Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Susan Phillips

Reporter

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.

Wolf says PA will move forward on Clean Power Plan

PPL's Brunner Island three-unit coal-fired plant located on the west bank of the Susquehanna River. A bill recently approved by the state House and Senate would give legislators more time to review Pennsylvania's compliance with federal climate regulations.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

PPL's Brunner Island three-unit coal-fired plant located on the west bank of the Susquehanna River.

The Wolf administration says it will continue with plans to comply with new federal mandates to reduce the state’s carbon emissions despite a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, which put a hold on Obama’s landmark effort to combat climate change.

In a surprise move, the court issued a stay on implementation of the Clean Power Plan while challenges to the rules play out in a lower court. The court is scheduled to hear arguments in June, while the states are supposed to have their implementation plans to the EPA by September. The CPP requires every state to come up with a plan to reduce its carbon emissions from the electric power sector. But 27 states sued the EPA, saying the Clean Air Act did not give the agency the authority to implement the rules. The ruling is a setback for the Obama Administration’s efforts to address climate change.

Pennsylvania is on target for coming up with its own implementation plan by the EPA’s September deadline, and has held 14 listening sessions on the rules across the state. Governor Wolf’s spokesman Jeff Sheridan says the Supreme Court’s decision will not impact the state’s ongoing efforts to comply with the CPP. Continue Reading

Wolf proposes 6.5 percent tax on Marcellus Shale

Gov. Tom Wolf, center, delivers his budget address for the 2016-17 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate, as the speaker of the state House of Representatives, state Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, left, and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, right, listen at the State Capitol in Harrisburg Pa., Tuesday Feb. 9, 2016.

Chris Knight / AP Photo

Gov. Tom Wolf, center, delivers his budget address for the 2016-17 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate, as the speaker of the state House of Representatives, state Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, left, and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, right, listen at the State Capitol in Harrisburg Pa., Tuesday Feb. 9, 2016.

Governor Wolf wants the state’s natural gas drillers to pay a 6.5 percent tax on Marcellus Shale production, which he estimates will bring in $217.8 million dollars for fiscal year 2016/2017 to the general fund. It’s a bold move for a governor who failed to get anywhere last year with the lower 5 percent extraction tax proposal.

In his budget address, Wolf focused on the current stalled budget process and did not even mention taxing natural gas drillers, or discuss any details about his proposed budget. He struck a defiant tone toward Republicans who may continue to oppose any tax hikes.

“Indeed anyone in this Chamber who claims we can simply cut our way out of this mess without also increasing revenue is just ignoring the math,” said Wolf. Continue Reading

Board approves state’s new oil and gas regulations

A view of active fracking operations in Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A view of active fracking operations in Susquehanna County.

The state has moved one step closer to finalizing new oil and gas regulations. The Environmental Quality Board voted Wednesday to approve the Department of Environmental Protection’s updates to Chapter 78 and 78A, the regulations that oversee everything from permitting wells to waste handling and restoration. A majority of the Board (15-4) approved the proposal despite opposition from some lawmakers and even two of DEP’s own advisory boards. The new rules are the first comprehensive updates to oil and gas regulations since drilling in the Marcellus Shale began.

Several lawmakers offered amendments, but all were rejected by the Board. The proposals result from a four-year process following the 2012 legislative overhaul of the state’s oil and gas law known as Act 13. The proposals garnered nearly 30,000 public comments to DEP.  The new rules have irked both environmental groups and industry, which view the regulations as either too timid, or too far-reaching.
DEP Secretary John Quigley defended the new rules.

“These updated rules are long overdue and it’s time to get them across the finish line for the protection of public health, for industry certainty, and for the protection of our state’s environment,” said DEP Secretary John Quigley. “The changes are incremental, balanced, and appropriate, and are the result of one of the most transparent and engaged public processes in the history of the agency.”

The proposed rules will now be reviewed by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and the House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committees.

Shale gas boosts Delaware River port traffic

INEOS plans to begin exporting ethane to Norway and Scotland in mid-February. Eight new ships have been built for the project.

courtesy of INEOS

INEOS plans to begin exporting ethane to Norway and Scotland in mid-February. Eight new ships have been built for the project.

Ship traffic up and down the Delaware River is bouncing back after a slump that began in 2008 due to the Great Recession. In addition to the improved economy, a new export product has driven much of that growth — natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale.

Dennis Rochford leads the Maritime Exchange, which acts as a chamber of commerce for the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. He says propane and ethane from the Marcellus Shale are increasingly heading to Europe.

“This is going to be a growth of cargo on the river that will help expand overall the number of vessels arriving on the river.”

Rochford says ship traffic jumped ten percent between 2010 and 2015. Propane exports more than doubled from 2014 to 2015, jumping from 28 to 75. In mid-February, the first ships full of ethane are expected to leave the port of Philadelphia for Europe.

Rochford says at its peak, the river’s ports handled 2500 ships a year.

“It appears that the trend line now is going to move our port back up to the 2500 vessel arrivals, which is what the norm was prior to the recession,” he said. Continue Reading

Fuel oil spills into Schuylkill River

Oil and snow mix on the surface of the Schuylkill River in Center City Philadelphia. DEP says a total of 4200 gallons leaked from a nearby building. About 200 gallons have made it into the river.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Oil and snow mix on the surface of the Schuylkill River in Center City Philadelphia. DEP says a total of 4200 gallons leaked from a nearby building. About 200 gallons have made it into the river.

Environmental clean up crews continue to remediate the site of a 4200-gallon heating oil spill, some of which has contaminated the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. A strong hydro-carbon odor is present in the area of contamination, which appears as a reddish sheen of oil.

The City’s Office of Emergency Management says the leak resulted in between 200 to 250 gallons of home heating oil leaking into the river beginning Saturday night. The Philadelphia Water Department was alerted to the incident via Twitter and sent a crew over to investigate.

PWD spokesman John DiGiulio says the spill is downstream of the city’s water intakes, and poses no threat to drinking water supplies.

“PWD visited the site and investigated the report that night with a follow up visit Sunday and today,” said DiGiulio in an email. Continue Reading

Lack of data on fracking spills leaves researchers in the dark on water contamination

Workers vacuum water or fluids surrounding a frack site in Harford Township, Susquehanna County, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Workers vacuum fluids surrounding a frack site in Harford Township, Susquehanna County, Pa.

A recently published peer-review of the EPA’s fracking study criticized the agency for reaching conclusions in their draft report without adequately explaining the lack of data and research available, including information related to wastewater, chemical and fuel spills resulting from oil and gas production. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board, an independent group of scientists tasked with reviewing the report, said in a draft review released earlier this month that the EPA failed to address “significant uncertainty regarding frequency, severity and type of hydrofracking related spills.”

The Board also criticized the EPA for reaching conclusions by looking at data from just two states — Colorado and Pennsylvania. But if Pennsylvania is any indication, even that data on spills is severely lacking.

Continue Reading

DEP plans more monitoring to clamp down on methane leaks

Researcher Melissa Sullivan uses an infrared FLIR camera to determine if methane is leaking from a well site.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Carnegie Mellon University researcher Melissa Sullivan uses an infrared FLIR camera to determine if methane is leaking from a well site.

Pennsylvania Department on Environmental Protection has announced plans to crack down on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry in ways that exceed new EPA standards. Calling climate change the “greatest environmental issue of our time” DEP secretary John Quigley says Pennsylvania should act as a national leader in curbing fugitive leaks of the potent greenhouse gas from the shale gas production process, which begins at the wellhead and includes transportation and processing.

Although Pennsylvania’s carbon emissions have been reduced by burning natural gas instead of coal for electricity, the concern is that the gains at the power plant are getting outweighed by methane leaks during production. Pennsylvania would be the second state, after Colorado, to go after methane leaks.

“Here’s where Pennsylvania stands today,” said Secretary Quigley during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, “more than 500 compressor stations, with hundreds more coming; almost 3,300 well pads most with multiple wells; thousands of miles of pipe and thousands more coming.” Continue Reading

EPA science advisors say fracking study needs clarification

Ray Kemble of Dimock, displays a jug of what he identifies as his contaminated well water in this August 2013 file photo. The EPA included Dimock as a case study in its draft fracking report.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Ray Kemble of Dimock, displays a jug of what he identifies as his contaminated well water in this August 2013 file photo. The EPA included Dimock as a case study in its draft fracking report.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Scientific Advisory Board has raised questions about the agency’s landmark study on how fracking impacts water quality. In it’s draft peer review of the agency’s study, published Thursday, the advisory board raised concerns about “clarity and adequacy of support for several major findings.”

One of the more controversial aspects of the EPA’s draft report, released in June 2015, was the conclusion that fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, did not result in “widespread” impacts on drinking water. That conclusion drew criticism from environmentalists, and praise from the industry.

Speaking to reporters on the day of the release, the EPA’s science advisor Thomas A. Burke said “based upon available scientific information, we found that hydraulic fracturing activities in the United States are carried out in a way that has not led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water sources.” Continue Reading

DEP fines Kinder Morgan for Philadelphia storage tank violations

An aerial view of the Kinder Morgan Philadelphia Terminal along the Delaware River.

courtesy of Kinder Morgan

An aerial view of the Kinder Morgan Philadelphia Terminal along the Delaware River.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has fined Kinder Morgan $745,000 for violations at the company’s two Philadelphia liquid storage facilities. The bulk of that fine, $570,000, stems from a spill of about 8,000 gallons of fuel grade ethanol from an above ground storage tank at the Kinder Morgan Liquids Terminal along the Delaware river in the Port Richmond section of the city.

The remainder, $175,000, was assessed after a site visit last April by DEP officials to the company’s Passyunk Avenue facility, known as the Point Breeze Terminal, in Southwest Philadelphia. At the Point Breeze Terminal, DEP says the company had allowed storm water to accumulate in containment dykes surrounding storage tanks.

“Whether it be a product release or the failure to follow regulatory requirements, we take our mission to provide for the health and safety of our citizens very seriously,” said DEP Secretary John Quigley in a release. “Economic opportunities must be pursued responsibly, safeguarding public health and the environment. We expect that this penalty will result in strengthened safeguards across the board.” Continue Reading

Ten stories from 2015 worth hearing again

The Hunlock Creek Power station outside Wilkes-Barre used to run on coal, and now runs on natural gas. It's part of a broader shift going on in the power grid.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

UGI's Hunlock Creek Power Station outside Wilkes-Barre used to run on coal, but now uses natural gas. It's part of a broader shift going on in the power grid.

As the year winds down, we’re taking a look back at some of StateImpact Pennsylvania’s best radio reporting. From a shifting power grid, to a pipeline building boom, and the ongoing state budget battle, we covered a lot of ground on the airwaves in 2015.

Take another listen:

POWER GRID

In a power shift, gas closes in on ‘king coal’

In Pennsylvania when you flip on a light switch, odds are you’re burning coal. But as the fracking boom continues to unlock huge quantities of natural gas, the electric grid is changing. Power plants are increasingly turning to this lower-cost, cleaner-burning fossil fuel. The shift is being driven by both market forces and new regulations.

 

Measuring the climate trade-off between coal and natural gas

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.

 

Continue Reading

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