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.

Wolf’s budget would restore bulk of funding for Delaware River Basin Commission

A view of the Delaware River from Morrisville, Pa.

Kim Paynter / WHYY

A view of the Delaware River from Morrisville, Pa.

In a reverse from the previous administration’s budget, Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed plan would restore much of Pennsylvania’s share of funding to the Delaware River Basin Commission. Former governor Tom Corbett had slashed in half Pennsylvania’s contribution to the multi-state commission in last year’s budget. Corbett cut the DRBC’s funding while maintaining funds to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. Some speculated that the move was retribution for the DRBC’s continued moratorium on natural gas drilling in Pike and Wayne counties, which lie within the commission’s jurisdiction. Corbett was unsuccessful in convincing other members of the DRBC to lift the moratorium on gas drilling in the basin.

Wolf’s budget proposal includes $750,000 for the DRBC, a 73 percent increase over last year’s funding.

“We welcomed the news because it means we’re heading in the right direction from what we experienced the previous year,” DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert told StateImpact. “But that’s still subject to the legislature.”

The Delaware River Basin Commission oversees water quality for the length of the Delaware river, and until New York Gov. Cuomo’s decision to ban fracking, the DRBC stood as one of the most cautious regulatory bodies when it comes to shale gas drilling. It’s governed by a compact signed back in 1961 by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government to protect the drinking water supplies for millions of residents of those states dependent on the river. Continue Reading

USGS: Fracking water quality data “scarce”

Joanne Martin collects a sample of water from Brady Run, a stream in South Beaver Township in western Pennsylvania. She is a citizen scientist monitoring the water for potential pollution from nearby natural gas drilling.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

Joanne Martin collects a sample of water from Brady Run, a stream in South Beaver Township in western Pennsylvania. She is a citizen scientist monitoring the water for potential pollution from nearby natural gas drilling.

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey say there’s just not enough data to figure out the impact of fracking on water quality. The American Geophysical Union’s Water Resources Research published an article about the USGS study today.  

“We mined the national water-quality databases from 1970 – 2010 and were able to assess long-term trends in only 16 percent of the watersheds with unconventional oil and gas resources,” said Zack Bowen, USGS scientist. “There are not enough data available to be able to assess potential effects of oil and gas development over large geographic areas.”

The researchers say public information on how hydraulic fracturing impacts water quality is “scarce,” and point out that no nationwide water-quality monitoring focusing on shale gas and shale oil production exists. Working within the limits of existing data, researchers found “no widespread and consistent trends in water quality, such as chloride and specific conductance, in areas where unconventional oil and gas wells are prevalent.”

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to publish its water quality study this spring. But a recent report by Inside Climate News shows how the EPA’s own data collection efforts were stymied by industry.

StateImpact Pennsylvania recently reported on how “citizen scientists” have stepped in to fill the gap in data collection.

Governor Wolf asks Obama to strengthen oil train safety

The CSX K040, an oil train bound for South Philadelphia, chugs past an intermodal train through Center City.

Courtesy of Robert King

The CSX K040, an oil train bound for South Philadelphia, chugs past an intermodal train through Center City.

Writing that the “potential for disaster is too great to ignore,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has sought help from President Obama regarding oil train safety. In a letter to the President, Wolf wrote the “tools and options available to me are limited.” The recent oil train derailment in West Virginia has focused more attention on the safety of crude oil transport. Shipments have risen in the past several years because of the shale oil boom in North Dakota, and the lack of pipeline infrastructure to carry all that crude to refineries on the East Coast. Pennsylvania has experienced four train derailments since January 2014. Two of those derailments happened in heavily populated Philadelphia, but none resulted in a fire.

In the letter to Obama, Wolf says about 60 to 70 oil trains pass through Pennsylvania each week on their way to refineries in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Based on information filed by CSX and Norfolk Southern with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency last May, StateImpact calculated that Philadelphia could be getting up to 42 oil trains a week, while up to 30 oil trains could be rolling through Pittsburgh each week. The companies are only required to report the trains carrying more than 1,000,000 gallons of crude. So those numbers don’t include trains carrying less. A train with at least 45 tank cars, each carrying 700 barrels of oil a piece, would be needed to exceed the one million gallon threshold. The CSX train that derailed in Mount Carbon, West Virginia last week had 109 tank cars carrying more than 3 million gallons of crude oil.

Continue Reading

Senator Casey tells Obama Administration to speed up rail safety initiative

A CSX unit train delivers a load of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to a refinery in South Philadelphia.

NAT HAMILTON/WHYY NEWS

A CSX unit train delivers a load of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to a refinery in South Philadelphia.

In the wake of the fiery oil train derailment last week in West Virginia, which forced dozens of residents to evacuate and had the state’s governor declare a state of emergency, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey says the Obama Administration should speed up authorization for rail safety improvements. Casey says the rules, which included new funding approved last year as part of an omnibus bill, are stalled at the Office of Management and Budget.

Casey sent a letter to OMB Director Shaun Donovan, urging him to speed up their review of the rule.

“If we don’t push hard to get it through the process, the process will take as long as people want it to take,” Casey told reporters on a conference call.

The rules include strengthening tank cars, reviewing speed limits, improving training for first responders, as well as funds to hire 15 new rail safety inspectors and retain 45 inspectors hired last year. Continue Reading

Federal court weighs in on air emissions controversy in Pa. gas fields

A compressor station pumps natural gas into the Tennessee Pipeline in Dimock, Pa.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

A compressor station pumps natural gas into the Tennessee Pipeline in Dimock, Pa.

A federal court weighed in on a contentious debate over air emissions from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas sector this week. In Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future v. Ultra Resources Inc., Pennsylvania’s Middle District Court ruled against the environmental group, more commonly known as PennFuture, and in favor of the gas company. But in the 31-page decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani laid out for the first time in this region, how state environmental regulators can make sure natural gas companies can comply with the Clean Air Act without gaming the system.

The issue is how to determine what’s known as “aggregation,” or combining multiple pollution sources into one, something allowed under the federal Clean Air Act. Typically, it’s a tool that industry doesn’t like. That’s because when smaller sources of air pollution become regulated as one large source of air emissions, they can be subject to stricter regulatory standards. It also triggers a lengthier review process by state regulators, and subsequently, could mean more public input. If the Department of Environmental Protection decides that a company’s natural gas facilities are aggregated, this tends to force gas drillers to install more pollution controls than would be the case otherwise.

Environmental groups like the Clean Air Council and PennFuture have argued that the DEP should aggregate natural gas facilities, thereby forcing the gas companies to comply with stricter air emissions standards. In this case, PennFuture objected to Ultra Resources building a series of eight compressor stations, which help move natural gas along pipelines, without pulling a permit that would have those facilities aggregated into one source. Ultra Resources instead applied for permits for each compressor station, located in Tioga and Potter counties, and the Department of Environmental Protection granted them. In 2011, PennFuture filed suit, saying when combined, the compressor stations emitted more than 100 tons of nitrous oxide each year, and should be subject to the more stringent regulatory regime as a major source.   Continue Reading

Senate committee approves shale gas health bill

Edna Moten says nearby gas drilling has polluted her water and air.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Edna Moten says nearby gas drilling in Washington County has polluted her water and air.

A bill to create a Marcellus Shale health advisory panel, which never made it out of committee last year, was approved by the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee unanimously today.  Senate Bill 375, introduced by Senate Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R-Jefferson), would create a nine-member panel to advise the legislature on the health impacts of shale gas production. The board would be chaired by the state’s health secretary, and include the head of the Department of Environmental Protection. The General Assembly would appoint seven advisors, who would be required to have an expertise in either public health, earth and mineral sciences, environmental studies, shale gas extraction or the use of natural gas.

All members of the bipartisan committee voted in favor of the bill.

The panel would meet at least twice a year and review health data related to shale gas drilling, consult with researchers and submit an annual report on their activities.

In 2011, former Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission recommended that the state monitor public health impacts from drilling, however the legislature never allocated funding for it.

Last June StateImpact Pennsylvania reported on allegations by two former state health workers who said they were instructed to ignore public complaints about drilling. In response, the Department of Health changed its Marcellus Shale policies.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the vote was nearly unanimous. It was unanimous among all the members of the committee not on leave.

A bottom up and top down approach to methane detection

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University use "tracers", inert gasses, to detect methane leaks at well sites.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University use "tracers", inert gasses, to detect methane leaks at well sites.

Scientists looking to figure out how much natural gas leaks from shale gas production sites are taking both a bottom up and top down approach. Using NOAA aircraft usually reserved for flying through hurricanes, researchers from the University of Colorado flew over shale plays in Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas to measure how much methane was escaping into the atmosphere. Their study was published last week in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. While flying over Northeast Pennsylvania one day in 2013, researchers detected a natural gas leak rate from the Marcellus Shale of just 0.18 to 0.41 percent of production. Those results are much lower than the researchers fly-over detections in Utah’s Uinta Basin, which were reported at 6.2 to 11.7 percent of production.

But the research is limited in that it was just one day, and emissions can vary daily as well as hourly. Writing in a post on the Environmental Defense Fund blog, EDF’s associate vice president Mark Brownstein says it’s not yet time to “pop the champagne corks.”

More robust studies that cover longer time periods actually suggest methane emissions are often higher than previously estimated. EDF’s own studies – including two released last week looking at the transmission and storage and gathering and processing sectors of the oil and gas industry – have repeatedly shown that random leaks and malfunctions are a major source of emissions.

Because these events are random, a one-day overflight will not give a full picture of emissions coming from a basin over a day, a month, or a year. What is needed is regular and ongoing monitoring.

Continue Reading

Changes at DEP could delay new oil and gas rules

A gas production unit (foreground) cleans, depressurizes, and moderates gas temperatures at a  Cabot Oil & Gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A gas production unit (foreground) cleans, depressurizes, and moderates gas temperatures at a Cabot Oil & Gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa.

Long awaited changes to the state’s oil and gas rules may run into some snags with new faces in Harrisburg. But DEP secretary for oil and gas, Scott Perry, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that missing the March 2016 deadline to upgrade regulations would be a “failure.”

The state’s new oil and gas law, known as Act 13, required an update to Chapter 78 of the Pennsylvania Code. The rules guide construction and operation of oil and gas wells, including waste, spills, and pipelines. The DEP has received thousands of public comments to the proposed revisions. In a surprising move last week, the agency announced changes to the oil and gas Technical Advisory Board, which helps guide DEP on the rules. More from the Tribune-Review:

Current members were waiting to be told whether their service is still wanted.

“No other administration has really touched the makeup of the board,” said Gary Slagel, the government relations coordinator at the Cecil office of the law firm Steptoe & Johnson who has served on the board since 1989.

Perry said the department wants new members focused solely on shale drilling since it announced last week the formation of a board for advice on rules for conventional oil and gas drilling.

The department is adding three nonvoting members to the five engineers and geologists on each board, Perry said.

To accommodate the changes, a planned March 5 meeting of the existing board was postponed to March 20, and the new conventional board will meet March 26.

The boards’ new members will consider revisions to proposed rules that initially went out for public review a year ago and garnered 25,000 comments. Perry said those comments dictated the latest changes, as did a review by Wolf administration officials who took office last month, including acting DEP Secretary John Quigley and former department leaders John Hanger and Katie McGinty.

 

Heavy flaring at Philadelphia refinery sends black smoke into the air

Flaring at the PES oil refinery in southwest Philadelphia Friday morning caused concerned residents to call 911.

NBC10

Flaring at the PES oil refinery in southwest Philadelphia Friday morning caused concerned residents to call 911.

Some Philadelphia residents woke up to a large plume of black smoke drifting up through the sky, wondering what was on fire. But it turns out it was a flare coming from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in southwest Philadelphia. PES is the single largest consumer of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota. The refinery turns that crude into gasoline, which supplies a large portion of the region’s gas stations.

PES spokeswoman Cherice Corley says the cold weather caused problems at the plant, which led to the flaring and smoke both this morning and this afternoon. Flaring is actually a safety valve used to limit the number of air pollutants released during start-ups or shut-downs of facilities. The flare was not the result of burning oil, but of other hydrocarbons that would have been released into the atmosphere. “We quickly conducted air monitoring in the surrounding communities, which were negative,” Corley wrote in an email. “There was no impact to the community.” NBC10 has more:

A flare up at a South Philadelphia oil refinery has prompted emergency calls from concerned citizens.

The incident took place around 6:30 a.m. Friday at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex along Pennrose Avenue, fire officials tell NBC10.

The refinery is burning off additional flammable fuel through a tower at the complex. The flare-up is producing a larger than usual flame that’s causing thick black smoke to billow into the sky.

Residents called 911 concerned by what they saw, but officials said the situation is under control. The Philadelphia Fire Department responded to the scene as a precaution.

Oil trains on Pa. tracks getting more scrutiny after W. Va. explosion

In this aerial photo made available by the Office of the Governor of West Virginia shows a derailed train in Mount Carbon, WV., Tuesday Feb. 17, 2015.  The train carrying crude oil derailed Monday night, causing a large fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes and temporarily shutting down water treatment facilities. (AP Photo/ Office of the Governor of West Virginia, Steven Wayne Rotsch)

Steven Wayne Rotsch / AP/Office of the Gov. of West Virginia

An aerial photo shows a derailed train in Mount Carbon, WV., Tuesday Feb. 17, 2015. The train carrying crude oil derailed Monday night, causing a large fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes and temporarily shutting down water treatment facilities.

The fiery oil train derailment in West Virginia on President’s Day, which forced the evacuation of nearby residents and sent Bakken crude into the Kanawha River, has environmentalists and local lawmakers taking a more critical look at the oil trains running across Pennsylvania’s tracks.

The burning CSX rail cars in the West Virginia accident carried shale oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. Dozens of those same oil trains role across Pennsylvania each day on their way to Philadelphia area refineries.  And driving, walking or biking around Philadelphia these days it’s hard to miss the rows of black cylindrical tanker cars lining the city’s railroad tracks.

Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution Thursday urging the city’s Office of Emergency Management and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to work together and make more information about the oil train routes and safety plans available to the public. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown says the 2014 oil train derailment that had tanker cars hanging over the Schuylkill River close to the downtown area of the city was a warning.

“If there’s ever an accident it would be a bad thing so we need to be proactive and figure out what type of prevention measures they have in place to avoid an accident,” said Reynolds-Brown. “We don’t want to be in a ‘I wish I shoulda coulda place.’”

Just last month another oil train derailed in South Philadelphia. Neither of those incidents resulted in fires, spills or injuries.  Continue Reading

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