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.

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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EPA: Fracking can impact drinking water

A Cabot Oil and Gas well site near Dimock, Pa.

Scott Detrow / StateImpact PA

A Cabot Oil and Gas well site near Dimock, Pa.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in a revision from its earlier draft report on hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, says in its final study that fracking can impact water supplies “under some circumstances.” The report details the circumstances where water has been impacted, and provides guidance on how to avoid water contamination.

When the EPA released its long-awaited draft report on fracking in June of 2015, the headline conclusion reported fracking did not cause “widespread systemic impacts” on drinking water. The report was cheered by industry, and spurned by environmentalists.

At the time, the agency held a conference call with reporters, where EPA’s science advisor and deputy assistant administrator of the office of research and development, Thomas A. Burke called the study “the most comprehensive” look at the impacts of fracking on drinking water.

“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,” said Burke. “In fact the number of documented impacts on drinking water resources is relatively low when compared to number of fractured wells.”

EPA’s own scientific review board criticized that conclusion however, saying it did not hold up to the science reflected in the body of the report.

Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was critical of the EPA’s initial report’s executive summary and press release.

“It was clear from the day the report was released that the language could not be supported by the science,” said Halpern. “The scientific advisors were clear and a lot of scientists when they made public comments were clear that there was no evidence for the claim that there were no widespread systemic impacts of fracking on drinking water.”

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Energy Hub vision challenged by Rinaldi’s departure from PES

Sunoco Logistic's plant in Marcus Hook, Delaware County. The site is undergoing construction to convert it from an oil refinery to a natural gas storage and processing plant.

Newsworks

Sunoco Logistics plant in Marcus Hook, Delaware County. The site is undergoing construction to convert it from an oil refinery to a natural gas storage and processing plant.

The Philadelphia Energy Hub, a grand idea that was always longer on rhetoric than reality, took another step back this week when its leading advocate said he will retire early next year as chief executive of the East Coast’s biggest refiner, Philadelphia Energy Solutions.

Phil Rinaldi, dubbed “fossil Phil” by environmentalists for his aggressive promotion of Philadelphia as a major East Coast center for the transmission, storage and use of abundant natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, said he will step down in March but will stay on as head of the Greater Philadelphia Energy Action Team, the principal cheerleader for the Energy Hub. Continue Reading

Marketplace: EPA’s last minute changes to fracking report downplayed risks

A protester urges EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to intervene in Dimock's water woes last December.

Susan Phillips / StateImpactPA

A protester urges then EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to intervene in Dimock's water contamination during a visit by Jackson to Philadelphia in 2012. While leading the EPA, Jackson initiated the study on fracking.

New documents have emerged that show the EPA downplayed the risks of fracking in a landmark report on the process used to extract oil and gas from shale. The last minute changes made by the EPA are documented in a story by the public radio show Marketplace and APM Reports. The news outlets obtained documents that showed the EPA had changed language in the executive summary six weeks before its release to the public, which stated the agency did not find shale gas drilling resulted in “widespread systemic impacts” to drinking water. The documents also revealed similar changes to the accompanying press release.

Questions remain on who made the changes and why.

The EPA’s long-awaited report was supposed to settle the question once and for all on whether or not fracking for oil and gas damages water supplies, using science not politics. In Pennsylvania, there were already more than 250 documented cases in which fracking damaged private drinking water supplies.

But when the EPA’s draft report was issued in June of 2015, the executive summary read that fracking did not cause “widespread systemic impacts” on drinking water. The report was cheered by industry, and spurned by environmentalists.

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Pennsylvania academics find inspiration at climate conference

Diane Husic (C), with Franco Montalto (second from right) sit with a group of students and professors from Pennsylvania universities under a tent at the climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco, Nov. 17, 2016.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Moravian College dean Diane Husic (C), with Drexel University professor Franco Montalto (third from right) sit with a group of students and professors from Pennsylvania universities under a tent at the climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco, Nov. 17, 2016. Although all were disappointed by the election of Donald Trump, they say the conference has inspired them to work even harder on climate change issues.

The climate change conference in Morrocco ended over the weekend with an urgent message to president-elect Donald Trump – join the battle against global warming or risk contributing to catastrophe and moral failure. About 25,000 people attended the gathering aimed at keeping the earth from over-heating, and staving off the impacts like rising seas, droughts and increasingly destructive storms.

When Moravian College professor Diane Husic woke up the morning after election day in Marrakech, she headed to the United Nations climate change conference with a cloud over her head.

“We came in and it didn’t matter what country you were from,” said Husic, “this place was just in a fog. And everyone was coming up to us and saying, ‘did you vote for Donald Trump and what is that going to mean for us?’ I think most of us on Wednesday were in shock and didn’t know what to say.”

Husic is a veteran of these climate change conferences, she’s been bringing students here since 2009.

But she never expected that a man who called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and vowed to pull the U.S. out of the landmark climate agreement etched out in Paris last year, would be leading the country. Continue Reading

U.S. cities and states poised to take on new role in climate diplomacy

Participants at the COP22 climate conference stage a public show of support for climate negotiations and Paris agreement, on the last day of the conference, in Marrakech, Morocco, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016.

David Keyton / AP Photo

Participants at the COP22 climate conference stage a public show of support for climate negotiations and Paris agreement, on the last day of the conference, in Marrakech, Morocco, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016.

A gathering of about 200 nations working to combat climate change wrapped up on Friday in Morocco with a call to U.S. president-elect Donald Trump to join the fight against global warming. Trump’s election shocked delegates and activists assembled in Marrakech for two weeks of talks. Trump has said he would pull the U.S. out of the international climate treaty negotiated in Paris last year.

The election raises questions about the staying power of the Paris Agreement, hammered out at last year’s conference. After decades of failure, the climate accord negotiated last year and ratified earlier this month, was seen as an historic achievement. Finally, the nations of the world had come together to help lessen the growing impacts of climate change – melting glaciers, rising seas, drought, and devastating storms.

With the role of the federal government in doubt, some see American cities and states serving as a place-holder for U.S. participation.

Marrakech was billed as the climate conference of action. But the election of Donald Trump turned the rock-star U-S climate delegation into lame ducks.

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