Energy. Environment. Economy.

Marie Cusick


Marie Cusick is StateImpact Pennsylvania's Harrisburg reporter at WITF. Her work regularly takes her throughout the state covering Marcellus Shale natural gas production. Marie first began reporting on the gas boom in 2011 at WMHT (PBS/NPR) in Albany, New York. A native Pennsylvanian, she was born and raised in Lancaster and holds a degree in political science and French from Lebanon Valley College. In 2014 Marie was honored with a national Edward R. Murrow award for her coverage of Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry.

Pipeline agency fails to explain how it assesses risk, prioritizes inspections

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office finds federal pipeline regulators were unable to document or explain their processes for assessing pipeline risk, and prioritizing safety inspections.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found federal pipeline regulators unable to document or explain their processes for assessing risk.

It’s unclear whether federal regulators are properly prioritizing safety inspections on the nation’s massive network of natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines, according to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Pipeline safety is overseen by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. With a safety staff of about 200 people covering 2.7 million miles of pipelines, PHMSA must pick and choose where it sends inspectors. Weld failures and corrosion are among the leading causes of significant incidents, according to the GAO.

In order to assess the risk of pipeline segments, PHMSA relies on data from pipeline companies and plugs it into its so-called, Risk Ranking Index Model (RRIM). Each year, the model produces a score which puts them into a high, medium, or low risk category—prompting inspections every three, five, or seven years, respectively.

But the GAO says PHMSA was unable to document or explain the rationale behind the RRIM model, and the agency has not used data to track its effectiveness. The situation is inconsistent with federal management principles, says the GAO.

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Construction begins on Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline

Site preparation of a compressor station in Columbia County

Courtesy: Williams

Site preparation of a compressor station in Columbia County.

Williams Partners has announced construction is officially underway on its multi-billion dollar Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, which is being built to connect Marcellus Shale gas in northeastern Pennsylvania to markets along the eastern seaboard.

“We are committed to installing this infrastructure in a safe, environmentally responsible manner and in full compliance with rigorous state and federal environmental permits and standards,” Micheal Dunn, Williams’ executive vice president and chief operating officer said in a press release. “Our construction personnel are experienced, highly-qualified professionals who have undergone extensive training to ensure that this important project is installed safely and responsibly.”

The company broke ground Friday on two new natural gas compressor stations in Orange Township, Columbia and Clinton Township ,Wyoming county. Work on the pipeline itself is expected to begin September 25. Once completed, the line will run underground, through 10 Pennsylvania counties: Columbia, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Clinton and Lycoming.

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Conflicting decisions on pipelines frustrate industry, landowners


Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Hundreds of Cathy Holleran's maple trees were cut down, through the use of eminent domain, for an interstate natural gas pipeline that's now stalled.

In March 2016, workers for one of the nation’s largest natural gas pipeline companies cut down a large swath of maple trees in Susquehanna County–a rural patch of northeastern Pennsylvania. A video shot by an activist shows the trees crashing down as chainsaws buzz.

Cathy Holleran was powerless to stop it. At the time, she was tapping the trees for her family’s maple syrup business, but the pipeline company condemned her land using the power of eminent domain.

Armed U.S. Marshals

Driving around a year-and-a half later, she’s still in disbelief. A court order had prevented her from interfering, and law enforcement officers came to protect the pipeline workers.

“We had to stay completely away. They brought armed U.S. Marshals with assault rifles and Pennsylvania State Police, and had guys walking all over property in bullet proof vests,” Holleran recalls. “I mean, really! We’re making syrup. What are we going to do? Are we going to go attack these guys?”

Walking through her property on a recent soggy September afternoon, Holleran finds tree stumps hidden beneath shoulder-high weeds.

“This used to all be woods– as thick as that,” she says, gesturing to a cluster of remaining trees.

By her count, she lost more than 550 maples, “I went through with my camera and took pictures from every angle and counted them by hand to make sure I was accurate.”

She says her family’s maple syrup business has been cut in half. But the real shame of it all, Holleran adds, is this may all have been for nothing.

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Landowners: Wolf suggested opening Delaware River Basin to gas drilling in 2015

In 2015 Wolf met with elected officials and landowners from Wayne County to discuss the moratorium on natural gas development in the Delaware River Basin.

Courtesy: Betty Sutliff

In 2015 Wolf met with elected officials and landowners from Wayne County to discuss the moratorium on natural gas development in the Delaware River Basin. Several people in the meeting say he offered to help them open up the region to drilling, if they would help him enact a severance tax.

Two years ago, Governor Tom Wolf reportedly told a group of pro-drilling landowners and elected officials he would try to help them end a moratorium on natural gas development in the Delaware River Basin, if they helped him pass a severance tax on drillers, according to several people who attended the meeting.

Such a position would be an about-face for the Democrat, who ran for office saying he would uphold the de-facto drilling moratorium that’s been in place in the basin since 2010. It has blocked Marcellus Shale development in Wayne and Pike counties. The Delaware River Basin Commission- which has been politically gridlocked for years– manages water in the basin and includes the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the federal government. The Delaware provides drinking water to more than 15 million people in those four states.

Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott says he has no reason to believe the governor made any such offer, and that he’s been consistent on his positions. The commission is meeting Wednesday to consider moving forward with a permanent ban on natural gas development.

“Governor Wolf is currently reviewing the Delaware River Basin Commission’s draft resolution,” Abbott writes in an email. “The governor has noted that any decision regarding the future of this shared resource must be made in concert with the other DRBC members.”

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House panel rebrands Marcellus ‘impact fee,’ now calling it ‘severance tax’

A House committee has approved changing the name of the "impact fee" paid by gas drillers.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A House committee has approved changing the name of the "impact fee" paid by gas drillers.

What’s in a name?

A lot, apparently, when it comes to Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry.

A state House committee voted along party lines Monday, to rebrand the impact fee levied on the state’s Marcellus Shale drillers, calling it a severance tax instead.

The two terms hardly seem interchangable: Impact fees are levied on a per-well basis, so each time drillers punch a hole in the ground, they pay. A “severance tax” is applied when resources are severed from the earth, so it would be a tax on the amount of gas produced.

When questioned about the difference, amendment sponsor Rep. John Maher (R-Allengheny) calls the terms, “artificial constructs.”

“This conversation needs to begin with the clear recognition there is a significant burden placed on that industry,” Maher says. “This would rechristen the ‘impact fee’ as a ‘severance tax.’”

The name change is viewed as a parliamentary maneuver by the GOP-led Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, which Maher chairs. The amendment aims to block a discharge resolution filed by Democrats that could have forced a vote on a 3.5 percent severance tax bill.

But House Democratic Caucus spokesman, Bill Patton, says the resolution remains in play.

“The rules are very clear, unless the bill has come out of the committee, the discharge resolution would still be order,” he says. “The committee did not report the bill out. They only made an amendment to it.”

He says Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai could restart the clock, by referring the bill to another committee.

“I think there’s enough bipartisan support for a severance tax, nothing is certain,” says Patton.

Passing the tax is a top priority for Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

In July, the Republican-led state Senate approved a separate plan to raise about $100 million with a severance tax.

Debate has raged in Harrisburg for nearly a decade over whether the industry is paying its fair share. The stakes remain high this year, as Pennsylvania faces a $2.2 billion budget hole.

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Sean Spicer to address Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer smiled as he departed the White House, Friday, July 21, 2017, in Washington.  He will deliver the closing keynote address at the annual Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer smiles as he departs the White House, Friday, July 21, 2017.

In what’s being billed as one of his first public appearances since leaving the Trump administration, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer will deliver the closing keynote address at the Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh later this month.

The annual event has brought thousands of representatives from the oil and gas industry to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh.

Last year President Donald Trump, then the Republican nominee, gave the closing keynote address and vowed to roll back environmental regulations in order to unleash the oil and gas industry’s full potential. Past speakers have included former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, former U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, and FOX News host Sean Hannity.

According to the agenda Spicer will discuss, “how we are poised to strengthen our nation’s geopolitical position, create manufacturing opportunities here at home and jobs for all Americans while continuing to protect our environment.”

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Gasoline price spikes caused by Harvey on par with Katrina

People watch heavy rain from the relative safety of a flooded gas station caused by  Tropical Storm Harvey on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

People watch heavy rain from the relative safety of a flooded gas station caused by Tropical Storm Harvey on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

The sharp uptick in gasoline prices across the country, caused by disruptions from Hurricane Harvey, is on par with what happened more than a decade ago during Hurricane Katrina, according to a new analysis from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

On Monday the average retail gasoline price in the U.S. was $2.68 per gallon– 28 cents per gallon higher than the previous week.

The EIA says supply disruptions and refinery outages caused by Hurricane Harvey were having an even larger impact on the East Coast, and the Gulf Coast, where, “gasoline prices are 39 cents/gal and 35 cents/gal higher, respectively, than they were a week ago, before the full effects of the storm were felt.”

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Overall methane emissions from shale industry rise, other air pollutants down

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.

Climate-damaging methane emissions, as well as volatile organic compounds from Pennsylvania’s shale gas industry are on the rise, while other harmful air pollutants have decreased, according to new data released Thursday by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The methane uptick is largely due to growth in the number of facilities filing reports, the agency says, while the average emission per facility is staying relatively level.

DEP’s latest data is from 2015 and is self-reported by the industry.

Releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) grew from 5,961 tons in 2014 to 6,410 tons in 2015. Methane emissions from the unconventional gas industry grew to 112,128 tons, up from 107,735 tons in the previous year.

That time period also saw natural gas production increase from 4.1 trillion cubic feet of gas in 2014 to 4.6 trillion cubic feet in 2015.

“The inventory presents a mixed picture of emissions from the unconventional natural gas industry” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell in a statement. “Certain pollutants are decreasing as best practices are implemented more widely through the industry, while others – including methane, a potent greenhouse gas -  continue to increase, underscoring the need to do more to detect and fix leaks in order to reduce emissions.”

Critics have argued the data does not capture an accurate picture and uses outdated methods. Methane is the main component of natural gas. Although it stays in the atmosphere for a shorter time period than carbon dioxide, it is dozens of times more powerful as a climate-warming greenhouse gas. VOCs come from a variety of sources and can lead to short and long-term adverse health effects.

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Pennsylvania natural gas production still growing, but pace has slowed

Pennsylvania natural gas production is still growing, but the pace has slowed significanty.

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

Pennsylvania natural gas production is still growing, but the pace has slowed significantly.

Natural gas production in Pennsylvania continues to grow, but its rate of growth has slowed significantly in recent years.

During the first six months of 2017 statewide natural gas production grew by about 3 percent, compared to the same time period in 2016, according to Matthew Knittel, director of Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office (IFO).

The IFO issues quarterly reports on natural gas production and also analyzes the revenue from the impact fees, which gas drillers pay on a per-well basis.

Knittel says for example, in 2012, when the IFO began tracking production, the growth rate was very strong. In 2013, statewide gas production grew by 52 percent. The following year it was up 31 percent.

He says that pace can’t be sustained forever. Natural gas wells tend to be most productive in the beginning and then dramatically taper off. So in order to keep production up, drillers need to keep putting in new wells to replace the older ones.

“The second item driving the dynamic is the fact that there’s a lot of wells that have been drilled that are in inventory and haven’t been produced,” says Knittel. “We believe producers are waiting for prices to recover in order to bring production back online.”

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DEP issues water permits for Atlantic Sunrise pipeline

The red lines show the  Atlantic Sunrise expansion. The light blue lines are the existing Transco system.

Courtesy: Williams

The red lines show the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline expansion. The light blue lines are the existing Transco system.

Pennsylvania environmental regulators approved key water permits for the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline Thursday, allowing construction to move forward on the natural gas transmission line.

The line is an expansion of the existing Transco system, which has over 10,000 miles of pipeline moving natural gas to other businesses, such as utility companies and power plants. The Atlantic Sunrise is designed to ship Marcellus Shale gas southward, from northeastern Pennsylvania to markets along the east coast, including an export terminal under construction in Maryland.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued so-called Chapter 105 and 102 permits, which are needed for water obstruction and encroachment, and erosion and sediment controls, respectively.

“DEP undertook a thorough review of these permit applications, and factored in thousands of comments from Pennsylvania residents,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell in a statement. “DEP’s technical staff reviewed the comments in evaluating the revised plans and final permit conditions that must be met throughout the construction process of this pipeline.” Continue Reading

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