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 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.
A waste disposal company has backed off its controversial plan to use 400,000 tons of natural gas drill cuttings to help expand an airport in Tioga County. The proposal would have put the waste, which includes dirt and rock displaced by shale gas well-drilling, on a steep embankment near a tributary to the Pine Creek Gorge, a pristine watershed also known as the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.”
The Department of Environmental Protection says the Montgomery County company, Clean Earth, did not respond to the agency’s questions on a number of issues with the permit application, which the DEP calls “technical deficiencies.” So Clean Earth decided to withdraw an erosion and sediment control permit application for the first stage of the project. StateImpact Pennsylvania first reported on the project back in July.
The DEP sent a letter to the company in February, detailing the agency’s concerns and seeking answers from Clean Earth. Drill cuttings, which can originate hundreds or thousands of feet below the surface, often contain naturally occurring radiation, heavy metals, and industrial chemicals. But instead of responding to the requested information, Clean Earth agreed to abandon the project.
In the February 24 letter, DEP Chief of the Waterways and Wetlands Program James Kuncelman outlines concerns about the company’s proposal to stockpile the waste without protecting it from the elements, which would have posed a risk to the watershed. Rain and snow falling on top of the drilling waste could have created contaminated run-off, leaching into ground water or making its way into the nearby Pine Creek Gorge. The letter, which is copied below, lists ten separate points of concern. Continue Reading →
Amalio Medina sits in front of his un-air conditioned shop in the midday heat, Thursday, July 18, 2013, during a heat wave in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania's new Climate Change Assessment predicts more hot days like this one.
Prepare for longer, hotter summers, more rain, more destructive storms, and bankrupt ski resorts. That’s the conclusion of a team from Penn State on what Pennsylvanians can expect from climate change. By 2050, Philadelphia temperatures will be more like Richmond, and Pittsburgh will be like Washington, D.C. In fact, Pennsylvania has already warmed by 1° Celsius since the early 1900′s, and the future looks even hotter and wetter.
“The findings of this assessment report are stark,” said DEP Secretary John Quigley on a call with reporters. “The entire state will experience the effects of climate disruption. I personally find this report profoundly disturbing. Science is showing us that we are not only changing and disrupting our climate significantly, but these changes are occurring alarmingly fast.”
That’s 2° C higher than what climate experts and policy makers say is the threshold for dangerous impacts. A global average temperature rise of 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels is considered the tipping point for catastrophic change.
“That is a startling number,” said Dr. James Shortle, lead author on the report.
Workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa. in Bradford County, April, 2010.
State environmental regulators say three natural gas drillers contaminated 17 separate drinking water wells in north central Pennsylvania and together the companies have paid close to $375,000 in fines. The Department of Environmental Protection blamed well construction for methane migrating into drinking water supplies. If methane builds up in an enclosed space like a house, the colorless, odorless gas can cause an explosion. The pollution incidents in Bradford, Lycoming and Tioga counties date back to 2011 and 2012.
“These were complex and lengthy investigations that took a considerable amount of time to resolve,” said DEP Director of District Oil and Gas Operations John Ryder in a release. “But the department was able to conclusively determine that methane gas from natural gas wells had migrated off-site and impacted private wells serving homes and hunting clubs.”
Ryder was not available to explain why the investigations took three to four years to complete.
On May 17, 2011 a citizen complaint led to an investigation of XTO Energy operations in Lycoming County. DEP says “casing and cement issues” led to methane contamination in seven private water wells, as well as leaks in Little Muncy Creek and German Run. XTO paid a $95,753 fine. Continue Reading →
A marked interstate natural gas pipeline runs through Lycoming County. These lines are regulated by the federal government.
Public Utility Commission vice chairman John Coleman Jr. spoke about pipeline safety with Scott LaMar, host of WITF’s Smart Talk on Friday. Coleman praised StateImpact’s reporting on pipeline safety, and told LaMar that no one regulatory authority has a map of all the pipelines in the state. “Mapping of pipelines in Pennsylvania is an important priority,” said Coleman.
The federal government has authority over large, interstate pipelines. The PUC has authority over smaller pipelines that do not cross state boundaries. Some of these are called gathering lines, and feed the gas or oil from a well into the larger network of transmission lines. But in rural areas, known as “class one,” gathering pipelines fall into a regulatory black hole. Pipeline operators in those areas are required under Pennsylvania’s Act 127, to register with the PUC. But they only have to report the mileage totals for each county in which they operate. Since the state’s new pipeline law went into effect in 2012, operators have submitted records for about 13,000 miles of gathering lines. But because most of those lines are in rural areas, the PUC only has authority for regulating about 1100 miles, or about eight percent.
Coleman also published an op-ed detailing the efforts of the PUC to regulate the pipelines currently under its jurisdiction, and advocated for operators in rural areas to be required to register with PA One Call.
Lawmakers have introduced legislation to extend PA One Call registration to rural pipeline operators. But conventional oil and gas operators have opposed the effort, saying the risk and consequence of pipeline accidents in rural areas are low, and the costs of PA One Call are high.
Skylar Sowatskey holds up a sign at a rally in Butler, Pa. She and her family moved after they say fracking polluted their water. Her mother Kim says the DOH was no help.
The Department of Environmental Protection says the agency is developing a new set of oil and gas regulations to address public health concerns. DEP Secretary John Quigley told reporters on Wednesday of the planned regulatory package during a press call outlining the Department’s latest round of updates to Chapter 78, the section of the Pennsylvania Code that governs construction and operation of oil and gas sites.
“We’re looking in part at public health protections because that’s certainly one of the areas of biggest concern,” said Quigley. “We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect health and the environment and given the time frame it takes to get regulations enacted, it’s clear to us that we need to begin immediately on the next set of regulatory proposals.”
Quigley said those rules will likely be proposed by the end of the year.
Public health advocates have long been pushing to be heard in Harrisburg regarding shale gas drilling issues, but had felt rebuked by the Corbett Administration.
Workers vacuum water or fluids surrounding a frack site in Harford Township, Susquehanna County, Pa.
State environmental regulators are asking for comments on the final version of new oil and gas rules. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released detailed updates to its oil and gas rules Wednesday. The proposals result from a four-year process that garnered nearly 30,000 public comments to DEP. Still, this latest version is getting push back from both industry and environmentalists.
In a call with reporters, DEP Secretary John Quigley called the announcement a “great step forward in responsible drilling in Pennsylvania.”
“DEP’s definition of responsible drilling is protecting public health and the environment while enabling drilling to proceed,” said Quigley.
Although the release of the draft rules marks the final leg of a long process that began as a result of the passage of the state’s drilling law Act 13 in 2012, Quigley says there’s more to come.
“This is not the end of the process,” he said. “There is more study needed on additional measures, and there will be more rule making in a separate process to ensure responsible drilling and protection of communities, public health and the environment.” Continue Reading →
A "pipebender" from Texas oversees plans to lay a new gas pipeline in Susquehanna County. Workers prepare to lay pipe in Susquehanna County.
An estimated 30,000 new miles of pipeline will be built in Pennsylvania to accommodate the shale gas boom, according to the Wolf Administration. Some of these lines will be large, high pressure pipes that travel across state lines and are regulated by the federal government. But some are much smaller, carrying gas from the wellhead to larger lines that feed the interstate system. In rural areas, these lines are not regulated. And although detailed locations of all above ground infrastructure is available to the public at their finger tips, that underground system remains hidden.
Many of those unmapped pipelines are also unregulated. These are rural gathering lines, or pipelines that take the gas from the wellhead to a larger transmission line, or gas processing facility. In this segment, LaMar speaks with reporter Susan Phillips about the thousands of miles of unregulated natural gas pipelines.
Crews weld a pipeline from a wellhead in the Loyalsock State Forest.
The Wolf Administration says Pennsylvania will be getting tens of thousands of miles of new pipelines over the next couple of decades. Recently we reported on how poorly mapped some of these pipelines are. Many of those unmapped pipelines are also unregulated. These are rural gathering lines, or pipelines that take the gas from the wellhead to a larger transmission line, or gas processing facility.
DEP Secretary John Quigley told StateImpact that he expects the industry to add 20-25,000 miles of gathering lines. Most of those lines will be in rural areas, the so-called “class one” lines, which no state, federal or local authorities oversee.
The Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration is looking at changing those rules. Linda Daugherty, a deputy associate administrator for field operations at PHMSA, told a room full of pipeline safety workers at a conference back in 2013 that the agency has been working on new rules, but the process was slow.
“What keeps me up at night? Gathering lines,” said Daugherty. ”This worries me. There are a whole lot of gathering lines out there in Pennsylvania that are not regulated.”
Daugherty said the slow pace of federal regulatory change had the agency begging states to take action. But so far, Pennsylvania hasn’t been one of those states.
The Homer City Generating Station, Homer City, Pa. President Obama has announced rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Pennsylvania is the third highest state in the nation when it comes to CO2 emissions from energy production.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf says he’s committed to reducing carbon emissions from the state’s power plants, and says the President’s climate goals are challenging but achievable.
President Obama gave a strong call to action in announcing the new climate change rules.
“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and we’re the last generation that can do something about it,” he said. “We only get one planet. We only get one home. There’s no plan B.”
Now it’s up to each state to come up with a plan to reduce its power plant carbon emissions. The finalized rules include incentives for solar and wind and give states more time to reach their goals.
The coal industry will be the biggest loser, and has pledged to fight the plan. EPA expects the percentage of electric generation in the US from coal to fall from 36 percent this year to 27 percent by 2030 under the plan. Pennsylvania is the fourth largest producer of coal in the nation, and the only state where anthracite coal is mined.
This story began with a simple task: Let’s make a pipeline map!
Everyone wants to know where all the new Marcellus Shale gas pipelines are or will be. The new proposals have been piling up. Many have poetic names like Atlantic Sunrise, Mariner East, and Bluestone. There got to to be so many they started to get numbers: Mariner East I, Mariner East II.
Here at StateImpact Pennsylvania, try as we might, we couldn’t keep track of them all in our heads. We also wanted to map all the smaller lines, and the lines that may have been there for decades, which everyone tends to forget about.
The Wolf Administration estimates that 30,000 more miles of new pipelines will be built in Pennsylvania within the next two decades. So, where will they be?
screenshot / Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration.
This map of interstate pipelines currently running through Susquehanna County is all that's available to the public on PHMSA's website.
Pipeline companies know exactly the routes for all the pipelines they maintain or plan to build. But they aren’t required to share that information with public.
Instead they release vague maps with colorful lines swooshing across Pennsylvania, showing where a proposed line might go.
We spoke with our resident map maker, who told us that wasn’t good enough. She needed geospatial data, the kind of thing that in this high tech digital world means plotting the line along its actual path, instead of just drawing a line that approximates the path.
We took a look at all the plans submitted for new pipelines, but they were just drawings, without data. We checked with the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), which has a national map of the major interstate pipelines. But again, just a drawing, no geospatial data available to the public, and by the way, don’t even try to do a right-to-know request. Interstate pipeline maps are exempt from that in this post-911 world.
Then we contacted Mark Smith, who runs a map-making company called Geospatial Corporation. We told him what we wanted to do: map the web of pipelines beneath our feet. He laughed at us.
“Well, it’s not universally mapped,” said Smith. “In fact it’s probably the last piece of infrastructure out there that’s not mapped.”