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.

Report: Climate change brings hotter summers, wetter winters to Philadelphia

A downed tree blocks a section of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as Hurricane Irene made its way along the Eastern Seaboard, Aug. 28, 2011, in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke / AP

A downed tree blocks a section of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as Hurricane Irene made its way along the Eastern Seaboard, Aug. 28, 2011, in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is expected to get hotter in the summer, with wetter winter weather along with severe storms.

While almost 200 nations gather in Paris to hammer out an agreement to cut carbon dioxide emissions, Philadelphia released its own report on how the city needs to adapt to rising seas and a warming Earth. Climate change will continue to bring hotter summers and wetter winters with more severe storms to the Delaware Valley. Much of the precipitation will be heavy, increasing the risk of flooding.

The city will still have four seasons, and maintain the same freeze thaw cycles.

Katherine Gajewski, Philadelphia’s sustainability director, says hotter summers and wetter winters, accompanied by more severe storms seems like a contradiction.

“So that’s really hard, I think, for people to wrap their minds around,” said Gajewski. “Its generally going to get warmer but yet we’re going to have more severe winters, how can those two realities coexist?” Continue Reading

Climate Change: The engineer’s dilemma

Chris Crockett, deputy commissioner of planning and environmental services for the city of Philadelphia's water department stands by the Delaware river at high tide.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Chris Crockett, deputy commissioner of planning and environmental services for the city of Philadelphia's water department stands by the Delaware River at high tide.

This week ministers from 190 nations will be in Paris to hammer out a treaty to cut carbon dioxide emissions. It’s a geo-political gathering aimed at staving off the worst impacts of climate change – including sea level rise. Predictions of how high and how soon oceans will rise keep changing. And that leaves town planners and local officials with a dilemma. They are the ones responsible for protecting their cities from rising tides and hotter summers. But there’s no seat at the table for them in Paris, and likely no help.

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Gas leaks: A hidden culprit for dead trees

Gas safety consultant Bob Ackley stands next to a dead tree across from the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Gas safety consultant Bob Ackley stands next to a dead tree across from the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Street trees can be especially vulnerable to pests, disease, and lack of water. But it turns out a hidden culprit could also be killing trees — gas leaks.

Here’s something most people who work for gas companies know, when you want to sniff out a leak check for dead or dying vegetation. Evidence for this dates back to the mid-1800′s when naturalists documented the connection between street gas lamps and dying trees, says Nathan Phillips, a tree physiologist and professor at Boston University.

“The causal mechanisms are most likely, primarily, oxygen deprivation,” said Phillips.  ”Roots need oxygen to grow and maintain themselves, and natural gas has no oxygen.”

But tree lovers take comfort, there is at least one guy who has made it his mission to save the trees from gas leaks.

 

“I call him the urban naturalist because he understands the visible indicators above ground of what’s happenening below ground,” said Phillips. Continue Reading

Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale drives boost in nation’s proven gas reserves

A Cabot Oil and Gas well in Northeast Pennsylvania. Production in the Marcellus Shale helped boost the country's proven reserves to record levels.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A Cabot Oil and Gas well in Northeast Pennsylvania. Production in the Marcellus Shale helped boost the country's proven gas reserves to record levels in 2014.

Nationwide, the amount of gas that producers can afford to get out of the ground, broke records in 2014, topping 388 trillion cubic feet, according to a new report from the Energy Information Administration. A big chunk of these proven natural gas reserves came from Pennsylvania’s operators, who added 10.4 trillion cubic feet of gas to 2014’s totals. For the first time, natural gas from shale formations represents more than half of all proven U.S. gas reserves.

Shale oil drillers in North Dakota and Texas contributed to the bump in proven reserves of oil, which were greater than 39 billion barrels, making 2014 the fourth highest year on record.

Fadel Gheit is an energy analyst with Openheimer. He says horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing as a technology drove the increased proven reserves for both oil and gas.

“We thought we could only get the low hanging fruit because we couldn’t reach the fruit at the top of the tree,” Gheit told StateImpact. “But now we have a ladder, now we have a crane. We can get anything we want.” Continue Reading

Philadelphia area refiners cut crude-by-rail shipments in favor of imports

In this photo taken April 9, 2015, people play with their dogs in view of train tank cars with placards indicating petroleum crude oil standing idle on the tracks, in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke / AP

In this photo taken April 9, 2015, people play with their dogs in view of train tank cars with placards indicating petroleum crude oil standing idle on the tracks, in Philadelphia. With the drop in crude oil prices worldwide, Philadelphia area refineries are starting to take more shipments from abroad.

The drop in global oil prices means the number of black crude-by-rail tank cars may become less prominent along the state’s rail lines. Philadelphia area refiners have begun to import more crude from abroad. And oil train traffic has leveled off for the first time this fall, after rising dramatically between 2012 and the early part of 2015. Shipments from the Midwest to the East Coast peaked in March of this year at 13,336 barrels, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. But since then the flow of Bakken crude to the Delaware Valley has declined. The American Association of Railroads reports a 10.1 percent reduction in crude-by-rail during the first nine months of 2015, compared to the same time period in 2014.

Reuters recently reported that the PBF Energy refinery in Delaware City, Del., will be halting their rail shipments of Bakken crude and stepping up imports.

Feidel Gheit, senior energy analyst with Oppenheimer, says the curb in oil train traffic is simple supply and demand.

“We have reached cruising altitude and we are about to descend,” said Gheit. ”It has been increasing every year for the last five years, now it is coming into a plateau and the EIA data supports the fact that we are seeing more demand for West African crude. It’s more competitive, it’s as simple as that.”

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Coal pleads its case against the Clean Power Plan to state lawmakers

Coal miners in Greene County, Pennsylvania.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks/WHYY

Coal miners in Greene County, Pennsylvania.

Things were already pretty bad for Pennsylvania’s coal industry, and the EPA’s new Clean Power Plan will make things worse. That’s the message from industry to a joint hearing of the state’s House and Senate coal caucuses on Tuesday.

“We talk about the perfect storm, what we are in the midst of is the perfect nightmare for coal,” said Emily Medine, a coal consultant with Energy Ventures Analysis.

Medine said the coal industry has taken a hit from low natural gas prices, which has displaced coal in electric power generation, and the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which has led to a large number of domestic coal-plant closures. Since 2010, six Pennsylvania coal powered electric plants have announced plans to close.

Overseas, the strong U.S. dollar has also made coal uncompetitive, to the point where Pennsylvania coal exports have screeched to a halt. And this year’s predicted mild winter won’t help demand.

On top of all this comes the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which was finalized in August and seeks to cut carbon emissions from electric power plants 32 percent by 2030, based on 2005 levels. It’s up to the states to figure out how to reduce their carbon emissions, or face having to implement a plan created by the federal government. Continue Reading

Philadelphia “energy hub” proponents plan to counter rural pipeline opposition

Philadelphia Energy Solutions CEO Phil Rinaldi, PGW CEO Craig White and City Council President Darrell Clarke share a moment before today’s hearings on the future of Philadelphia as an energy hub.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennslylvania

Philadelphia Energy Solutions CEO Phil Rinaldi (L), Philadelphia Gas Works CEO Craig White (C) and Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke (R) share a moment before hearings on the future of Philadelphia as an energy hub earlier this year.

Organized business interests and politicians working to bring Marcellus Shale gas to Philadelphia have a new plan to tackle one of their largest obstacles — pipeline opponents. The Greater Philadelphia Energy Action Team wants to use the state’s abundant, and cheap natural gas supply to revive the city’s manufacturing sector. But the gas will never get to Philadelphia without thousands of miles of new pipelines.

The Wolf Administration estimates tens of thousands of miles of pipe will be installed over the next 20 years to carry Marcellus Shale gas to markets across the country.

Speaking to a group of business people at a conference in downtown Philadelphia, the man behind this “energy hub” concept said he will be taking his pitch to rural and suburban Pennsylvania. Continue Reading

Supreme Court race could hold the key to future environmental rulings

Philadelphia Judge Paul Panepinto speaks during a Pennsylvania Supreme Court debate, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, at the Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, Pa. On Nov. 3, voters will fill three vacancies on the seven-member state Supreme Court.  (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Matt Slocum / AP

Candidates at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court debate, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, at the Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, Pa. On Nov. 3, voters will fill three vacancies on the seven-member state Supreme Court.

Three out of seven seats are up for grabs on Pennsylvania’s highest court, the largest number of open seats since colonial days. A record-setting $15.8 million has been spent on the state Supreme Court race, which indicates just how much is at stake here. Education funding, gun control, abortion, state redistricting (can you say Red or Blue?), and in our neck of the woods, the new court may also grapple with the Robinson Township decision, the controversial and wide ranging environmental ruling that struck down parts of the state’s oil and gas law Act 13.

When the court rejected state preemption over local zoning control for oil and gas production almost two years ago, the judges did not all agree. Only three cited the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment as reason to overturn the law. The fourth justice, while agreeing to overturn the law, cited due process, not the state constitutions article 1, section 27, referred by many as the Environmental Rights Amendment. But two of those justices are gone, including the former Chief Justice Ron Castille, who actually wrote the opinion. And today, voters will be deciding who takes their place.

In addition to several unresolved issues related to that ruling scheduled to come before the new court, the justices may end up reviewing the key argument cited in the 2013 Robinson decision by  the plurality of three judges. What is the weight given to the literal interpretation of the Environmental Rights Amendment?

For a look at how those running for the Supreme Court view the Robinson decision, check out their answers to questions from the League of Women Voters.

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hear more arguments on Act 13

A hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A hydraulic fracturing site in Susquehanna County, Pa.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments related to its December, 2013 decision regarding the state’s comprehensive update to its oil and gas law, known as Act 13. In an order published this week, the court determined that it would take up several unresolved issues, but it would not revisit its interpretation of article 1, section 27 of the state constitution, also known as the Environmental Rights Amendment.

In the 2013 landmark decision, a plurality of justices ruled that it would be unconstitutional for the state to preempt local zoning decisions, as outlined in the new oil and gas law approved by the legislature and signed by then Governor Tom Corbett back in February, 2012. Three justices, including Chief Justice Ron Castille, struck down the provision based on what was at the time, the state’s little known Environmental Rights Amendment, which guarantees ”clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. ”

The decision was both surprising and controversial, celebrated by environmentalists, and derided by industry attorneys. Continue Reading

New natural gas plant to replace shuttered coal facility in Snyder County

An aerial shot of the former Sunbury coal plant. A new natural gas powered plant will be constructed to replaces the shuttered facility.

courtesy of Panda Power

An aerial shot of the former Sunbury coal plant. A new natural gas powered plant will be constructed to replace the shuttered facility along the Susquehanna river.

A private equity firm has announced financing for a new natural gas power plant in central Pennsylvania’s Snyder County, along the west bank of the Susquehanna river. Panda Power, a Texas company, says Goldman Sachs, ICBC, and Investec have invested $710 million, while Siemens Financial Services will provide $125 million in equity to build the new power plant at the site of the former Sunbury coal plant in Shamokin Dam, Pa. The entire project will likely cost about $1.1 billion. Bechtel and Siemens Energy were selected to build the 1,124 MW plant, which the company says is one of the largest coal-to-gas conversions in the nation. It will use Marcellus Shale gas to generate enough power for about 1 million homes, or its equivalent.

The coal plant closed in 2014, after operating for 65 years. Like many coal plants across the country it was a victim of lower natural gas prices, combined with new federal limits on air pollutants. The Sunbury coal plant generated 400 megawatts of electricity, less than half of what the new plant is expected to produce.

“The natural gas revolution has arrived in the heart of coal country,” said Todd W. Carter, president and senior partner of Panda Power Funds, in a release. “I’m proud Panda is leading the way toward clean natural gas-fueled generation. We’re ready to take what we’ve learned in Pennsylvania and apply it to other coal-fired projects across the nation.” Continue Reading

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