Susan Phillips tells stories about the consequences of political decisions on people's every day lives. She has worked as a reporter for WHYY since 2004. Susan's coverage of the 2008 Presidential election resulted in a story on the front page of the New York Times. In 2010 she travelled to Haiti to cover the earthquake. That same year she produced an award-winning series on Pennsylvania's natural gas rush called "The Shale Game." Along with her reporting partner Scott Detrow, she won the 2013 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Journalism Award for her work covering natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. She has also won several Edward R. Murrow awards for her work with StateImpact. She recently returned from a year as at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.
Philadelphia Energy Solutions is the largest oil refining complex on the Eastern seaboard. Half of all Bakken Crude traveling across the country by rail ends up at the PES plant.
On Thursday evening business leaders and local politicians gathered at Drexel University in Philadelphia to talk about exporting Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas from the Port of Philadelphia, and got an earful from activists. But the export terminal is just one idea inside of a larger vision to turn Philadelphia into an “energy hub,” an issue that continues to come up in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary race.
So, what is an energy hub?
Here’s what the energy hub aims to do in a nut shell.
Take advantage of all that abundant Marcellus Shale gas flowing out of wells in the northeast and southwest parts of the state, places like Susquehanna County, or Washington County. Send all that gas to Philadelphia, instead of spreading it out to places like New York or Canada, or the Gulf Coast.
And once all those billions of molecules of gas get to Philly, turn them into trillions of dollars.
To do that, say the hub’s boosters, simply use cheap gas to power new factories, turn that cheap gas into plastics, or liquefy it and sell it abroad for lots of money.
And yes, create good jobs.
The energy hub’s most powerful advocate is Phil Rinaldi. Rinaldi runs Philadelphia Energy Solutions. That’s the company bringing in all that crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota across the state, inching along the city’s railroad tracks in black tank cars.
Gov. Wolf delivering his first budget address in Harrisburg.
Attorney, lobbyist and political insider David Sweet will be advising Governor Tom Wolf on energy and manufacturing issues starting Monday. Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan says Sweet, who currently works for the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll, will serve as a special assistant to the governor, making $129,605 a year. In the position, Sweet will report directly to Governor Wolf and act as a deputy secretary at the Department of Community and Economic Development.
The position is a departure in some ways from the Corbett administration’s “energy czar,” or “energy executive”, a cabinet position held by Patrick Henderson, who made $145,000 advising the governor on energy issues.
In this new position, David Sweet will work on issues related to both energy and manufacturing.
Sweet told StateImpact that his role covers both issues because those are two of Wolf’s priorities for creating well-paying jobs in the state. The attorney and former state lawmaker says Wolf did not choose him for his energy expertise, but rather, his political savvy.
“I’m not touting myself as an expert on energy issues,” said Sweet. “What my role is, I believe, in those two areas is really figuring out ways to mobilize what government resources are there, work with [multiple] state departments…and develop consensus. I’m bringing more of the government and political experience to try to get things done.” Continue Reading →
“Pennsylvania has gone from pretty much nowhere on the map in terms of natural gas production to now second in the country behind only Texas,” says McGinty.
When drilling rigs started showing up, McGinty says residents worried the good jobs would go to out-of-state workers, leaving locals with nothing but the environmental consequences of drilling.
“In the early days, those concerns were exacerbated by too many people seeing nothing but Texas and Oklahoma license plates,” says McGinty. That’s changing, she says, as more locals learn the skills necessary to work in the gas business.
The latest figures show more than 31,000 people in the state have jobs related to extracting natural gas. That’s nearly double what it was five years ago. State officials say the rate of employment growth in the gas fields has slowed recently, but for now it’s still growing.
A drill worker covered in mud, shale, and drill cuttings seals off a well and cleans the blowout preventer at a Cabot Oil & Gas natural gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa.
Radon levels in buildings near unconventional natural gas development in Pennsylvania are higher than those in other areas of the state, suggesting that hydraulic fracturing has opened up new pathways for the carcinogenic gas to enter people’s homes, according to a study published on Thursday. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer worldwide.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University analyzed radon readings taken in some 860,000 buildings, mostly homes, from 1989 to 2013 and found that those in rural and suburban areas where most shale gas wells are located had a concentration of the cancer-causing radioactive gas that was 39 percent higher overall than those in urban areas.
It also found that buildings using well water had a 21 percent higher concentration of radon than those served by municipal water systems.
And it showed radon levels in active gas-drilling counties rose significantly starting in 2004 when the state’s fracking boom began.
Overall, 42 percent of the buildings analyzed had radon concentrations at over 4 picocuries per liter, the level at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends remediation, and which is about three times the national average for indoor air. According to the EPA, there are about 21,000 radon-related lung cancers per year in the U.S.
The new study was based on data collected from the DEP which requires the reporting of radon tests, many of which are done when houses are bought or sold. The project was conducted with the Geisinger Health System, and is the first part of a long-term investigation of the health effects of unconventional gas development being done by Geisinger, based in Danbury, northeastern Pennsylvania.
Crews weld a pipeline connecting to a natural gas well in the Loyalsock State Forest.
Forget the battles over the Keystone XL. Pipeline wars are now raging in Pennsylvania, where production is high and pipeline capacity is low. Marcellus Shale gas has the potential to alter the landscape of the global energy market. But right now a shortage of pipelines to get gas from the gas fields to consumers has energy companies eager to dig new trenches. And activists opposed to more drilling see pipeline proposals as the new battleground over fracking.
Pennsylvania’s pipeline building boom could expand the nations’ and perhaps the world’s, supply of natural gas. And this boom includes an estimated 4,600 miles of new interstate pipes, tunneling under Pennsylvania’s farms, wetlands, waterways, and backyards. That’s on top of 6800 miles of existing interstate natural gas pipes, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Drillers eager to reach new markets are frustrated right now, because there’s just not enough room in the current pipeline system to transport their gas beyond regional markets.
“That gas languishes and it builds up and now that price will drop,” said Rob Boulware, a spokesman for Seneca Resources. Continue Reading →
The Sunoco refinery in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating an accident at the Sunoco Logistics plant in Marcus Hook, which left one man dead. An OSHA spokesperson says the man worked for the engineering firm AECOM, a contractor at the site.
Sources told StateImpact the worker died from multiple blunt force injuries after a 1200 foot pylon fell on him.
A massive construction project at Sunoco Logistic’s Marcus Hook facility is converting the former oil refinery to a natural gas storage and processing plant. In addition to Sunoco employees, the project includes about 400 contract workers on site.
The worker, who has not been identified but sources say was in his 50′s, lived in New Jersey.
Sunoco Logistics spokesman Joseph McGinn confirmed that an accident killed a contract worker at the facility Monday afternoon.
“No words can express the sorrow and pain that come when such a tragic event happens,” McGinn wrote in an email. “Our deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends of the individual who died. They have suffered a devastating loss.”
Ed Mayer, a spokesman for AECOM, expressed sympathy for the family.
“We are tremendously saddened by the loss of one or our people,” wrote Mayer in an email. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, who have asked that their privacy be respected at this time.”
Mayer said the company is cooperating with the OSHA investigation and cannot provide details of the accident.
Clarification: This post has been updated with a statement from AECOM.
A truck delivers drilling waste water to a frack water recycling plant in Susquehanna County
The Environmental Protection Agency released an analysis of frack water on Friday, based on data that drillers supplied to the website FracFocus. The EPA’s report is just one part of the agency’s long awaited fracking study, which will assess the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies. The full report is due out this spring.
The EPA researchers say less than one percent of frack fluid in their analysis of 39,000 wells contained additives, while water made up 88 percent of the fluid, and sand, or quartz, made up ten percent. The agency identified 692 separate frack water ingredients. Maximum concentrations of these chemicals were usually below 2 percent of the total mass, while half of the chemicals were below 0.3 percent of mass. EPA science advisor Tom Burke told reporters on a press call that the chemical additives and volumes of water varied greatly from well to well. Water usage for each fracked well ranged from 35,000 gallons to 7.2 million gallons.
“While these maximum concentrations [of chemical additives] are low percentages of the overall fracturing fluid,” said Burke, “more than half the wells had water volumes greater than 1.5 million gallons. So a small percentage may mean hundreds or thousands of gallons of chemicals could be transported to, and present on, the well pad prior to mixing on the fracking fluid. Remember one percent of a million gallons is a large number — 10,000 gallons.”
The three top chemicals used in the frack fluid were hydrochloric acid, methanol, and hydro-treated light petroleum distillates. Hydrochloric acid is used to keep the well casings free of mineral build-ups, while methanol is used to increase viscosity. Petroleum distillates are refined products like diesel, kerosene, or fuel oil, and are used to make the fluid “slick,” or soapy, and thereby reduce friction. Continue Reading →
Delaware County EMS personal try to find a way to get their vehicles to the site of an oil train incident during a practice run.
The increasing number of rail cars carrying crude oil through Pennsylvania means a rising risk of accidents. Recent derailments caused trains to explode and incinerate areas along tracks in Illinois and West Virginia, threatening waterways. So far, Pennsylvania has been lucky. Within the past year and a half, oil trains traveling through the state derailed in Philadelphia, Vandergrift and McKeesport, but none of them exploded.
Back in the sumer of 2013, that wasn’t the case in the Quebec village of Lac Megantic, where an oil train crash killed 47 people. Five bodies were never recovered, having been incinerated.
Nationwide, oil train traffic has increased 4000 percent since 2008. And Philadelphia is a top destination for these trains, which haul millions of gallons of volatile crude oil from the Bakken Shale fields in North Dakota to area refineries each week. With the increase in oil train traffic from North Dakota, the Department of Transportation predicts an average of 10 of these trains will derail each year.
While activists and politicians push Philadelphia’s emergency planning operation to disclose their response plans, neighboring Delaware County has forged ahead with practice runs.
About 150 first responders, from local, state, and federal agencies gathered at the Lazaretto Ballroom in Tinicum Township Delaware County last week. The training exercise was for this new danger – crude-by-rail shipments. The room was full of uniformed first responders from some of Delaware County’s 80 separate volunteer fire companies. Continue Reading →
Adapted from the National Energy Technology Laboratory / Environmental Protection Agency
Diagram of a deep well injection disposal site.
The Department of Environmental Protection took the unusual step of reversing its approval of a frack waste water disposal well in Indiana County this week. The decision took both the energy company and the opponents of the disposal well, by surprise.
“This is novel, this has not happened previously,” Pennsylvania General Energy vice president Lisa McManus told StateImpact. “So it came as a complete surprise to us.”
Pennsylvania General Energy, or PGE, received the green light from the DEP in October to convert a former gas producing well in Grant Township into a disposal well. This came after the Environmental Protection Agency approved the project last spring. The EPA has overseen deep injection wells in Pennsylvania since 1983. Those wells are designated as Class 2 wells and are regulated by the underground injection control program, via the Safe Drinking Water Act. Although about 1,860 Class 2 wells are permitted in Pennsylvania, less than ten of them are approved for oil and gas waste disposal.
Still the DEP needed to sign off on the conversion of the Grant Township well’s function. DEP issued PGE a permit in October, but two residents of Grant Township appealed the decision.
President Obama’s plan to combat climate change relies heavily on replacing coal with natural gas as a way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide electric power plants pour into the atmosphere. But natural gas comes with it’s own climate problems.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, is also a powerful greenhouse gas, which can be 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide within twenty years. And with so many opportunities for unburnt methane to escape on its way from the wellhead to the power plant, those leaks could offset any benefits from burning natural gas instead of coal. Scientists have just begun to try to measure those leaks. One team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, spends their days chasing methane plumes. Continue Reading →
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