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.
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.
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 →
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 →
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.
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 →
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 →
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 →
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.
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.
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.
Christmas shoppers enjoy the warm weather at Philadelphia's City Hall. Compared to other East Coast cities like New York, Boston and Miami, Philadelphia will be in a much better position when it comes to sea level rise. Some say that represents an opportunity for the city to attract investment and people.
If the oceans rise as predicted, huge swaths of Boston, New York and Miami will be under water by the end of this century. Compared to those cities, Philadelphia’s future looks great. It’s a good 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. That’s good news for most residents.
And some say the city could take advantage of its relatively high-ground position along the East Coast to attract more people and more investment. Chris Crockett is an engineer with the Philadelphia water department. He’s in charge of planning for climate change.
“We could easily take another million people into this city,” said Crockett. “We have the infrastructure, we have the space. This was a city that was designed for 2.5 million people.”
But today, there’s only 1.5 million people. That leaves a lot of empty row houses that could be filled with climate refugees, and a lot of office space for businesses looking for higher ground.
So I was eager to share this good news with my fellow Philadelphians, who typically need an ego boost. The first person I met was Chanel Phillips outside of City Hall in front of the ice rink, where Christmas shoppers were enjoying 65 degree weather.
“Philadelphia, we actually is underated, understated, and unnoticed a lot and we actually do a lot for other cities.” Continue Reading →
Construction at the Panda natural gas power plant in Bradford County, which is scheduled to come online in 2016.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved the air quality permit for a proposed natural gas power plant in Jessup, Lackawanna County. If built, the plant will be one of the largest natural gas power plants in the state. Chicago based Invenergy, parent company of Lackawanna Energy Center, wants to build a 1500-megawatt plant that will include three gas-powered turbines, three heat recovery steam generators, and a steam turbine.
The DEP says its review process showed emissions from the plant would not violate National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
“The department conducted a thorough and complete review of the application and determined it met all of the air quality regulations”, said Mike Bedrin, Director of the DEP Northeast Regional Office in Wilkes-Barre in a release. “This plant will also have emissions testing, recordkeeping and continuous emission monitoring requirements to assist DEP in monitoring emissions from the facility to help ensure compliance.”