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.

Protesters park cars to blockade Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline work site

Protesters parked cars along Witmer Road in Manor Township to block access to a work site for the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Protesters parked cars along Witmer Road in Manor Township to block access to a work site for the Atlantic Sunrise natural gas pipeline.

Anti-pipeline activists in Lancaster County formed a vehicle blockade Monday that temporarily obstructed access to a work site for the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline.

Protesters parked 16 cars along Witmer Road in Manor Township to impede workers’ access to a horizontal directional drill site where the pipeline builder, Williams, intends to install the line under the Conestoga River.

About 20 people from the group Lancaster Against Pipelines participated in the protest, which began shortly before 7am.

“The objective is to slow down this process and make everyone watching aware that this is not something the county wants, ” says Lori Ann Neumann. “We have been failed by our legislators, the courts, regulatory commissions.”

The group dispersed around 10am at the request of law enforcement. No one was arrested. Brett Hambright, a spokesman for the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office called the protesters, “cooperative and respectful.” Continue Reading

Former DEP official tapped to lead EPA regional office

A former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection regional director is under consideration to lead EPA's Region 3 Office, which oversees Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection regional director Cosmo Servidio is being tapped to lead the EPA's Region 3 Office, according to people familiar with the decision.

The Trump administration intends to name former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Southeast Regional Director Cosmo Servidio as head of EPA’s Region 3 office, according to two people familiar with the move.

Region 3 covers the Mid-Atlantic, encompassing Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Servidio was named DEP Southeast Regional Director in 2012 by former Republican Governor Tom Corbett. He abruptly resigned in October 2016. An agency spokesman declined to explain the reason for Servidio’s departure. It occurred a few months after the ouster of former DEP Secretary, John Quigley.

Neither Servidio nor the EPA responded to requests seeking comment Tuesday. Cecil Rodrigues is currently serving as Acting Administrator for Region 3.

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Police, protesters prepare for Atlantic Sunrise pipeline construction

Protesters gathered in January to ceremonially burn the environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Protesters gathered in January to ceremonially burn the environmental impact statement for the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline. More than 1,000 people have signed a pledge to use civil disobedience to disrupt the project, according to the group, Lancaster Against Pipelines.

Police are expected to have an almost constant presence in Lancaster County during construction later this month of the Atlantic Sunrise interstate natural gas pipeline.

Brett Hambright, of the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office says he’s hoping planned protests against the project are peaceful but, “we’re not naive to the point we think this would go absolutely smoothly and no feathers will be ruffled.”

The pipeline has been a lightning rod for controversy since it was first announced in 2014. Law enforcement agencies, including local and state police, have been meeting since the spring to coordinate.

The $3 billion line is part of a broader network of controversial new natural gas infrastructural projects being built throughout the Northeast to connect natural gas production in the Appalachian Basin to new markets within the U.S. and abroad.

“We’re not going to be out there trying to push people off land,” Hambright adds. “We’re not going to be looking to arrest.”

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Pipeline agency fails to explain how it assesses risk, prioritizes inspections

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office finds federal pipeline regulators were unable to document or explain their processes for assessing pipeline risk, and prioritizing safety inspections.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found federal pipeline regulators unable to document or explain their processes for assessing risk.

It’s unclear whether federal regulators are properly prioritizing safety inspections on the nation’s massive network of natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines, according to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Pipeline safety is overseen by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. With a safety staff of about 200 people covering 2.7 million miles of pipelines, PHMSA must pick and choose where it sends inspectors. Weld failures and corrosion are among the leading causes of significant incidents, according to the GAO.

In order to assess the risk of pipeline segments, PHMSA relies on data from pipeline companies and plugs it into its so-called, Risk Ranking Index Model (RRIM). Each year, the model produces a score which puts them into a high, medium, or low risk category—prompting inspections every three, five, or seven years, respectively.

But the GAO says PHMSA was unable to document or explain the rationale behind the RRIM model, and the agency has not used data to track its effectiveness. The situation is inconsistent with federal management principles, says the GAO.

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Construction begins on Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline

Site preparation of a compressor station in Columbia County

Courtesy: Williams

Site preparation of a compressor station in Columbia County.

Williams Partners has announced construction is officially underway on its multi-billion dollar Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, which is being built to connect Marcellus Shale gas in northeastern Pennsylvania to markets along the eastern seaboard.

“We are committed to installing this infrastructure in a safe, environmentally responsible manner and in full compliance with rigorous state and federal environmental permits and standards,” Micheal Dunn, Williams’ executive vice president and chief operating officer said in a press release. “Our construction personnel are experienced, highly-qualified professionals who have undergone extensive training to ensure that this important project is installed safely and responsibly.”

The company broke ground Friday on two new natural gas compressor stations in Orange Township, Columbia and Clinton Township ,Wyoming county. Work on the pipeline itself is expected to begin September 25. Once completed, the line will run underground, through 10 Pennsylvania counties: Columbia, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Clinton and Lycoming.

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Conflicting decisions on pipelines frustrate industry, landowners

Holleran

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Hundreds of Cathy Holleran's maple trees were cut down, through the use of eminent domain, for an interstate natural gas pipeline that's now stalled.

In March 2016, workers for one of the nation’s largest natural gas pipeline companies cut down a large swath of maple trees in Susquehanna County–a rural patch of northeastern Pennsylvania. A video shot by an activist shows the trees crashing down as chainsaws buzz.

Cathy Holleran was powerless to stop it. At the time, she was tapping the trees for her family’s maple syrup business, but the pipeline company condemned her land using the power of eminent domain.

Armed U.S. Marshals

Driving around a year-and-a half later, she’s still in disbelief. A court order had prevented her from interfering, and law enforcement officers came to protect the pipeline workers.

“We had to stay completely away. They brought armed U.S. Marshals with assault rifles and Pennsylvania State Police, and had guys walking all over property in bullet proof vests,” Holleran recalls. “I mean, really! We’re making syrup. What are we going to do? Are we going to go attack these guys?”

Walking through her property on a recent soggy September afternoon, Holleran finds tree stumps hidden beneath shoulder-high weeds.

“This used to all be woods– as thick as that,” she says, gesturing to a cluster of remaining trees.

By her count, she lost more than 550 maples, “I went through with my camera and took pictures from every angle and counted them by hand to make sure I was accurate.”

She says her family’s maple syrup business has been cut in half. But the real shame of it all, Holleran adds, is this may all have been for nothing.

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Landowners: Wolf suggested opening Delaware River Basin to gas drilling in 2015

In 2015 Wolf met with elected officials and landowners from Wayne County to discuss the moratorium on natural gas development in the Delaware River Basin.

Courtesy: Betty Sutliff

In 2015 Wolf met with elected officials and landowners from Wayne County to discuss the moratorium on natural gas development in the Delaware River Basin. Several people in the meeting say he offered to help them open up the region to drilling, if they would help him enact a severance tax.

Two years ago, Governor Tom Wolf reportedly told a group of pro-drilling landowners and elected officials he would try to help them end a moratorium on natural gas development in the Delaware River Basin, if they helped him pass a severance tax on drillers, according to several people who attended the meeting.

Such a position would be an about-face for the Democrat, who ran for office saying he would uphold the de-facto drilling moratorium that’s been in place in the basin since 2010. It has blocked Marcellus Shale development in Wayne and Pike counties. The Delaware River Basin Commission- which has been politically gridlocked for years– manages water in the basin and includes the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the federal government. The Delaware provides drinking water to more than 15 million people in those four states.

Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott says he has no reason to believe the governor made any such offer, and that he’s been consistent on his positions. The commission is meeting Wednesday to consider moving forward with a permanent ban on natural gas development.

“Governor Wolf is currently reviewing the Delaware River Basin Commission’s draft resolution,” Abbott writes in an email. “The governor has noted that any decision regarding the future of this shared resource must be made in concert with the other DRBC members.”

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House panel rebrands Marcellus ‘impact fee,’ now calling it ‘severance tax’

A House committee has approved changing the name of the "impact fee" paid by gas drillers.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

A House committee has approved changing the name of the "impact fee" paid by gas drillers.

What’s in a name?

A lot, apparently, when it comes to Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry.

A state House committee voted along party lines Monday, to rebrand the impact fee levied on the state’s Marcellus Shale drillers, calling it a severance tax instead.

The two terms hardly seem interchangable: Impact fees are levied on a per-well basis, so each time drillers punch a hole in the ground, they pay. A “severance tax” is applied when resources are severed from the earth, so it would be a tax on the amount of gas produced.

When questioned about the difference, amendment sponsor Rep. John Maher (R-Allengheny) calls the terms, “artificial constructs.”

“This conversation needs to begin with the clear recognition there is a significant burden placed on that industry,” Maher says. “This would rechristen the ‘impact fee’ as a ‘severance tax.’”

The name change is viewed as a parliamentary maneuver by the GOP-led Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, which Maher chairs. The amendment aims to block a discharge resolution filed by Democrats that could have forced a vote on a 3.5 percent severance tax bill.

But House Democratic Caucus spokesman, Bill Patton, says the resolution remains in play.

“The rules are very clear, unless the bill has come out of the committee, the discharge resolution would still be order,” he says. “The committee did not report the bill out. They only made an amendment to it.”

He says Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai could restart the clock, by referring the bill to another committee.

“I think there’s enough bipartisan support for a severance tax, nothing is certain,” says Patton.

Passing the tax is a top priority for Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

In July, the Republican-led state Senate approved a separate plan to raise about $100 million with a severance tax.

Debate has raged in Harrisburg for nearly a decade over whether the industry is paying its fair share. The stakes remain high this year, as Pennsylvania faces a $2.2 billion budget hole.

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Sean Spicer to address Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer smiled as he departed the White House, Friday, July 21, 2017, in Washington.  He will deliver the closing keynote address at the annual Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer smiles as he departs the White House, Friday, July 21, 2017.

In what’s being billed as one of his first public appearances since leaving the Trump administration, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer will deliver the closing keynote address at the Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh later this month.

The annual event has brought thousands of representatives from the oil and gas industry to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh.

Last year President Donald Trump, then the Republican nominee, gave the closing keynote address and vowed to roll back environmental regulations in order to unleash the oil and gas industry’s full potential. Past speakers have included former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, former U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, and FOX News host Sean Hannity.

According to the agenda Spicer will discuss, “how we are poised to strengthen our nation’s geopolitical position, create manufacturing opportunities here at home and jobs for all Americans while continuing to protect our environment.”

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Gasoline price spikes caused by Harvey on par with Katrina

People watch heavy rain from the relative safety of a flooded gas station caused by  Tropical Storm Harvey on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

People watch heavy rain from the relative safety of a flooded gas station caused by Tropical Storm Harvey on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

The sharp uptick in gasoline prices across the country, caused by disruptions from Hurricane Harvey, is on par with what happened more than a decade ago during Hurricane Katrina, according to a new analysis from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

On Monday the average retail gasoline price in the U.S. was $2.68 per gallon– 28 cents per gallon higher than the previous week.

The EIA says supply disruptions and refinery outages caused by Hurricane Harvey were having an even larger impact on the East Coast, and the Gulf Coast, where, “gasoline prices are 39 cents/gal and 35 cents/gal higher, respectively, than they were a week ago, before the full effects of the storm were felt.”

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