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.
Gas safety consultant Bob Ackley hugs a dead tree across the street from the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
Fall is tree planting season. That’s because they get enough water and can lie dormant before gearing up to grow in the spring. Street trees can be especially vulnerable to pests, disease, and lack of water. But it turns out a hidden culprit could also be killing trees — gas leaks.
Here’s something most people who work for gas companies know, when you want to sniff out a leak check for dead or dying vegetation. Evidence for this dates back to the mid-1800′s when naturalists documented the connection between street gas lamps and dying trees, says Nathan Phillips, a tree physiologist and professor at Boston University.
“The causal mechanisms are most likely, primarily, oxygen deprivation,” said Phillips. ”Roots need oxygen to grow and maintain themselves, and natural gas has no oxygen.”
But tree lovers take comfort, there is at least one guy who has made it his mission to save the trees from gas leaks.
“I call him the urban naturalist because he understands the visible indicators above ground of what’s happenening below ground,” said Phillips. Continue Reading →
A Cabot Oil and Gas well in Northeast Pennsylvania. Production in the Marcellus Shale helped boost the country's proven gas reserves to record levels in 2014.
Nationwide, the amount of gas that producers can afford to get out of the ground, broke records in 2014, topping 388 trillion cubic feet, according to a new report from the Energy Information Administration. A big chunk of these proven natural gas reserves came from Pennsylvania’s operators, who added 10.4 trillion cubic feet of gas to 2014’s totals. For the first time, natural gas from shale formations represents more than half of all proven U.S. gas reserves.
Shale oil drillers in North Dakota and Texas contributed to the bump in proven reserves of oil, which were greater than 39 billion barrels, making 2014 the fourth highest year on record.
Fadel Gheit is an energy analyst with Openheimer. He says horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing as a technology drove the increased proven reserves for both oil and gas.
“We thought we could only get the low hanging fruit because we couldn’t reach the fruit at the top of the tree,” Gheit told StateImpact. “But now we have a ladder, now we have a crane. We can get anything we want.” Continue Reading →
In this photo taken April 9, 2015, people play with their dogs in view of train tank cars with placards indicating petroleum crude oil standing idle on the tracks, in Philadelphia. With the drop in crude oil prices worldwide, Philadelphia area refineries are starting to take more shipments from abroad.
The drop in global oil prices means the number of black crude-by-rail tank cars may become less prominent along the state’s rail lines. Philadelphia area refiners have begun to import more crude from abroad. And oil train traffic has leveled off for the first time this fall, after rising dramatically between 2012 and the early part of 2015. Shipments from the Midwest to the East Coast peaked in March of this year at 13,336 barrels, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. But since then the flow of Bakken crude to the Delaware Valley has declined. The American Association of Railroads reports a 10.1 percent reduction in crude-by-rail during the first nine months of 2015, compared to the same time period in 2014.
Feidel Gheit, senior energy analyst with Oppenheimer, says the curb in oil train traffic is simple supply and demand.
“We have reached cruising altitude and we are about to descend,” said Gheit. ”It has been increasing every year for the last five years, now it is coming into a plateau and the EIA data supports the fact that we are seeing more demand for West African crude. It’s more competitive, it’s as simple as that.”
Things were already pretty bad for Pennsylvania’s coal industry, and the EPA’s new Clean Power Plan will make things worse. That’s the message from industry to a joint hearing of the state’s House and Senate coal caucuses on Tuesday.
“We talk about the perfect storm, what we are in the midst of is the perfect nightmare for coal,” said Emily Medine, a coal consultant with Energy Ventures Analysis.
Medine said the coal industry has taken a hit from low natural gas prices, which has displaced coal in electric power generation, and the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which has led to a large number of domestic coal-plant closures. Since 2010, six Pennsylvania coal powered electric plants have announced plans to close.
Overseas, the strong U.S. dollar has also made coal uncompetitive, to the point where Pennsylvania coal exports have screeched to a halt. And this year’s predicted mild winter won’t help demand.
Philadelphia Energy Solutions CEO Phil Rinaldi (L), Philadelphia Gas Works CEO Craig White (C) and Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke (R) share a moment before hearings on the future of Philadelphia as an energy hub earlier this year.
Organized business interests and politicians working to bring Marcellus Shale gas to Philadelphia have a new plan to tackle one of their largest obstacles — pipeline opponents. The Greater Philadelphia Energy Action Team wants to use the state’s abundant, and cheap natural gas supply to revive the city’s manufacturing sector. But the gas will never get to Philadelphia without thousands of miles of new pipelines.
The Wolf Administration estimates tens of thousands of miles of pipe will be installed over the next 20 years to carry Marcellus Shale gas to markets across the country.
Speaking to a group of business people at a conference in downtown Philadelphia, the man behind this “energy hub” concept said he will be taking his pitch to rural and suburban Pennsylvania. Continue Reading →
Candidates at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court debate, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, at the Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, Pa. On Nov. 3, voters will fill three vacancies on the seven-member state Supreme Court.
Three out of seven seats are up for grabs on Pennsylvania’s highest court, the largest number of open seats since colonial days. A record-setting $15.8 million has been spent on the state Supreme Court race, which indicates just how much is at stake here. Education funding, gun control, abortion, state redistricting (can you say Red or Blue?), and in our neck of the woods, the new court may also grapple with the Robinson Township decision, the controversial and wide ranging environmental ruling that struck down parts of the state’s oil and gas law Act 13.
When the court rejected state preemption over local zoning control for oil and gas production almost two years ago, the judges did not all agree. Only three cited the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment as reason to overturn the law. The fourth justice, while agreeing to overturn the law, cited due process, not the state constitutions article 1, section 27, referred by many as the Environmental Rights Amendment. But two of those justices are gone, including the former Chief Justice Ron Castille, who actually wrote the opinion. And today, voters will be deciding who takes their place.
In addition to several unresolved issues related to that ruling scheduled to come before the new court, the justices may end up reviewing the key argument cited in the 2013 Robinson decision by the plurality of three judges. What is the weight given to the literal interpretation of the Environmental Rights Amendment?
A hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County, Pa.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments related to its December, 2013 decision regarding the state’s comprehensive update to its oil and gas law, known as Act 13. In an order published this week, the court determined that it would take up several unresolved issues, but it would not revisit its interpretation of article 1, section 27 of the state constitution, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment.
In the 2013 landmark decision, a plurality of justices ruled that it would be unconstitutional for the state to preempt local zoning decisions, as outlined in the new oil and gas law approved by the legislature and signed by then Governor Tom Corbett back in February, 2012. Three justices, including Chief Justice Ron Castille, struck down the provision based on what was at the time, the state’s little known Environmental Rights Amendment, which guarantees ”clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. ”
The decision was both surprising and controversial, celebrated by environmentalists, and derided by industry attorneys. Continue Reading →
An aerial shot of the former Sunbury coal plant. A new natural gas powered plant will be constructed to replace the shuttered facility along the Susquehanna river.
A private equity firm has announced financing for a new natural gas power plant in central Pennsylvania’s Snyder County, along the west bank of the Susquehanna river. Panda Power, a Texas company, says Goldman Sachs, ICBC, and Investec have invested $710 million, while Siemens Financial Services will provide $125 million in equity to build the new power plant at the site of the former Sunbury coal plant in Shamokin Dam, Pa. The entire project will likely cost about $1.1 billion. Bechtel and Siemens Energy were selected to build the 1,124 MW plant, which the company says is one of the largest coal-to-gas conversions in the nation. It will use Marcellus Shale gas to generate enough power for about 1 million homes, or its equivalent.
The coal plant closed in 2014, after operating for 65 years. Like many coal plants across the country it was a victim of lower natural gas prices, combined with new federal limits on air pollutants. The Sunbury coal plant generated 400 megawatts of electricity, less than half of what the new plant is expected to produce.
“The natural gas revolution has arrived in the heart of coal country,” said Todd W. Carter, president and senior partner of Panda Power Funds, in a release. “I’m proud Panda is leading the way toward clean natural gas-fueled generation. We’re ready to take what we’ve learned in Pennsylvania and apply it to other coal-fired projects across the nation.” Continue Reading →
SEPTA's board approved plans to use natural gas to power Philadelphia's commuter lines.
SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s mass transit agency, has proposed a new natural gas power plant to generate energy for part of its regional rail system. The combined heat and power plant will be built in North Philadelphia and serve regional rail lines, as well as a large bus depot.
The estimated $26.8 million project would be “budget neutral” for SEPTA because it will be financed through the Pennsylvania Guaranteed Energy Savings Act, which encourages efficiency upgrades that pay for themselves over time through cost savings. The plant would have to be built by a certified energy savings company, which provides both the capital for the project, as well as an energy cost saving guarantee.
SEPTA has chosen the Massachusetts based company Noresco, to conduct an audit to make sure the gas plant would pay for itself over time with lower energy costs. The planned gas plant would provide base level power, and use the excess heat generated for three nearby facilities. The plant would also help make the transit agency self-sufficient in case of power outages.
“Importantly, the CHP Plant would provide SEPTA with a resilient source of power in the event of a regional electrical grid outage, allowing trains to continue to operate to transport passengers safely to their destinations, even during a blackout.”
The SEPTA board also approved $18.2 million to upgrade facilities and railcars in an effort to make them more energy efficient. The agency says the upgrades will save $26 million in energy costs over 17 years.
Protesters were arrested for blocking a public passageway outside the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July, 2014.
Environmental lawyers say they may have to craft new legal strategies to effectively challenge interstate pipeline construction decisions by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Activists continue to accuse FERC of acting as a rubber stamp when it comes to approving pipeline projects. They argue the agency does not do an adequate environmental review that includes regional and indirect impacts associated with natural gas production, and the cumulative effect of thousands of miles of new pipelines. FERC denies this, repeatedly saying their environmental reviews are rigorous and any impacts from natural gas production are not the result of pipeline construction.
Either way, some environmental attorneys say the deck is stacked against them when challenging FERC’s decisions. Although the federal Natural Gas Act requires the agency to issue a decision on appeals within 30 days, FERC can extend the deadline indefinitely by issuing what is called a “tolling order.” In some recent cases, FERC issued its decision after the pipes were already in the ground with the gas flowing.
“[Tolling] orders are officially an “order granting rehearing for further consideration,” said Ryan Talbott, an attorney with the Allegheny Defense Project, “it’s totally Orwellian.” Continue Reading →
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