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.

President Trump’s energy plan: support shale, dump climate plan, refocus EPA

President Donald Trump is joined by the Congressional leadership and his family before formally signing his cabinet nominations into law, in the President’s Room of the Senate, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. From left are Vice President Mike Pence, the president's wife Melania Trump, their son Barron Trump, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo/Pool

President Donald Trump is joined by the Congressional leadership and his family before formally signing his cabinet nominations into law, in the President’s Room of the Senate, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. From left are Vice President Mike Pence, the president's wife Melania Trump, their son Barron Trump, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

It didn’t take long for President Donald Trump to deliver on his energy campaign promises. Within minutes of being sworn in Friday, links to Obama’s Climate Action Plan were replaced by a smiling picture of the new president and vice president. The White House website then published “An America First Energy Plan,” which emphasizes use of domestic fossil fuels and shunning foreign oil. The plan takes aim at “burdensome regulations on our energy industry,” while embracing “the shale oil and gas revolution.”

“President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule. Lifting these restrictions will greatly help American workers, increasing wages by more than $30 billion over the next 7 years.”

Obama’s Climate Action Plan included the Clean Power Plan, the requirement that states reduce carbon emissions from power plants. The Waters of the U.S. rule outlined clarity on the smaller waterways that would be regulated under the Clean Water Act. That rule has been tied up in the courts. Response from environmentalists was quick. The climate action group 350.org said it would do everything to resist the plan.

“Trump’s energy plan is par for the course of the President’s climate denial, but it’s nonetheless alarming for the movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground,” said 350.org executive director May Boeve in a statement. “Fulfilling this plan would not only set back years of progress we’ve made towards protecting the climate, but would undoubtedly worsen the devastating impacts of the climate crisis, from rising sea levels to extreme weather.” Continue Reading

Researchers rush to preserve environmental data they believe to be threatened by Trump

University of Michigan librarian ...works on downloading scientific data as part of the Data Refuge hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

University of Michigan librarian Justin Schell works on downloading scientific data as part of the Data Refuge hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania, January 14, 2017.

With every new administration, government held information disappears. Digital archivists know this. They’ve worked in the past to preserve Bush Administration data when Obama was elected. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of budget priorities. Funds no longer exist to keep up a website. But with the incoming Trump administration, some scientists worry key environmental research will go missing because of political reasons. So researchers from across the country and Canada gathered in Philadelphia last weekend to copy key data.

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Gov. Wolf says Mariner East 2 pipeline permits could be approved

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference at the Temple University Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia, Thursday, June 2, 2016.  Wolf recently told a group of Philadelphia area business people that DEP will approve permits for the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference at the Temple University Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia, Thursday, June 2, 2016. Wolf recently told a group of Philadelphia area business people that DEP will approve permits for the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline.

Responding to a question from a reporter at an event hosted by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia last week, Gov. Wolf indicated he supports approval of the required state permits to build the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline project. When questioned by 6abc anchor Matt O’Donnell about permit delays Wolf said “We’re working through that.” On further questioning Wolf affirmed that the pipeline project could still happen. There’s been no word from DEP on whether the agency has finished reviewing Sunoco’s updated applications and if those updates meet all of DEP’s requirements. Wolf spoke to the southeast Pennsylvania business community as part of an annual event hosted by the Chamber. The Chamber has advocated for the region to become an “energy hub,” where new pipelines full of Marcellus Shale gas could feed new manufacturing.

The bulk of the contents flowing through the Mariner East 2 pipeline would actually be shipped overseas to a plastics factory in Scotland. Sunoco Logistics has had to delay building the 350-mile pipeline because the company has not yet secured the necessary permits from DEP. The agency informed Sunoco last September that its applications for water crossing and earth disturbance permits were insufficient, outlining hundreds of issues that needed addressed in each of the 17 counties along the planned pipeline route. The “deficiency letters” sent to Sunoco by DEP galvanized pipeline opponents, generating an unprecedented number of public comments to the DEP on the obscure permits known as Chapter 102 and 105. The lack of permits caused Sunoco to push back its plans to begin pipeline construction. Originally, the pipeline was supposed to be completed by the end of 2016. Pipeline construction is now slated to be completed by the third quarter of 2017. Continue Reading

Art installation interprets water pollution with sound

Bethany Wiggin, who runs Penn's program in environmental humanities listens to audio from the Date-um exhibit, which focuses on water quality in the lower Schuylkill river.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Bethany Wiggin, who runs Penn's program in environmental humanities listens to audio from the Date-um exhibit, which focuses on water quality in the lower Schuylkill river.

At the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Penn’s campus in West Philadelphia, off to the side in the lobby area, is a small installation called Date-um. Immediately visitors are drawn to five friendly faces – elders it turns out, active in the decades long struggle to clean up the Schuylkill river. Their warm smiles hang next to a video projection of sun shimmering on the river’s surface. But pick up a set of headphones and you hear a screeching sound.

Danielle Toronyi is the artist behind this contribution to Date-um, which includes a video projection of the sun dancing on the surface of the Schuylkill. The sound is of the river. It’s not bubbly and peaceful though, and that’s because Toronyi has distorted the sound.

She put a hydrophone beneath the river at a stormwater discharge point near Amtrak’s 30th Street Station. Using discharge data from the U.S. Geological Survey, she programed a delay in the recording based on the amount of water rushing into the river. With that rushing water comes pollutants picked up from streets, parking lots, and sewers. Take a listen to an interview with Toronyi about her piece Peak Discharge:

Date-um also includes oral history recordings from residents of the Eastwick section of Philadelphia, which borders the John Heinz National wildlife preserve and where some homes were built on top of a medical waste dump.The Schuylkill River provides drinking water to 1.5 million people, and experts say the river is a lot cleaner than it was 50 years ago. But there are still problems associated with sewer discharges from upstream, and the impacts of sudden surges of stormwater.

Six years on, Butler County community still without water

A man helps deliver donations of clean water to residents of Butler County who say gas drilling polluted their water supply, February, 2013.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A man helps deliver donations of clean water to residents of Butler County, February, 2013. The residents continue to rely on donated water and say gas drilling polluted their water supply. The DEP investigation found drilling was not to blame.

A community in western Pennsylvania says families are entering their sixth year without clean water and they blame gas drilling. About 50 people living in the rural Butler County community known as The Woodlands, 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, continue to rely on donated water, according to Lee Dreyer, pastor of the White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church in Renfrew.

“Here’s a situation where, in 21st century America there are people, a small population of people granted, but people who are living with unsafe and unclean water in the community and there’s nothing being done about it,” said Dreyer.

Dreyer’s church serves as the distribution point for the weekly water donations, which he says ranges from 300 to 400 gallons that the residents use for drinking and cooking. Several families are currently in litigation over their water and have been advised not to speak to the press. Dreyer says local officials have not helped the families, so it’s up to private individuals to contribute. The Department of Environmental Protection concluded several years ago that nearby gas drilling did not contaminate residential well water. Continue Reading

Natural gas production to make U.S. a net energy exporter

The U.S. is expected to become a net energy exporter over the next 15 years. This photo shows Dominion Resources Cove Point terminal in Maryland. It is currently being converted from a gas import facility to an export terminal to ship Marcellus Shale gas to Asia.

AP Photo/Dominion Resources

The U.S. is expected to become a net energy exporter within the next 10 years. This photo shows Dominion Resources Cove Point terminal in Maryland. It is currently being converted from a gas import facility to an export terminal to ship Marcellus Shale gas to Asia.

Within the next decade, the U.S. could be exporting more energy than it imports, something that has not occurred since the early 1950′s. The Energy Information Administration projects that under a number of different scenarios, exports of natural gas will increase as petroleum liquid imports decrease, making the country an energy exporter by 2026.

The U.S. typically imports crude oil, and exports products like diesel and gasoline. An export ban on crude oil was lifted in 2015, while new liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals began shipping gas overseas in 2016. Additional LNG terminals are planned within the next several years, including one in Lusby, Maryland, which will be converting Marcellus Shale gas to LNG for export. Operated by Dominion Resources, the Cove Point terminal is scheduled for completion at the end of 2017.

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Ten stories from 2016 worth hearing again

President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail in September, speaking at the Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail in September, speaking at the Shale Insight conference in Pittsburgh.

As the year winds down, we’re looking back at some of StateImpact Pennsylvania’s best radio reporting.

From an unconventional election season, to continued controversies over pipelines, and a global climate conference, we covered a lot of ground on the airwaves in 2016.

Take another listen:

Drilling downturn

In 2016 Pennsylvania’s drilling industry went through a particularly rough patch, laying off thousands of workers and drastically cutting spending, amid low natural gas prices.

 

Philly’s Energy Hub: manufacturing renaissance, or pipe dream?

The idea behind the “Philadelphia energy hub” is to revive the region’s once-thriving manufacturing scene using Marcellus Shale natural gas. It’s proven to be easier said than done, and may be a plan that’s unlikely to materialize with the departure of its chief visionary.

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EPA says fracking study’s data gaps are an important contribution to science

A hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County, Pa. The central missile of the fracking operation connects 16 compression generators, water, sand, and other fluids before entering the well.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County, Pa. The central missile of the fracking operation connects 16 compression generators, water, sand, and other fluids before entering the well.

The EPA says its fracking study, published this month, is the most comprehensive look so far at all the science available on whether or not fracking pollutes drinking water. Critics have pointed to a lack of data in the report, which led to limitations in the agency’s conclusion that fracking “impacts drinking water under some circumstances.” The EPA’s science advisor Tom Burke says the gaps in data represent the “state of the science.”

“The identification of data gaps is actually an important contribution to the science and not a failure,” said Burke.

“We are really just beginning to understand fracking,” he said.  ”And there are not really a lot of reports about what’s going on during the fracking process. For instance, basic information about where are the wells? The location of the wells.”

Burke says that in addition to lack of information about all the shale gas wells, there is a lack of information about locations of groundwater aquifers, and the quality of the water.

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Commonwealth court grants a new argument to landowners battling eminent domain in pipeline case

Ellen Gerhart (L) with her daughter Elise Gerhart (R) in front of the family home in Huntingdon County. They are fighting eminent domain taking by Sunoco for the Mariner East 2 pipeline.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Ellen Gerhart (L) with her daughter Elise Gerhart (R) in front of the family home in Huntingdon County. They are fighting eminent domain taking by Sunoco for the Mariner East 2 pipeline.

Landowners battling pipeline companies over eminent domain takings got an early Christmas gift from the Commonwealth Court in the form of a new legal maneuver this week. An attorney representing a family fighting Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline in Huntingdon County will be able to use a recent Supreme Court ruling to try to strengthen their case.

In September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Robinson Township case, which overturned aspects of the state’s new oil and gas law Act 13, that the legislature could not grant eminent domain authority to companies building gas storage facilities. The court’s decision hinged on the fact that the public was not the “primary and paramount” beneficiary, as the state had claimed.

“Instead, it advances the proposition that allowing such takings would somehow advance the development of infrastructure of the Commonwealth. Such a projected benefit is speculative, and, in any event, would be merely an incidental one and not the primary purpose for allowing these takings,” wrote Justice Debra McCloskey Todd for the majority.

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EPA fracking study points to continued lack of data

A frack water site in Bradford County

Scott Detrow / StateImpact PA

A frack water site in Bradford County

EPA’s fracking study, published this week, was supposed to be the definitive look at whether or not drilling for shale gas and shale oil impacts drinking water. But instead, the final report concluded that fracking impacts drinking water “under some circumstances,” and qualified that conclusion with a discussion about a lack of definitive data. The 666-page report detailed the potential pathways for water contamination and described specific cases where water was polluted, two case studies involved incidents in Pennsylvania. But in the final report, after six years of research, the EPA stressed the limits of their conclusions, something that its scientific advisors had urged them to do after reviewing the draft report.

“Data gaps and uncertainties limited EPA’s ability to fully assess the potential impacts on drinking water resources both locally and nationally. Generally, comprehensive information on the location of activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle is lacking, either because it is not collected, not publicly available, or prohibitively difficult to aggregate. In places where we know activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle have occurred, data that could be used to characterize hydraulic fracturing-related chemicals in the environment before, during, and after hydraulic fracturing were scarce. Because of these data gaps and uncertainties, as well as others described in the assessment, it was not possible to fully characterize the severity of impacts, nor was it possible to calculate or estimate the national frequency of impacts on drinking water resources from activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle.”

David Yoxtheimer is a hydrogeologist with Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. Yoxtheimer says those gaps still leave unanswered questions for researchers and policy makers.

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