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.

State ethics commission investigating complaint against Wolf aide

FILE PHOTO: Gov. Tom Wolf aide, Yesenia Bane, speaking on a panel discussion at the Marcellus Shale Coalition's annual conference in Pittsburgh in September 2016.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

FILE PHOTO: Gov. Tom Wolf aide, Yesenia Bane, speaking on a panel discussion at the Marcellus Shale Coalition's Shale Insight conference in 2016 in Pittsburgh.

The Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission is investigating a complaint against one of Gov. Tom Wolf’s top aides, for potentially mixing the public’s business with her own.

Wolf’s deputy chief of staff, Yesenia Bane, is married to a natural gas industry lobbyist. A review of her 2016 daily calendar by StateImpact Pennsylvania showed she was routinely involved in meetings and travel related to her husband’s clients.

Shortly after the story was published, Bane’s duties were changed. She no longer handles matters related to oil and gas regulation.

At the time her husband, John Bane, was a lobbyist for Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Harrisburg. Among the firm’s clients were gas driller EQT, refiner Philadelphia Energy Solutions, and pipeline company Williams. He joined EQT full time as a senior government relations manager in late 2016.

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Yellow smoke, health complaints prompt state investigation at new 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: Kim Crinella

Pennsylvania environmental regulators are investigating health complaints after Invenergy's Lackawanna Energy Center natural gas power plant under construction in Jessup Pa. began spewing plumes of colorful smoke. The company says the emissions are temporary and part of a planned commissioning process.

Pennsylvania environmental regulators are looking into health complaints after residents say a natural gas power plant being built near Scranton started emitting noxious, greenish-yellow smoke over the weekend.

“I live a half-mile from the plant. It was burning my nose, throat, sinuses and chest,” said Jessup resident Rella Scassellati.

A state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman confirmed the agency is investigating the complaints, but could not provide further details Wednesday. Photos and videos posted on social media show the plant billowing thick smoke.

Dan Ewan is vice president for thermal development with Invenergy, the Chicago-based company building the plant. In an emailed statement, he said the plant is undergoing a short-lived commissioning phase, which should be completed this week.

“This temporary configuration results in both a visible vapor plume and audible noise,” Ewan wrote. “There are no chemicals used in these process, and the noise has been monitored and is within Borough noise ordinance limits.”

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Listen: here’s why some strike it rich in the gas patch and others strike out

A natural gas drilling site in Susquehanna County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A natural gas drilling site in Susquehanna County.

The United States lets private individuals own the right to the minerals under their land. While that sets it apart from virtually every other country, it also opens the door to a host of disputes.

As StateImpact Pennsylvania recently reported, disparities in how mineral royalties are paid spans the Marcellus Shale, and it’s popping up in other oil- and gas-rich regions across the country. It stems from a complex web of laws, court rulings and legal jargon that determines how money is distributed to property owners who allow energy companies to tap the minerals below their land.

Reporters Amy Sisk and Marie Cusick appeared on WITF’s Smart Talk Tuesday to explain.

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EPA restores funding to news outlet covering Chesapeake Bay

EPA Washington

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The Environmental Protection Agency agreed Thursday to restore $325,000 in funding to the Bay Journal, a print and online news outlet covering environmental issues related to the Chesapeake Bay.

The EPA funded the York County-based newspaper for 27 years through Republican and Democratic administrations. In August 2017, the agency unexpectedly cut off the money. The decision was made two years into a six-year grant, after the EPA cited an unexplained “shift in priorities.”

The Bay Journal appealed the decision to the EPA, and got vocal support from Maryland’s two U.S. senators, Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats.

After the appeal was filed, emails surfaced in the press suggesting the decision to end the grant was politically motivated.

“It looks like they didn’t like some of the stories we had written about planned cutbacks by the Trump administration for Chesapeake Bay funding,” said Bay Journal editor Karl Blankenship.

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Royalties: Why some strike it rich in the natural gas patch, and others strike out

Jim Barrett stands next to a wellpad on his farm in Bradford County. He says Chesapeake Energy, which drilled four natural gas wells on his land, is cheating him out of royalty money.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Jim Barrett stands next to a wellpad on his farm in Bradford County. He says Chesapeake Energy, which drilled four natural gas wells on his land, is cheating him out of royalty money.

When natural gas companies approached Charlie Clark and Jim Barrett about the minerals under their farms, the northern Pennsylvania landowners in neighboring counties both decided to let them drill.

They hoped — like so many landowners — to bring in some extra cash.

For Clark, the decision has paid off. But Barrett says he feels cheated, and is now suing his gas company.

That disparity in how royalties are paid spans the Marcellus Shale, and it’s popping up in other oil- and gas-rich regions across the United States. It stems from a complex web of laws, court rulings and legal jargon that determines how money is distributed to property owners who allow energy companies to tap the minerals below their land.

Clark and Barrett might have started out with similar hopes, but their different experiences show how tough it can be for landowners to navigate the gas business — and how resolutions are hard to come by.

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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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