Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Marie Cusick

Reporter

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.

Sunoco to resume work, pay $12.6 million for Mariner East 2 pipeline violations

Construction of Mariner East 2 in West Cornwall Township, Lebanon County.

Jon Hurdle / StateImpact PA

Construction of Mariner East 2 in West Cornwall Township, Lebanon County.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is issuing a $12.6 million civil penalty against Sunoco Pipeline, LLP  for permit violations related to the construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline project.

DEP suspended construction on the pipeline January 3 and directed the company to explain how it planned to prevent drilling mud spills – known as “inadvertent returns” – that have affected the project since construction began a year ago.

The pipeline, which spans the southern part of Pennsylvania, was designed to move natural gas liquids from western Pennsylvania to an export facility near Philadelphia– where the products are shipped to Europe for use in plastics manufacturing.

As a result of the penalty, DEP is allowing construction work to resume.

“A permit suspension is one of the most significant penalties DEP can levy,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a news release. “Our action to suspend the permits associated with this project, and the collection of this penalty, are indicative of the strict oversight that DEP has consistently exercised over this project.”

DEP said Sunoco has now demonstrated it can comply with the permit requirements, and regulators will be closely monitoring the work.

“It is a very large and complex project, with that, come a lot of challenges,” said DEP spokesman Neil Shader. “But we are going to continue our strict oversight.”

Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields says the company strongly disagrees with DEP’s legal conclusions that its conduct was “willful and egregious” but has decided against continued litigation.

“We are committed to fully complying with the DEP order, which includes following all permit requirements,” Shields wrote in an email. “Safety is paramount for any energy infrastructure project we do – the safety of the communities in which we work and operate, the safety of our employees, and the safety of the environment.”

Phil Stober, an organic farmer in Lebanon County who lives near the pipeline, was disappointed to hear the work is resuming.

“Our Pennsylvania government is not looking out for the long-term interests of the state,” he said. “A $12.6 million penalty is a drop in the bucket to Sunoco. I’m sure that’s in their budget before they even started. They know these accidents happen all the time.”

According to DEP, the $12.6 million will go to the Clean Water Fund and the Dams and Encroachments Fund. It is one of the largest civil penalties collected in a single settlement, the agency said.

Natural gas impact fee revenue expected to rise this year

After hitting a record low last year, natural gas impact fee revenue is expected to rise this year.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

After hitting a record low last year, natural gas impact fee revenue is expected to rise this year.

Pennsylvania is expected to bring in $46.1 million more this year from natural gas impact fees, according to an estimate published Wednesday by the state’s Independent Fiscal Office.

The IFO predicts the fees will raise $219.4 million — a nearly 27 percent increase from last year, when fee revenue hit a record low.

The IFO cites two reasons for the increase. The primary driver is an uptick in the average price of natural gas, which meant the fee schedule was adjusted upwards.

The fees, which companies pay each time they drill a well, are highest in the first year, and they can range from about $40,000 to $60,000 per well. As time goes by, the amounts decline – ending completely after 15 years. Without new drilling, older wells generate dwindling amounts of money. The IFO says 812 new wells drilled in 2017 helped offset reduced collections from older wells.

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Environmentalists want more action from Tom Wolf. More talk would be nice, too

Environmentalists say they would like to see more leadership from Governor Tom Wolf

FILE PHOTO: AP/Matt Rourke

Environmentalists say they would like to see more leadership from Governor Tom Wolf

Environmental groups are pushing Governor Tom Wolf to advocate more for green causes as the Democrat gears up for the final year of his first term and runs for reelection.

Wolf will deliver his fourth budget address Tuesday—the annual speech to the legislature that lays out his priorities.

Many environmentalists say his record, so far, has been disappointing.

Unmet potential

Joe Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, thinks Wolf has potential, but he hasn’t lived up to it yet.

“If I were a professor and he was my student, he would get an ‘incomplete’ at this point,” Minott said. “I don’t think he has an environmental win where he can proudly say, ‘Yes, I committed to doing this. I pushed it through the legislature, and now the environment is now better protected.’”

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Gov. Wolf doesn’t recall campaign pledge to join climate initiative

Gov. Tom Wolf said he could not remember a campaign pledge he made to join a regional effort to cap carbon emissions.

Tom Downing / WITF

FILE PHOTO: Gov. Tom Wolf doesn't remember a campaign pledge he made to join a regional effort to cap carbon emissions.

Governor Tom Wolf said Friday he never made a campaign pledge to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative —a market-based effort among northeastern states to limit carbon emissions.

“I don’t remember making that promise,” he said, following a news conference about oil and gas permitting changes. “In fact, I do remember I didn’t make that promise.”

In fact, he did. Joining RGGI was part of his campaign platform when he ran for governor in 2014. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Pennsylvania is the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide among states.

When asked why Pennsylvania hasn’t joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, he dismissed it as a symbolic gesture. The alliance is made up of a bipartisan group of 16 governors. It was formed in response to President Donald Trump’s decision earlier this year to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.

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Lawmakers question agencies’ use of special funds

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Dunn and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell answered questions at a  House hearing Thursday.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Dunn and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell answered questions at a House hearing Thursday.

As state lawmakers keep looking for ways to plug an estimated billion-dollar hole in Pennsylvania’s budget, they are scrutinizing state agencies’ use of special funds, which include money to promote environmental programs.

At a House Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday, legislators quizzed Patrick McDonnell and Cindy Dunn, who lead the state Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, respectively.

The special funds include things like cleaning up industrial sites and promoting recycling.

Last fall, House Republicans sought to use $450 million from state agencies’ special funds to help balance the budget. Although the attempt failed, the money is viewed as a potential surplus that could be diverted into the state’s General Fund.

Rep. Curtis Sonney (R- Erie) said he’d like more transparency from DEP and DCNR about how the special fund money is being committed.

“Anybody, when they see those fund balances, and see rather large sums of money in them—everybody’s gonna have that, ‘What the heck?’ moment,” he said.

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Hearing will scrutinize use of money in special environmental funds

Harrisburg Capitol

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

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.

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Pennsylvania Attorney General’s lawsuit over royalty payments advances

File photo. A Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site in Bradford County, PA.

Ralph Wilson / AP Photo

File photo. A Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site in Bradford County, PA.

A lawsuit is moving forward by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office alleging natural gas companies didn’t pay royalties to landowners as they’d promised.

Bradford County Common Pleas Court Judge Kenneth Brown denied the preliminary objections raised by the defendants, Chesapeake Energy and Anadarko Petroleum.

The lawsuit, filed in 2015, accuses the companies of violating the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, by promising landowners royalty money they never paid.

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DEP says iPads, plus a new app, mean staff can do more oil and gas inspections

Scott Perry, Deputy Secretary of DEP's Office of Oil and Gas Management holds up an iPad.

Marie / Cusick

Scott Perry, Deputy Secretary of DEP's Office of Oil and Gas Management holds up an iPad.

Pennsylvania regulators are slowly playing catch up when it comes to technology.

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.

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