. Pipeline wars are now raging in Pennsylvania, where production is high and pipeline capacity is low. Marcellus Shale gas has the potential to alter the landscape of the global energy market. But right now a shortage of pipelines to get gas from the gas fields to consumers has energy companies eager to dig new trenches.  And activists opposed to more drilling see pipeline proposals as the new battleground over fracking.

Pennsylvania’s pipeline building boom could expand the nations’ and perhaps the world’s, supply of natural gas. And this boom includes an estimated 4,600 miles of new interstate pipes, tunneling under Pennsylvania’s farms, wetlands, waterways, and backyards. That’s on top of 6800 miles of existing interstate natural gas pipes, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Drillers eager to reach new markets are frustrated right now, because there’s just not enough room in the current pipeline system to transport their gas beyond regional markets.

That gas languishes and it builds up and now that price will drop,” said Rob Boulware, a spokesman for Seneca Resources. Continue Reading

Worker dies in accident at Sunoco’s Delaware County refinery

Sunoco Refinery

Emma Lee / WHYY

The Sunoco refinery in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating an accident at the Sunoco Logistics plant in Marcus Hook, which left one man dead. An OSHA spokesperson says the man worked for the engineering firm AECOM, a contractor at the site.

Sources told StateImpact the worker died from multiple blunt force injuries after a 1200 foot pylon fell on him.

A massive construction project at Sunoco Logistic’s Marcus Hook facility is converting the former oil refinery to a natural gas storage and processing plant. In addition to Sunoco employees, the project includes about 400 contract workers on site.

The worker, who has not been identified but sources say was in his 50′s, lived in New Jersey.

Sunoco Logistics spokesman Joseph McGinn confirmed that an accident killed a contract worker at the facility Monday afternoon.

“No words can express the sorrow and pain that come when such a tragic event happens,” McGinn wrote in an email. “Our deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends of the individual who died. They have suffered a devastating loss.”

Ed Mayer, a spokesman for AECOM, expressed sympathy for the family.

“We are tremendously saddened by the loss of one or our people,” wrote Mayer in an email. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, who have asked that their privacy be respected at this time.”

Mayer said the company is cooperating with the OSHA investigation and cannot provide details of the accident.

Clarification: This post has been updated with a statement from AECOM.

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