Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

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.

A new year, a new round of gas severance tax proposals

As a new legislative session gets underway in Harrisburg, lawmakers are once again hoping the Marcellus Shale industry will help solve the state's fiscal woes.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

As a new legislative session gets underway in Harrisburg, lawmakers are again hoping the Marcellus Shale industry will help solve the state's fiscal woes.

State lawmakers are back in Harrisburg this week, and not surprisingly, they’re looking at levying new taxes on Marcellus Shale natural gas drillers.

As StateImpact Pennsylvania has previously reported, this tax has been debated for years, as lawmakers of both political parties have looked to the gas industry to help alleviate the state’s fiscal woes. This year, Pennsylvania is projected to come up at least $600 million short in revenue, on top of a nearly $2 billion structural deficit.

But with some legislators loath to raise taxes of any kind, and an aggressive lobbying campaign by the industry, the gas tax has gone virtually nowhere. Pennsylvania remains the only major energy-producing state that doesn’t levy a tax on extraction. Instead, drillers pay an impact fee for every well. So far these fees have brought in about $200 million a year, with most of the money going back to the counties and municipalities with the most wells.

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Northeastern Pa. counties align to fight royalty abuses

A drill rig in Lycoming County.

Tim Lambert / WITF-FM

Several counties in northeastern Pennsylvania are looking into forming a strategic alliance to pressure lawmakers to change the state's oil and gas royalty law.

Several counties in northeastern Pennsylvania have begun exploring the idea of forming a strategic alliance to pressure the state legislature to change oil and gas royalty law.

The move follows years of allegations by landowners, who say some drilling companies are cheating them out of royalty money. Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko (R) estimates it’s amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars flowing out of local communities.

“The royalty issue is huge. It’s hurting a lot of local businesses,” he says. “As a region, we produce more gas than a small foreign country does. This is about how we can join together, when we have a state legislature that really ignores rural Pennsylvania.”

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Trump ‘worst possible scenario’ for climate, says Penn State scientist

Dr. Mann speaking at the EcoAmerica Climate Leadership Conference in September 2016.

Courtesy: Michael Mann

"I couldn't have outlined anything more bleak than what we've seen," Dr. Mann says of Trump's election.

Dr. Michael E. Mann is a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University and one of the most vocal advocates for climate action within the scientific community.

His latest book, with Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles, is called, “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.”

Mann recently sat down with StateImpact Pennsylvania to talk about the death threats he’s received over the years, his views the natural gas boom, and his concerns about Donald Trump.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve been in the cross-hairs of this public debate for a long time. What are you expecting from the incoming Trump administration?

A: If you’d asked me a year ago, ‘What’s the worst possible scenario that might play out in the election when it comes to U.S. action on climate?’ I couldn’t have outlined anything much more bleak than what we’ve seen. We’ve had the election of a president who is on record as a climate change denier and has appointed other climate change deniers to key posts.

Scott Priutt, who’s been appointed to EPA, has sued the EPA in the past over their efforts to act on climate change. Rick Perry, who has been appointed to the Department of Energy, said he would eliminate [the department]. He’s on record dismissing even the fact that the globe is warming. There’s an overwhelming consensus among the world’s scientists that human actions—the burning of fossil fuels—is responsible.

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Lancaster County pipeline opponents prepare for encampments

About 200 people gathered in southern Lancaster County Sunday and ceremonially burned the final environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline. In the document, federal regulators had concluded the project would not create significant environmental harm.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

About 200 people gathered in southern Lancaster County Sunday and ceremonially burned the final environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline. In the document, federal regulators had concluded the project would not create significant environmental harm.

Anti-pipeline activists in Lancaster County are preparing to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to block a proposed natural gas transmission line.

The group Lancaster Against Pipelines is spearheading the effort. Activists have built two wooden structures near Conestoga, which they intend to occupy if and when crews begin work on the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.

Williams, the Oklahoma-based company behind the project, expects to receive final approval from federal regulators within weeks. The pipeline recently cleared a major regulatory hurdle, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued its final environmental impact statement (EIS), and found the pipeline would not create significant environmental harm.

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Gas industry talks pipelines, bird flu, at the Farm Show

On Wednesday PennAg Industries and Sunoco Logistics unveiled a new online training tool designed to raise awareness about threats like the avian flu.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

On Wednesday PennAg Industries and Sunoco Logistics unveiled a new online training tool designed to raise awareness about threats like the avian flu.

Pennsylvania’s natural gas pipeline building boom is happening mostly in rural areas, which is one of the reasons representatives from the oil and gas industry were at the 101st Farm Show in Harrisburg this week.

They kept a relatively low profile though, and tried connect with farmers– about issues ranging from eminent domain, to stopping the spread of the avian flu. Two forums were held, and although they took place inside the Farm Show complex, they were sparsely attended and neither appeared on the official schedule.

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Under proposal, DEP would lose control of revenue from drilling penalties

Senator Scott Hutchinson

Senator Scott Hutchinson

A Republican state senator wants the legislature, rather than state environmental regulators, to control the money generated by oil and gas violations in Pennsylvania.

Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R- Venango) recently sent out a co-sponsorship memo seeking support for new legislation.

He sees it as a separation of powers issue.

“Traditional legislative powers have drifted toward the executive branch,” he says. “I’m just starting with oil and gas, but I feel like this about a lot of other programs. The fines should run through the general fund. Why shouldn’t the legislature decide how much is spent?”

He believes the state Department of Environmental Protection could be motivated to levy larger penalties, to support its own existence. However he says he has no proof that’s occurring.

“If you’re having a rough fiscal year, you bump the fines up. That’s possible,” he says. “People say the same thing about the State Police and speeding fines. It’s an incentive that seems to be there. I think we should remove that. Violators will feel they’re being looked at more objectively.”

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Pa. environmental groups join forces to increase advocacy

A view of the Pine Creek in Lycoming County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Two Pennsylvania environmental groups plan to work more closely.

Two of Pennsylvania’s leading environmental groups are forming a new strategic alliance in response to what they call an “unprecedented anti-environmental political climate at the federal and state levels.”

PennFuture and the Conservation Voters of PA will combine policy, advocacy, and legal resources to mobilize voters around environmental issues and hold lawmakers accountable.

Conservation Voters of PA has staff of five, and will remain a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization with an affiliated PAC. PennFuture has a staff of 20 and is a 501(c)(3) organization, which bars it from participating in elections. But PennFuture President and CEO Larry Schweiger says the alliance builds on a model other organizations have used in other states.

“We have to be very clear about where the money comes from and how it’s spent,” says Schweiger. “But this gives us room to participate.”

Conservation Voters of PA Executive Director Josh McNeil says scaling up is the primary goal.

“The environmental fights at the state and federal level are massive. We’re talking about a systematic change towards clean energy and decades of work protecting clean air and clean water that are all at risk,” says McNeil. “We wanted to try to have a bigger impact on lawmakers and the state they’re supposed to be protecting.”

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Rep. Greg Vitali feels burned after losing committee assignment

Rep. Greg Vitali, right, argues with the Republican chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in April 2016.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Rep. Greg Vitali (D- Delaware), right, arguing with the Republican chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in April 2016.

2017 hasn’t gotten off to a great start for state Rep. Greg Vitali (D- Delaware).

The outspoken environmental advocate learned Thursday he would no longer serve as Democratic chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy committee. Instead, Vitali was reassigned to chair the State Government committee, a post he’s considering declining.

He views the move as punishment for repeatedly speaking his mind. Over the years he’s managed to ruffle feathers on both sides of the aisle.

“In some regards, I feel like John Quigley,” says Vitali, referring to the former state environmental secretary, who left amid controversy over an angry email. “He devoted his life to environmental policy. He incurred the ire of those he spoke out against, and he was gone.”

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DEP revising erosion and sediment control permits for oil and gas

The DEP is questioning the efficacy of its "expedited review process" for oil and gas permits relating to erosion and sediment control.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

An internal DEP audit raises questions about the efficacy of its expedited review process for erosion and sediment control permits relating to oil and gas development.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is updating the way it handles erosion and sediment control permits related to oil and gas development.

A recent internal audit by the department raises questions about the efficacy of its expedited permit review process, which was established in 2012, and allows under certain conditions, a 14-business-day review for an erosion and sediment control general permit. This kind of permit is needed before any oil and gas activities requiring five or more acres of earth disturbance can begin.

The main problem, according to the audit, is the majority of the applications DEP receives aren’t eligible, because they don’t meet necessary criteria or are technically deficient.

“We have an overarching goal to evaluate all permits in an efficient manner and in a timely way,” says Scott Perry, DEP’s deputy secretary for oil and gas management. “The audit revealed the expedited permit review program, as it currently exists, is not really fulfilling that goal. We have a significant number of permits that come as ‘expedited,’ and they don’t qualify.”

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Atlantic Sunrise pipeline clears major regulatory hurdle

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

Courtesy: Williams

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

Federal regulators say a large natural gas transmission line planned to run through parts of central Pennsylvania will create limited environmental impacts.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) released its final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposed Atlantic Sunrise pipeline Friday.

The Atlantic Sunrise is a $3 billion expansion of the Transco system. It’s designed to move Marcellus Shale gas from Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania as far south as Alabama and to the Cove Point export terminal on the Chesapeake Bay.

“We determined that construction and operation of the project would result in some adverse environmental impacts,” FERC staff writes. “But impacts would be reduced to less-than-significant levels with the implementation of Transco’s proposed and our recommended mitigation measures.”

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