Pennsylvania

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Marie Cusick

Reporter

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.

Amid criticism, utility regulator walks back ‘jihad’ remark

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson.

Pa. PUC

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson.

One of Pennsylvania’s top utility regulators is walking back controversial remarks he made about pipeline opponents at a gas industry conference this week.

Speaking at the Upstream PA conference Tuesday, state Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson said people opposing pipeline projects are engaged in a “jihad” to keep natural gas from reaching new markets.

He now says using the word was inappropriate.

“I used the word “jihad” while characterizing the actions of individuals who have engaged in threatening or disruptive behavior: interrupting public meetings, preventing officials from speaking, harassing federal and state regulators along with their families, and otherwise attempting to halt the public discussion about important infrastructure projects,” Powelson writes in an emailed statement. “In retrospect, that was an inappropriate choice of words.”

Powelson is reportedly being considered by President Donald Trump for an appointment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has oversight of interstate energy projects. Last year activists showed up at FERC commissioners homes to protest their approvals of pipelines.

On Thursday, Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council called for Powelson’s resignation.

“Mr. Powelson used a racially charged term, ‘jihad,’ to not only appeal to the natural gas representatives in the audience, but also to the Trump administration which he is hoping to work for as a commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” Clean Air Council executive director Joe Minott said in a statement.

“It is just unacceptable that a regulator would have such disregard for public concern,” says Minott.

Others echoed similar concerns and accused Powelson of bias.

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New online tool will track oil and gas operations

A natural gas site in Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

A natural gas site in Susquehanna County.

Pennsylvania has launched a new online tool to make it easier for the public to review documents submitted by the unconventional oil and gas industry. The change is part of a broader push from the Department of Environmental Protection to upgrade its technological capabilities. Last month, the agency’s oil and gas inspectors received iPads, after years using paper and clipboards.

The new electronic document submission tool allows the public to quickly search for documents related to oil and gas operations, including well records and waste reports. The department says 26 operators have already electronically filed close to 900 documents.

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Utility regulator slams pipeline opponents

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson hopes to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

One of Pennsylvania’s top utility regulators says people opposing pipeline projects are engaged in a “jihad” to keep natural gas from reaching new markets.

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson was speaking to gas industry representatives Tuesday at the Upstream PA conference in State College.

“The jihad has begun,” he told the audience. “At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission groups actually show up at commissioners homes to make sure we don’t get this gas to market. How irresponsible is that?”

Powelson, a Republican, has served on the PUC since 2008. He’s reportedly being considered by the Trump administration for an appointment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The independent agency oversees the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil. It’s supposed to have five commissioners, but following a resignation last month, it only has two — not enough for the required quorum to make decisions.

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Trump’s EPA cuts would endanger Pennsylvanians, says environmental chief

The Trump administration wants to drastically reduce the size of the Environmental Protection Agency.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Trump administration wants to drastically reduce the size of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The state’s top environmental regulator is warning his federal counterpart that proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency would have an “immediate and devastating effect” in Pennsylvania.

On Thursday the Trump administration released a budget blueprint which seeks to cut roughly a third of the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget – some $2.6 billion.

In a sharply-worded letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Acting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell describes the cuts as showing, “the Trump administration’s disregard for its responsibility to protect the health and safety of American citizens.”

The DEP relies on the federal government for about a third of its funding. Much of the state’s work involves enforcing federal environmental laws, like the Safe Drinking Water Act. The department is already strained by significant staffing shortages, and has seen its state funding decline by 40 percent over the past decade.

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DEP staffer behind contested mining permit had worked for coal company

Ryerson Station State Park

Courtesy: Center for Coalfield Justice

Late last year the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved a controversial coal permit under Ryerson Station State Park. The DEP staffer who reviewed the permit used data he'd collected on behalf of the coal company in his decision to approve it.

A judge has raised concerns over how the state Department of Environmental Protection handled a controversial mining permit under a western Pennsylvania state park. Court records show the agency’s approval of the Consol Energy permit partially relied on data collected by a DEP staffer who had previously done consulting work for Consol.

Two environmental groups challenged the permit allowing Consol to mine under a stream in a Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park late last year. In a rare move, the state Environmental Hearing Board sided with the groups.

In his opinion, Judge Steven Beckman questions the role of Jeffery Thomas, a licensed professional geologist with DEP’s California District Mining Office. Before joining DEP in July 2015, Thomas testified he’d worked for Moody & Associates environmental consulting firm for 11 years. Some of his work there was on behalf of Consol’s Bailey Mine. Thomas then said he used data he’d collected as a consultant to later evaluate Consol’s permit application to DEP for that same mine.

Judge Beckman notes he found it “extremely surprising” DEP management allowed this situation to occur.

“It is inherently difficult to be fully objective in reviewing data that you collected on behalf of a permit applicant,” writes Beckman. “We question the wisdom of assigning a department employee to review his own data collected on behalf of a permit applicant, as part of the process of determining whether to issue a permit.”

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Reports: Trump considers PUC Commissioner Powelson for federal post

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson.

Pa. PUC

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson.

Multiple news outlets are reporting President Donald Trump is considering tapping Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert F. Powelson for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The five member independent commission oversees the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil. Since February it’s had three vacancies and is unable to advance projects without a quorum.

Bloomberg also reports Trump intends to nominate Jones Day attorney Kevin McIntyre as FERC chairman, and Neil Chatterjee, the senior energy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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Environmental chief warns of ‘significant’ staffing shortages

Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Acting Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell warned legislators Thursday that he's dealing with significant staffing shortages after years of budget cuts to the agency.

Pennsylvania’s top environmental regulator warns his agency is dealing with significant staffing shortages, following years of shrinking funding from the state. His comments come amid reported plans by the Trump administration to drastically cut the EPA’s budget. Such a move could devastate the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which heavily relies on federal money.

“We need more money. That’s the fundamental challenge,” says Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell.

DEP is down to staffing levels not seen since the 1990′s. The agency currently has a staff of about 2,400 — nearly 800 fewer people than it had in 1995. Over the past decade, state funding declined by 40 percent.

At a budget hearing Thursday, Sen. John Yudichak (D- Luzerne) asked McDonnell if he was facing a staffing crisis.

“We have significant staffing issues in some of our programs,” McDonnell replied. “If there’s a mistake the department has made over the years– it’s managed cuts. We haven’t maybe managed what’s left. The discussion always revolves around the amount of money and the amount of people. I want to translate that back into the service provided those programs.”

Senators from both parties expressed concerns about DEP’s embattled water program. In late December, the EPA warned the agency that it was failing to enforce Safe Drinking Water Act standards. The failure could be grounds for the state losing primacy– and with it millions of federal dollars. In response, DEP announced plans to increase water permit fees. It hopes to raise $7.5 million and hire 33 new inspectors. But the process of implementing the fees could take up to three years.

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Pennsylvania launches program promoting solar energy

The state is launching a federally-funded program called "Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future."

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The state is launching a federally-funded program called "Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future."

The state Department of Environmental Protection is moving ahead with a 30-month program to kick-start a major solar energy initiative called Finding Pennsylvania’s Solar Future. Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell appeared on WITF’s Smart Talk Wednesday to discuss the program, which is funded by $550,000 from the federal Department of Energy.

Although less than one percent of Pennsylvania’s energy generation is currently derived from solar power, McDonnell says he wants the state to become a solar energy leader by 2030.

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Pipeline protesters face large fines over use of Lancaster County barn

Pipeline protesters face stiff fines for camping in a Lancaster County cornfield and using a former tobacco barn for meetings.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Pipeline protesters face stiff fines for camping in a Lancaster County cornfield and using a former tobacco barn for meetings.

Opponents of the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline say they’re being threatened and harassed by a Lancaster County municipality for allegedly misusing a barn as part of a protest encampment.

Condemnation notices placed on the Conestoga Township barn Monday cite zoning and building codes, which prohibit the farm from being used as an encampment and the use of the barn for non-agricultural purposes. The municipality is threatening fines of $1,000 per-day against the property owners, who have allowed dozens of protesters to pitch tents in a cornfield.

The barn has become something of a base of operations for the camp, where the activists hold meetings and training sessions on nonviolent direct action.

“This is clearly not about a genuine concern for the use of the barn,” says Tim Spiese of the group, Lancaster Against Pipeline. ”This appears to be an attempt to silence us and inhibit our ability to protest the pipeline.”

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After Standing Rock, pipeline fights continue around U.S.

Activist Tim Spiese talks with an Amish family who lives near the camp.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Activist Tim Spiese talks with an Amish family who live next to the pipeline encampment.

As authorities clear out the Dakota Access pipeline protest camp, battles have flared up in other states, including Pennsylvania, which has become a major hub of natural gas development. Anti-pipeline activists recently launched an encampment in Lancaster County, and they’ve been coordinating with groups around the country.

The Lancaster activists want to disrupt construction of the newly-approved Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline. They’re taking inspiration from Native Americans’ monthslong campaign in North Dakota.

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