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.

Clean energy advocates urge DNC to ban fracking, promote renewable fuels

Opponents of the Algonquin Pipeline cheer speakers at a rally after the clean energy march in Philadelphia Sunday afternoon.

Jonathan Wilson / Newsworks

Opponents of the Algonquin Pipeline cheer speakers at a rally after the clean energy march in Philadelphia Sunday afternoon.

Thousands of campaigners for clean energy marched through the center of Philadelphia on the eve of the Democratic National Convention on Sunday, urging the party to adopt policies that would ban fracking and promote the use of renewable energy.

In an event that mixed national politics with local opposition to specific energy projects, some demonstrators called on the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, to step up her support for renewable energy, while others – many of them backers of Clinton’s former rival, Senator Bernie Sanders — vowed never to support Clinton even if that increased the chances of the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, becoming president.

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DEP fines pipeline company $1.5 million for damaging Butler County wetlands

Natural gas gathering lines in Bradford County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Natural gas gathering lines in Bradford County. A company building a gathering line system in Butler County has agreed to pay $1.5 million fine for allowing sediment to run into a stream and wetlands.

A company constructing a pipeline system in Butler County to connect gas wells to a processing plant will pay $1.5 million for causing a landslide into a stream, and discharging sediment in to a wetland. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection says Stonehenge Appalachia has entered a consent order with the agency and agreed to pay the fine.

“This type of man-made ecological impact is both egregious and avoidable, and never should have occurred,” said Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “By this action, Stonehenge accepts both environmental and financial responsibility for their actions.”

Stonehenge incurred the violations while building an 18-mile gathering line for the State College based independent producer Rex Energy, which plans to transport the gas to MarkWest Energy’s Bluestone Processingfacility in Evans City.

DEP says between November 2015 and March 2016, Stonehenge allowed sediment to enter a stream and fill two wetlands. The company also discharged “significant drilling fluids, including bentonite clay” into waterways.

Health study shows connection between asthma attacks and gas drilling

Sixteen compression generators power a Cabot Oil & Gas hydraulic fracturing "fracking" site along with two "frack vans" that monitor the operations.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Sixteen compression generators power a Cabot Oil & Gas hydraulic fracturing "fracking" site along with two "frack vans" that monitor the operations.

People with asthma face a larger risk of asthma attacks if they live near heavy gas drilling activity in Pennsylvania, compared to those who don’t, according to research by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The report “Association Between Unconventional Natural Gas Development in the Marcellus Shale and Asthma Exacerbations,” is the first to make use of extensive electronic health records from the Geisinger Health System, along with state well production data, to examine the impact on asthma.

“Ours is the first to look at asthma but we now have several studies suggesting adverse health outcomes related to the drilling of unconventional natural gas wells,” said Sara G. Rasmussen, the study’s lead researcher and a PhD candidate in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. “Going forward, we need to focus on the exact reasons why these things are happening, because if we know why, we can help make the industry safer.”

Rasmussen and her colleagues looked at the health records of more than 35,000 Geisinger patients between the ages of 5 and 90 who had asthma. Geisinger has been keeping detailed electronic health records since the early 2000′s, which made for a large data set. The researchers looked at patients health records between 2005 and 2012. The healthcare system encompasses 40 counties in central and northeast Pennsylvania. Continue Reading

Commonwealth court upholds eminent domain in Sunoco pipeline case

A judge's ruling allows opponents of the Mariner East 2 pipeline to argue their case in court.

Dozens of eminent domain cases across the state have held up construction of the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Commonwealth Court ruled Thursday that Sunoco was a public utility, granted eminent domain authority by the PUC.

A state appeals court dealt a blow to property owners fighting eminent domain takings by Sunoco Logistics on Thursday. Commonwealth Court ruled that in the case of the Mariner East 2 pipeline, Sunoco is a public utility subject to regulation by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which it says granted the company a certificate of public convenience that extends to all 17 counties along the hotly contested pipeline’s path. The majority 5-2 opinion cited the PUC’s decision:

[T]his authority [under existing CPCs] is not limited to a specific pipe or set of pipes, but rather, includes both the upgrading of current facilities and the expansion of existing capacity as needed for the provision of the authorized service within a certificated territory.

The Commonwealth Court decision, written by Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, determined that the Mariner East 2 pipeline is both interstate and intrastate, and therefore subject to jurisdiction by both the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the PUC. Continue Reading

Feds propose new safety rules for oil trains

This aerial view provided by the Washington state Department of Ecology scattered and burned oil tank cars shows Saturday, June 4, 2016, after the train derailed and burned near Mosier, Ore., Friday. Union Pacific Railroad says it had recently inspected the section of track near Mosier, about 70 miles east of Portland, and had been inspected at least six times since March 21.

Washington Department of Ecology via AP

This aerial view provided by the Washington state Department of Ecology shows scattered and burned oil tank cars Saturday, June 4, 2016, after the most recent oil train derailment near Mosier, Ore. Union Pacific Railroad says it had recently inspected the section of track near Mosier, about 70 miles east of Portland, and had been inspected at least six times since March 21.

Two federal agencies have proposed new safety regulations for oil trains. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration, both divisions of the Department of Transportation, announced the proposals Wednesday, which are aimed at sharing information with state emergency management agencies. The agencies also want to require a new test for the flammable liquids.

“This rule goes one step further to hold industry accountable to plan and prepare for the worst case scenario,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a release.  ”It would help to ensure that railroads have comprehensive plans to respond to derailments when they occur and better ensure the safety of communities living near railroads.”

The rules would require railroads to boost their current response plans from “basic” to “comprehensive” under the federal Clean Water Act, as well as prepare for the worst case scenario. Continue Reading

Study: CO2 emissions from coal mine drainage higher than expected

Acid mine drainage from the Potts Colliery near Shamokin, Pa., stains the creek bed orange.

Rick Smith / AP PHOTO

Acid mine drainage from the Potts Colliery near Shamokin, Pa., stains the creek bed orange. New research suggests these waters could also be a significant source of CO2 emissions.

Carbon dioxide emissions from mine water could be greater than previous estimates, according to new research from West Virginia University. The study calculated that CO2 emissions from 140 coal mine drainage sites in Pennsylvania could equal those from a small power plant.

“The numbers are higher than I expected to see,” said Dorothy Vesper, associate professor of geology at West Virginia University and the author of the study “Inorganic carbon dynamics and CO2 flux associated with coal-mine drainage sites in Blythedale PA and Lambert WV, USA.” Vesper’s paper was published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Earth Sciences in February. 

Vesper says the findings indicate that CO2 emissions from coal mine drainage could be overlooked when thinking about the Earth’s overall release of carbon, and how those emissions are driving climate change.

“It would be interesting to know if this is important,” said Vesper. “There’s been a lot of research in recent years regarding CO2 evasion, that’s the idea that CO2 escapes from surface waters. And some of those numbers suggest it might be really important and has to be accounted for in a carbon budget.” Continue Reading

Federal court rules FERC doesn’t have to review upstream impacts of LNG

Dominion's offshore loading platform at Cove Point. Lusby, Maryland. Dominion wants to start exporting LNG from this platform.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY/Newsworks

Dominion's offshore loading platform at Cove Point in Lusby, Maryland. Dominion wants to start exporting LNG from this platform. Marcellus Shale gas will supply the Cove Point plant. Environmentalists want FERC to review the upstream impacts of increased natural gas production that would result from exports.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is not required to examine the upstream impacts of natural gas development when reviewing the environmental impacts of new liquefied natural gas export facilities under the National Environmental Policy Act. Instead, the court said that if any agency should examine upstream impacts, it would be the Department of Energy, which has to approve LNG exports. The case involved two LNG terminals on the Gulf Coast, one in Sabine Pass, Louisiana and the other in Freeport, Texas. The D.C. Circuit is also reviewing challenges to Maryland’s Cove Point LNG terminal but has not yet ruled in that case.

Charlie Riedl, executive director of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, said the rulings “make clear” that the current environmental review process is complete when it comes to LNG exports.

“The consequence of these rulings is that the US LNG industry will continue to grow – creating jobs, tax revenue and economic growth across the country,” Riedl said in a statement. “Additionally, studies have shown that US LNG exports help promote the use of natural gas by our allies and trading partners, which, in turn, helps to lower global greenhouse gas emissions.”

The challenge was brought by the Sierra Club, which did not respond to request for comment.

The Sierra Club sued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission claiming the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not conducting an environmental review that takes into consideration the upstream impacts of natural gas production. Continue Reading

PA House considering private development in state parks

An elk near the Elk County Visitor Center, which is located on DCNR land.

Steve Manuel / AP Photo

An elk near the Elk County Visitor Center, which is located on DCNR land.

The House could vote this week on a bill that would allow more private development in state parks, including golf courses, amusement parks, hotels, restaurants or office buildings. The proposal, HB 2013, was introduced by Brian Ellis R-Butler. It was originally written to include a board that would have the authority to approve private development in the parks, which are operated by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. But the bill is now amended to have DCNR hire a consultant, who would produce a report on how private development could take place in the state parks.

In introducing the bill, Rep. Ellis said Pennsylvania lags behind other states in offering modern accommodations. “West Virginia, for example, has a number of state parks with sizeable lodging facilities, conference centers and golfing,” wrote Ellis in his co-sponsoring memo.  ”Ohio has similar facilities at nine of its state parks.  Pennsylvania, however, has one small bed and breakfast-type lodge at Bald Eagle State Park.”

It’s not the first time the legislature has considered opening up state parks to greater development, and has environmentalists worried that it’s inconsistent with the mission of state parks. Continue Reading

Gov. Wolf signs bill that rejects conventional drilling regulations

Kimberly Paynter/Newsworks.org

Kimberly Paynter / Newsworks

Governor Wolf signed into law a new package of regulations for Marcellus Shale drillers that have been five years in the making.

Governor Wolf signed a bill that would scrap the conventional oil and gas regulations, while new rules for Marcellus Shale wells move forward. Wolf also approved a new climate change regulation that lengthens the time lawmakers get to review the administration’s plans for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to comply with Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The new drilling rules have been in the works since lawmakers updated the state’s oil and gas law back in 2012.

Environmentalists criticized Wolf’s decision to scrap the proposed rules for the conventional, more shallow gas wells, which are not necessarily produced with the use of fracking. Wolf’s spokesman Jeff Sheridan told StateImpact last week that the entire package of conventional and unconventional well regulations was in jeopardy unless the administration compromised and tabled the conventional drilling wells. Wolf said in a release that he was “pleased to have reached a bi-partisan agreement with the legislature” to enact the unconventional well regulations. Continue Reading

Lawsuit accuses Range Resources and lab of doctoring water test results

This July 27, 2011 file photo shows a farmhouse in the background framed by pipes connecting pumps where the hydraulic fracturing process in the Marcellus Shale layer to release natural gas was underway at a Range Resources site in Claysville, Pa.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

This photo taken July 27, 2011 shows a farmhouse in the background framed by pipes connecting pumps where the hydraulic fracturing process was underway at a Range Resources site in Claysville, Pa.

A water testing company that worked with Range Resources to evaluate whether or not residential water supplies were contaminated is defending itself against a lawsuit that claims the company allowed the gas driller to alter a print out of the test results, which Range then submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP used the altered results, in part, to conclude that the Washington County residents’ drinking water was safe, and passed on the lab results to the residents. The family, John, Beth and Ashley Voyles, had also had their water tested as part of the EPA’s landmark fracking study, and say they agreed to the testing only if they would have access to the results. The EPA came to the opposite conclusion of DEP, advising the Voyles not to drink their water. Before receiving the test results, the Voyles had already stopped drinking their water, which they say made them sick.

The company, TestAmerica, has facilities across the U.S. and is a member of the industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition. The company’s website declares itself “the leader in environmental testing.” TestAmerica is defending itself against a civil lawsuit brought by the Voyles who say the company conspired with the gas driller to defraud them of accurate test results, which would have revealed dangerous contaminants. The accusations are part of a larger case against Range Resources, and attorneys representing TestAmerica will be in Washington County Court of Common Pleas on Thursday, in an attempt to get the company dismissed from the civil suit. Continue Reading

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