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." She received a 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. In 2013/14 she spent a year at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. She has also been a Metcalf Fellow, an MBL Logan Science Journalism Fellow and reported from Marrakech on the 2016 climate talks as an International Reporting Project Fellow. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.

Gas production increased in 2016, as number of new shale gas wells decreased

A natural gas well behind a house in southwestern Pennsylvania.

courtesy of FracTracker Alliance

A natural gas well behind a house in southwestern Pennsylvania. Gas production reached 5.1 trillion cubic feet in 2016.

Pennsylvania’s shale gas drillers continued to break records for production in 2016, tapping about 5.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Although the increase in production was not as high as in previous years, it still represents an upward trend, while the number of new well permits are declining, according to data published this week by the Department of Environmental Protection. Pennsylvania still ranks second behind Texas in total volume of natural gas production.

The state’s annual oil and gas report is in electronic form for the first time as part of the department’s efforts to put more drilling data online in a publicly accessible format. It includes GIS information on well sites, and charts outlining trends over the past ten years. Continue Reading

Philadelphia aims to cash in on solar job boom

Dennis Hajnik installs solar panels on a roof in Bryn Mawr, Delaware County.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Dennis Hajnik installs solar panels on a roof in Bryn Mawr, Delaware County. Philadelphia has a plan to bring those panels to 500 city rooftops by the end of 2018, which it says will create 75 new jobs.

On a rooftop in Bryn Mawr, Delaware County, four men are working to install 18 solar panels on top of a four-bedroom house. They wear safety harnesses and helmets, lowering down one solar panel at a time onto metal frames. One is 21-year-old Thomas Glenn. Several years ago, Glenn dropped out of high school and was living with his parents in the Kensington section of North Philadelphia.

“You know, I was playing video games all day, listening to music,” Glenn said. “At the time I was waiting until I turned 18 so I would become a security guard or I was going to work at McDonalds.”

Glenn says solar helped turn his life around. After getting his G-E-D, he ended up in a training program for city youth, which led to this job with a small solar company.

“The money’s good, you get nice long hours and you’re doing something good,” he said.

He’s now living on his own, making $15 an hour. The more experienced crew members are making between $20 and $25 an hour.

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Commonwealth Court rejects appeal on Mariner East 2 pipeline

Elise Gerhart stands with a protest sign by an area of tree-clearing on her parents land. The Gerhart's lost their appeal to the Commonwealth Court. Although trees have been cleared, construction has not yet begun.

courtesy of Elise Gerhart

Elise Gerhart, daughter of Ellen and Stephen Gerhart, stands with a protest sign by an area of tree-clearing on her parents land. The Gerharts' lost their appeal to the Commonwealth Court. Although trees have been cleared, construction has not yet begun.

A Huntingdon County family who have become vocal opponents of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline project has lost an appeal to Commonwealth Court over the company’s taking of their land through eminent domain. The appeal by Stephen and Ellen Gerhart of Union Township is just one of about a dozen cases pending before the Commonwealth Court challenging takings by Sunoco for the 350-mile natural gas liquids pipeline project.

Sunoco Logistics spokesman Jeff Shields said the ruling is consistent with prior court decisions.

“The court’s recognition that Sunoco Pipeline is a public utility providing public benefits through its Mariner East 2 project is consistent with its prior ruling and every decision rendered by the lower courts,” he wrote in an email.

Given the number of cases and the issues involved, it’s hardly the last word from the court system on whether Sunoco should have been granted eminent domain authority in building a pipeline to carry natural gas liquids, most of which will be exported. Continue Reading

Sunoco’s pipeline construction releases drilling mud into Delco Creek

Sand bags placed to contain a leak of bentonite clay into Chester Creek in Brookhaven, Delaware County. Mariner East 2 pipeline construction resulted in an estimated 575 gallons of bentonite, used as a lubricant for horizontal directional drilling, in May.

courtesy of Middletown Coalition for Community Safety

Sand bags placed to contain a leak of bentonite clay into Chester Creek in Brookhaven, Delaware County. This month Mariner East 2 pipeline construction resulted in the release of an estimated 575 gallons of bentonite, which is commonly used as a lubricant for horizontal directional drilling.

Pipeline construction of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 has caused three separate releases of drilling mud in May, with two incidents resulting in a combined total of 575 gallons of bentonite clay entering Chester Creek in Brookhaven, Delaware County, according to Sunoco Pipeline spokesman Jeff Shields. Bentonite is a non-toxic substance commonly used as a lubricant in horizontal directional drilling. Substantial amounts of bentonite released into waterways can impact aquatic life, especially organisms that live on the bottoms of streams and wetlands.

No fish were killed as a result of the leaks, referred to as “inadvertent returns,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Sunoco Pipeline spokesman Jeff Shields says the company doesn’t “anticipate any harm to the environment” resulting from the releases.

“Inadvertent returns of bentonite mud are an occasional component of directional drilling operations,” wrote Shields in an email. “Due to subsurface conditions and other geologic conditions of the locations, drilling mud is sometimes able to migrate through naturally occurring fractures in the soils and return to the surface.” Continue Reading

Surging gas-fired power generation in PJM region will force more coal plant closures, report says

A view of the PJM Interconnection control room. PJM is the largest grid operator in North America. A report out by Moody's this week says a glut of natural gas will "wreak havoc" on the region's electricity market.

courtesy of PJM

A view of the PJM Interconnection control room. PJM is the largest grid operator in North America. A report out by Moody's this week says a glut of natural gas will "wreak havoc" on the region's electricity market.

A rush to build power plants fueled by cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale will swell power supply in the region coordinated by PJM Interconnection, operator of the largest power grid in North America, driving down prices and forcing the closure of many coal-fired plants over the next four years, according to a new analysis by Moody’s Investors Service.

The report predicts that power supply within the 243,417 square mile area covered by PJM will surge by 25 percent by 2021, causing on-peak prices to drop by 15 percent and leading to “widespread” closures or conversion to gas at coal-fired plants. Power grid operator PJM manages the movement of electricity to 65 million people living in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Ohio, and parts of Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and North Carolina.

“A massive construction of new gas capacity is underway in PJM to take advantage of cheap Marcellus gas, which will drive down market prices, a material credit negative for unregulated power companies,” the report said on Tuesday.

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Trump nominates PA PUC Commissioner Rob Powelson to FERC

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Robert Powelson speaks at an industry conference in State College. President Trump has nominated him as a FERC commissioner.

President Donald Trump has nominated Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Rob Powelson to fill a vacancy on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversees interstate pipeline projects. Powelson, who also serves as the president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, recently compared anti-pipeline activists to jihadists, a statement he later walked back.

“The jihad has begun,” he said while speaking at a gas industry conference in March. “At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission groups actually show up at commissioners homes to make sure we don’t get this gas to market. How irresponsible is that?”

Environmental groups responded by calling for his resignation. Several days later he said his statement was “inappropriate.”

Both FERC and the Pennsylvania PUC play active roles in pipeline regulation, including decisions on whether or not a pipeline company would be granted authority to use eminent domain against land owners who refuse to grant easements for a project. Continue Reading

Congress hears testimony on fast-tracking pipeline projects

In Philadelphia, a protester stands in solidarity with Native American demonstrators in North Dakota fighting to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline on September 13, 2016.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

In Philadelphia, a protester stands in solidarity with Native American demonstrators in North Dakota fighting to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline, September 13, 2016. The natural gas pipeline industry is pushing Congress to amend the Natural Gas Act to speed up the pipeline approval process.

Although anti-pipeline activists decry the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as the agency that never met a pipeline project it wouldn’t approve, the natural gas industry says the regulatory process led by FERC is facing longer delays. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce heard testimony Wednesday about a proposal to speed-up that process, which currently involves a mix of federal and state permit approvals.

It’s not the first time Congress has considered amending the Natural Gas Act to grant FERC greater authority in coordinating the complex review process. But according to Don Santa, executive director of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, things have gotten worse over the past two years.

“Federal permitting agencies are taking longer, and, in some cases, are electing not to initiate reviews until FERC has completed its review of a proposed pipeline project,” he told the Committee. “These disjointed, sequential reviews cause delay and, in some cases, create the need for supplemental environment analysis.” Continue Reading

Huntingdon County judge grants Sunoco authority to have protesting landowners arrested

A tree sitter on the Gerhart's property in Huntingdon County. Sunoco has obtained a court order that allows the company to order an arrest of the Gerharts and charge them with trespass on their own property.

courtesy of Elyse Gerhart

A tree sitter on the Gerhart's property in Huntingdon County hoping to deter construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Sunoco has obtained a court order that allows the company to order an arrest of the Gerharts and charge them with trespass on their own property.

Huntingdon County residents protesting the construction of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline across their land now face arrest on their own property due to a rarely imposed court order known as a “writ of possession.” Common Pleas Court judge George Zanic signed the order last week, which Sunoco had sought as an “emergency measure” in response to the landowners tree-sitting on their property. Ellen and Stephen Gerhart in Huntingdon, Pa., along with their daughter Elyse, have become outspoken critics of the pipeline and the use of eminent domain by the company to take possession of land along the 350 mile route.

Charges against Ellen Gerhart were dropped after she was arrested last year for trespass on her own property. But with this new writ, Sunoco can enlist law enforcement to arrest anyone within the easement, including the actual property owners.

Elyse Gerhart says the tree-sitting began in early February, after Sunoco secured the permits from the Department of Environmental Protection to begin construction. She would not say how many people were participating in the protest, but said she herself had been up in the trees. Although the Gerharts’ challenge to the eminent domain takings are making their way through the appeals courts, the company can begin building. Recent efforts to seek a stay in construction failed. Continue Reading

New Jersey rejects PennEast application for water permit for now, gives company new deadline

In this April 17, 2014 photo, workers construct a gas pipeline in Harmony, Pa.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

In this April 17, 2014 photo, workers construct a gas pipeline in Harmony, Pa. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has given PennEast 30 days to correct deficiencies in its water crossing permits.

The embattled PennEast natural gas pipeline suffered another blow on Wednesday when New Jersey officials rejected the company’s current application for a freshwater wetlands permit, saying it lacked a long list of information.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection gave PennEast another 30 days to submit information ranging from tax maps and historic property information to evidence that landowners have given permission to build the line on their properties, and survey data for water crossings.

The DEP also noted that the company said it had applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a certificate of public convenience, which would grant the company eminent domain authority. But so far, too many landowners have refused access to their properties for surveys.

“The application to FERC for a certificate of public convenience does not yet have legal authority to condemn the pipeline easement,” officials said in a letter the company. Continue Reading

Study: Fracking didn’t impact West Virginia groundwater, but wastewater spills pollute streams

A truck carrying fracking waste water drives through an intersection in Clarksburg, W. Va.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

A truck carrying fracking waste water drives through an intersection in Clarksburg, W. Va. A new study found no impact to drinking water wells from fracking in northwestern West Virginia. Spills from trucks like these and other sources remain a problem.

Fracking the Marcellus Shale did not pollute groundwater in northwestern West Virginia, but wastewater spills did contaminate surface water, according to a new study from Duke University. The report adds to an increasing body of work pointing to greater risks from fracking wastewater transport and treatment, than from the process itself.

The study was unique in that it monitored drinking water wells and surface water over three years, a longer time period than previous research on the impact of fracking on drinking water. The study also used multiple methods of determining the source of the pollution, and was able to draw on baseline water quality data.

“Based on consistent evidence from comprehensive testing, we found no indication of groundwater contamination over the three-year course of our study,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. ”However, we did find that spill water associated with fracked wells and their wastewater has an impact on the quality of streams in areas of intense shale gas development.”Vengosh says the study results are dissimilar from previous research in Northeast Pennsylvania where the methane found in drinking water wells was connected to fracking.
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