As the Harrisburg reporter for StateImpact Pennsylvania, Marie Cusick covers energy and environmental issues for public radio stations statewide. She’s also part of NPR’s energy and environment team, which coordinates coverage between the network and select member station reporters around the country. Her work frequently airs on NPR shows including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
Since 2012, Marie has closely followed the political, social, and economic effects of Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom. Her work has been recognized at the regional and national levels– honors include a Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists and a national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Before joining StateImpact, Marie was a multimedia reporter for WMHT in Albany, New York and covered technology for the station’s statewide public affairs TV show, New York NOW.
As state lawmakers continue to search for ways to plug an estimated billion-dollar budget hole, they are taking a renewed look at state agencies’ use of special funds, including money dedicated to environmental programs.
A House hearing scheduled for next week will examine how the state Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are using special funds. These include things like cleaning up industrial sites and recycling.
After years of yearning for the latest digital tools, the state Department of Environmental Protection was recently able to send its oil and gas inspectors out into the field with iPads. The change has cut down the time and tedium of filing paper reports.
Scott Perry, head of DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas Management, said inspectors are using a new app (created in conjunction with PennDOT) and said it has helped increase productivity — amounting to more than $500,000 annually, or about the cost of having six new inspectors.
The staff of the Office of Oil and Gas Management has been trending downward in recent years, however. It had 227 employees two years ago. It now has 190.
Holding an iPad up at a press conference Monday, Perry said the agency is accomplishing more with less.
“At a time when the agency is working under constrained resources, with an ever-expanding set of responsibilities, DEP should be commended for improving performance and accountability, while saving costs,” he said.
Workers at a hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County.
While fracking has created an economic boon for Pennsylvania and helped increase natural gas usage as a cleaner-burning energy source, it has also led to myriad environmental concerns–from water contamination to earthquakes.
Construction of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline in Lancaster County.
Federal regulators won’t revisit their decision to approve a major natural gas transmission pipeline through Pennsylvania.
In a December 6 order, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) denied a rehearing request by landowners, anti-pipeline activists, environmental groups, Native American tribes and the public service commissions of North Carolina and New York. They were challenging FERC’s approval of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.
Construction on the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline began in September. It is being built to carry Marcellus Shale gas from northeastern Pennsylvania southward to markets along the East Coast.
Exelon's Three Mile Island nuclear plant outside Harrisburg is slated to close in September 2019, 15 years before its operating license expires.
There are multiple efforts underway at the federal, state, and regional levels to try to boost the nuclear power industry. If they all materialize, Exelon might reverse its decision to close its Three Mile Island plant outside Harrisburg.
But the stars would have to align for that to happen, and time is running out.
Visiting Three Mile Island is like entering a fortress. There are heavily armed guards. Past a set of metal turnstiles, it feels a bit like an airport– bags go through an x-ray machine and visitors step into a body scanner.
Beyond the security checkpoint, there’s big banner with an American flag declaring that Three Mile Island is powering America’s future.
Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state in the country without a severance tax. It’s been a hot topic in Harrisburg for nearly a decade. Now, as the year winds down, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and Republican legislators look like they might get a deal done on a modest severance tax.
Capitol Reporter Katie Meyer and StateImpact Pennsylvania reporter Marie Cusick have more on how this is all playing out.
FILE: Governor Tom Wolf's deputy chief of staff Yesenia Bane, speaking at natural gas industry conference in 2016.
A complaint filed with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission alleges a senior aide to Governor Tom Wolf might have illegally blurred the lines between the public’s business and her own.
StateImpact Pennsylvania first reported a year ago that Wolf aide Yesenia Bane could be running afoul of state ethics law, when a review of her 2016 daily calendar showed she was regularly involved in meetings and travel related to her husband’s natural gas industry clients.
At the time her husband, John Bane, was a lobbyist for Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Harrisburg. Among his clients were gas driller EQT, refiner Philadelphia Energy Solutions, and pipeline company Williams. He joined EQT full time as a senior government relations manager in late 2016.
The ethics complaint was filed last week by Caroline Hughes, a Chester County resident. Last spring Hughes got involved with Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, a coalition of concerned citizens groups in suburban Philadelphia. She just recently learned about Ms. Bane’s potential conflicts of interest and decided to file the complaint.
“The ethics law is very clear. I’ll let the commission make the conclusion, but there is a strong argument this is worthy of an investigation,” Hughes said. “As [Bane] has positioned herself in meetings regarding energy initiatives and projects her husband and his clients can benefit from, she then benefits from that.”
Methane is the main component of natural gas. Compared to carbon dioxide, it’s much more potent as a climate-warming greenhouse gas, although it stays in the planet’s atmosphere for a shorter time period.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection says that starting in early 2018, drilling companies will have to use the best available technologies to prevent leaks at new well sites and midstream facilities. A separate package of new regulations for existing emission sources was supposed to be proposed over a year ago, but the DEP missed that self-imposed deadline and won’t give a new one.
Because those regulations on existing infrastructure would take years to go into effect, Joe Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, calls the overall plan to cut methane pollution “painfully slow.”
“The politics in Pennsylvania are not very supportive of regulating the gas industry,” says Minott. “It’s really up to the [Wolf] administration to explain it, but I think they wanted to move extremely cautiously. They couldn’t move any more cautiously than this. But it is moving, and that is good.”