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, environmental, 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. Previously, 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. In 2018, she became StateImpact’s first FAA-licensed drone pilot.

Proposed bill takes ‘principled position’: By 2050, Pennsylvania should use only renewable energy

Wind turbines along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Courtesy: Pennsylvania Turnpike Comission

Wind turbines along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

A bipartisan group of state legislators want Pennsylvania to aim for 100 percent renewable energy by the middle of this century.

Identical bills introduced in the House and Senate would create a new task force and a center for clean energy excellence, with the goal of having all of Pennsylvania’s needs met by renewable energy by the year 2050. The aim is to avert the worst effects of climate change.

David Masur of the advocacy group PennEnvironment is backing measure, but he acknowledges it’s unlikely to pass the GOP-led legislature anytime soon.

“I don’t think the proposal will get done this session,” he said. “But every great social change movement, to tackle any major problem, has been when someone takes the principled position and starts that conversation.”

Spokespeople for the House and Senate Republican caucuses did not respond to requests for comment on the bills.

At a news conference Wednesday, Rep. Christopher Rabb (D- Philadelphia) said Pennsylvania has a moral responsibility to address global warming. He is the prime sponsor of the House bill, which includes 32 other Democratic co-sponsors and one Republican.

“The vast majority of scientists agree: climate change is real. And you don’t have to be a scientist to notice its effects,” Rabb said. “We’ve seen so many weather extremes in recent years, including hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Maria. Those last three all happened just last year.”

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Five takeaways from StateImpact’s forum on gas royalties

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StateImpact Pennsylvania hosted an educational forum Monday in Towanda, Bradford County to examine how Pennsylvania and other major energy-producing states are dealing with disputes of oil and gas royalties.

Many Pennsylvania mineral owners have complained they are not being paid fairly. The controversy has led to class action lawsuits and ongoing litigation by the state Attorney General’s Office. Landowners have accused gas companies of abuses including charging exorbitant fees, misreporting the sale price of gas and volume produced, and failing to adhere to lease language.

Much of the issue revolves around so-called “post production costs”, which are the expenses gas companies incur when they move and process gas from wells to the market. These costs can be passed along to landowners and show up as deductions from monthly royalty checks.

Speakers during the two-hour event at Towanda Area High School included Owen L. Anderson, a professor and distinguished oil and gas scholar at the University of Texas, Jackie Root, the head of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Royalty Owners, and David Fine, an attorney with K&L Gates in Harrisburg who represented two gas companies in a state court ruling about royalties that was favorable to the industry.

Here are a few takeaways: Continue Reading

After alert on Russian hacking, a renewed focus on protecting U.S. power grid

A view of the PJM  control room. The grid operator, based outside Philadelphia is the nation's largest.

courtesy of PJM

A view of the PJM control room. The grid operator, based outside Philadelphia is the nation's largest.

The joint alert from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security last month warning that Russia was hacking into critical U.S. energy infrastructure came as no surprise to the nation’s largest grid operator, PJM Interconnection.

“You will never stop people from trying to get into your systems. That isn’t even something we try to do.” said PJM Chief Information Officer, Tom O’Brien. “People will always try to get into your systems. The question is, what controls do you have to not allow them to penetrate? And how do you respond in the event they actually do get into your system?”

PJM is the regional transmission organization for 65 million people, covering 13 states, including Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C.

On a rainy day in early April, about 10 people were working inside PJM’s main control center, outside Philadelphia, closely monitoring floor-to-ceiling digital displays showing real-time information from the electric power sector throughout PJM’s territory in the mid-Atlantic and parts of the midwest.

Donnie Bielak, a reliability engineering manager, was overseeing things from his office, perched one floor up.

“This is a very large, orchestrated effort that goes unnoticed most of the time,” Bielak said. “That’s a good thing.”

But the industry certainly did take notice in late 2015 and early 2016, when hackers successfully disrupted power to the Ukrainian grid. The outages lasted a few hours and affected about 225,000 customers. It was the first publicly-known case of a cyber attack causing major disruptions to a power grid. It was widely blamed on Russia.

One of the many lessons of the Ukraine attacks was a reminder to people who work on critical infrastructure to keep an eye out for odd communications.

“A very large percentage of entry points to attacks are coming through emails,” O’Brien said. “That’s why PJM, as well as many others, have aggressive phishing campaigns. We’re training our employees.”

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Bill would roll back standards on conventional oil and gas drillers

Kimberly Paynter/Newsworks.org

Conventional drilling, unlike drilling for the Marcellus Shale, does not go as deep into the ground.

A new bill in the state senate seeks to roll back environmental requirements on Pennsylvania’s conventional oil and gas industry, alleviating what its sponsor calls the “unbearable burden” of tougher standards targeted at larger, Marcellus Shale drillers.

The measure marks the latest move in a protracted legal and political battle over how to regulate the state’s oil and gas industry. SB 1088 was introduced in March by Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R- Butler) and is now before the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Conventional operators tend to be smaller companies that drill shallower oil and gas wells. They have long complained they’ve been unfairly thrust into a regulatory scheme targeted at major corporations that drill deeper, Marcellus wells.

In 2012 the state passed Act 13, a major overhaul of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas law. At the time, the law had not seen significant changes since 1984, despite technological advances in the industry. Act 13 placed new environmental requirements on both conventional and Marcellus drillers.

Environmental groups say the proposed standards in SB 1088 are in some ways weaker than Pennsylvania’s original 1984 Oil and Gas Act.

“There’s a lot of problems with the current language we see,” said Rob Altenburg, of the environmental group PennFuture. “We have an environmental rights amendment in the state constitution that requires the state government to act as a trustee for natural resources. This bill really disregards that provision, almost entirely.”

In a letter Wednesday to the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, the Environmental Defense Fund and Pennsylvania Environmental Council called SB 1088 a “wholesale weakening of necessary protection standards … that are accepted common practice in the industry and other oil and gas producing states.”

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Environmental regulators seeking public input on new shale permits

Methane leaks throughout the entire process of developping natural gas-- from wells and storage sites, to processing facilities and pipelines.

Methane leaks throughout the entire process of developping natural gas-- from wells and storage sites, to processing facilities and pipelines.

Pennsylvania environmental regulators put a call out Friday for the public to weigh in on their draft final general permits to address methane emissions from new Marcellus Shale well sites and other natural gas facilities.

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. It leaks throughout the entire process of developing natural gas — from drilling wells to storing it, and transporting it through pipelines.

The 45-day public comment period closes May 15. The permits will only apply to new emission sources. A separate package of new regulations for existing emission sources was supposed to be proposed in 2016, but the DEP has yet to introduce the rules.

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Poll: Most Pennsylvania voters say climate change causing problems now

The Svínafellsjökull glacier in Iceland. Glacial retreat is among the most highly visible impacts of climate change. Since the early twentieth century, with few exceptions, glaciers around the world have been retreating at unprecedented rates.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The Svínafellsjökull glacier in Iceland has retreated dramatically in recent years, revealing a visible sign of the changing climate. Since the early twentieth century, with few exceptions, glaciers around the world have been retreating at unprecedented rates. The melting ice contributes to global sea level rise.

A majority of Pennsylvania voters agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is causing problems right now, and more than two-thirds say the state should be doing more to address it, according to a Franklin & Marshall College/StateImpact Pennsylvania poll released Thursday.

Climate reality

Party affiliation and political ideology continue to play a big role in people’s views, according to Berwood Yost, director of F&M’s Center for Opinion Research.

“Democrats and independents are much more likely to believe climate change is happening,” Yost said. “But the truth is, a majority of Republicans do believe climate change is real.”

Almost two-thirds of Republicans in the survey said climate change is causing problems now, or will at some point.

The survey was conducted over the phone and online, depending on the respondent’s preference, from March 19 through 26, and sampled 423 registered voters from across the state. The margin of error is plus or minus 6.8 percent.

The survey included a wide range of questions on issues and political office-holders and candidates. StateImpact partnered with F&M to include 13 questions on the energy-related issues of climate change and natural gas development.

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Only five percent of respondents said they do not believe climate change is occurring. Twelve percent said the sharp rise in global temperatures will never create any serious problems, while 17 percent said problems won’t happen until sometime in the future.

Among those who agree climate change is happening, 39 percent said they have personally experienced problems linked to the warming. More than two-thirds of respondents (69 percent) said Pennsylvania should pursue policies that support renewable energy over fossil fuels.

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Among states, Pennsylvania is the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Although Governor Tom Wolf campaigned on a platform to address climate change, he has been criticized by environmental groups for failing to follow through on concrete steps to curb emissions.

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Nuns raise large cross next to Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline

A group of Catholic nuns in Lancaster County held a Palm Sunday service in protest against the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline and erected a large cross on the construction site.

About 60 people attended the service and prayed with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. Last year the nuns filed a lawsuit against the pipeline company, Williams, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, alleging the project violated their religious freedom, which is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

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Report: Severance tax proposal could cost mineral owners millions

FILE PHOTO: This 2011 file photo shows a farmhouse in the background framed by pipes connecting pumps where the hydraulic fracturing process in the Marcellus Shale layer to release natural gas was underway at a site in Claysville, Pa.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: This 2011 file photo shows a farmhouse in the background framed by pipes connecting pumps where the hydraulic fracturing process in the Marcellus Shale layer to release natural gas was underway at a site in Claysville, Pa.

A new analysis published Thursday by Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office estimates mineral owners could wind up losing tens of millions of dollars in natural gas royalties if Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed severance tax becomes law.

The administration says the report has it wrong because it doesn’t take into account a key detail in Wolf’s proposal. On Friday, the IFO added a footnote acknowledging that detail, but it did not amend its report.

The calculation was requested by state Sen. Lisa Baker (R- Luzerne), who asked the IFO to examine how a potential severance tax could affect the post-production costs many landowners already see gas companies deducting from their monthly royalty checks.

“States that levy a natural gas gas severance tax allow those costs to be treated like a post-production cost,” IFO director Matthew Knittel wrote.

Post-production costs are the expenses of moving natural gas from the wellhead to the market. Some Pennsylvania landowners allege the costs are exorbitant and leave them with little to no royalty money. The controversy has spurred lawsuits and proposed legislation. Earlier this month, West Virginia passed a new law prohibiting gas and oil companies from deducting post-production expenses in certain types of leases.

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Mariner East pipeline problems take center stage at state Senate hearing

From left to right: Melissa DiBernadino, Goshen United for Public Safety, Rebecca Britton, Uwchlan Safety Coalition, and Andrew Williams, EDF testified at a joint senate hearing Tuesday.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

From left to right: Melissa DiBernadino, Goshen United for Public Safety, Rebecca Britton, Uwchlan Safety Coalition, and Andrew Williams, Environmental Defense Fund, testified Tuesday at a joint senate hearing on pipeline safety.

A joint state senate hearing Tuesday was ostensibly about the broad topic of “pipeline safety,” but ended up focusing almost entirely on Sunoco’s embattled Mariner East project – a series of natural gas liquids pipelines spanning the southern portion of Pennsylvania.

As StateImpact Pennsylvania has reported, the project has faced numerous problems, including construction delays, legal challenges, and environmental violations.

The hearing, which lasted more than two hours, was held by the state senate Environmental Resources and Energy and the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure committees.

Rebecca Britton of the Chester County-based Uwchlan Safety Coalition lives near the lines and was among those testifying. She urged the committees to pass legislation expanding the state’s regulatory oversight of pipelines, noting that in the event of a leak, the natural gas liquids in the pipeline would become a colorless, odorless, highly flammable gas that citizens have been advised to run away from on foot.

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Jessup frustrated with DEP response to yellow smoke, health complaints at gas power plant

Pennsylvania environmental regulators are investigating health complaints after the Invenergy natural gas power plant in Jessup Pa. began spewing plumes of smoke this week. The company says the emissions are temporary and part of a planned commissioning process.

Photo Courtesy: Jerry Crinella

The Invenergy natural gas power plant in Jessup Pa. began spewing plumes of smoke in early March, prompting health complaints from nearby residents. The company says the emissions are temporary and part of a planned commissioning process.

Residents of Jessup say they are not satisfied with the response from the state Department of Environmental Protection, after a new natural gas power plant spewed yellow-colored smoke and prompted health complaints earlier this month.

The Invenergy plant being built in Lackawanna County started emitting noxious smoke on March 3. According to Jessup Borough Council President Jerry Crinella, DEP sent two people to investigate on March 6, but after they walked around, they said they couldn’t see or smell anything.

“I’m disappointed concerned citizens are not getting the information they’re asking for. We want to know what the readings were from the air monitors,” Crinella said. “The DEP is supposed to be there to protect the public, not the company.”

DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly declined to discuss the incident, and instead sent emailed statements.

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