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." She received a 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. In 2013/14 she spent a year at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. She has also been a Metcalf Fellow, an MBL Logan Science Journalism Fellow and reported from Marrakech on the 2016 climate talks as an International Reporting Project Fellow. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, she earned her Bachelor's degree in International Relations from George Washington University.

Report: Mariner East pipelines could have a $9 billion financial impact

Mariner East 2 construction site on Shepherd Road in Edgemont Township, Delaware County. A new report says the pipeline construction could generate $9 billion in economic benefits for the state over six years.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Mariner East 2 construction site on Shepherd Road in Edgemont Township, Delaware County. A new report says the pipeline construction could generate $9 billion in economic benefits for the state over six years.

The Mariner East pipelines and related plant could have a potential $9 billion financial impact in the state over six years, according to a report by the firm Econsult Solutions.

Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners, which is building the $2.5 billion pipeline, paid for the report. It analyzes the economic benefits of the Mariner East 1, 2, and 2X pipelines that will carry natural gas liquids from the western part of Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio about 350 miles across the state to a processing and export facility in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.

The report, published Monday, comes less than a week after the Department of Environmental Protection shut down a large part of the construction on the Mariner East 2 following months of continued permit violations and damaged waterways. It uses project budgets and standard modeling to forecast potential economic benefits, including spending and employment, between 2014 through 2019. The report does not factor in social and environmental costs, or potential loss of property values.

“There are potentially other benefits that we haven’t counted and there are costs that we haven’t counted,” said Stephen Mullin, president of Econsult Solutions Inc. and an author of the report. “We say, if you build a pipeline you’re going to hire construction workers and you’re going to buy stuff and you’re going to spend money and it’s going to have an impact on the economy here.”

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Changing climate and Philly’s freezing temperatures

Youths play ice hockey on a frozen pond at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park during a winter storm, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Philadelphia.

Matt Slocum / AP Photo

Youths play ice hockey on a frozen pond at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park during a winter storm, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Philadelphia.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the freezing temperatures and recent snow storm actually line up perfectly with predictions made by climate scientists for the Philadelphia region. Average global temperatures are rising, and the Philadelphia area is no exception. Sixteen of the seventeen warmest years on record happened since 2001.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t have cold, wet weather, especially in this region. Christine Knapp is Philadelphia’s Sustainability Director. She’s in charge of helping the city prepare for and understand a changing climate, which for the Delaware Valley means warmer and wetter weather.

“The precipitation is most likely to increase in the winter in the form of snow,” Knapp says.

That’s because warming oceans put more moisture and energy into the atmosphere, creating conditions for stronger storms. Continue Reading

Trump proposes oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2016 file photo, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez addresses a large rally in Asbury Park, N.J., opposing federal plans that would allow oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. The Obama administration has moved to restrict access to offshore oil drilling leases in the Atlantic, as well as off Alaska. But President-elect Trump has said that he intends to open up offshore drilling, and environmentalists and coastal businesses say it could be the first major fault line that divides them from the new president.

Mel Evans / AP Photo File

FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2016 file photo, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez addresses a large rally in Asbury Park, N.J., opposing federal plans that would allow oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic Ocean proposed under the Obama administration. Obama abandoned his plans. But Trump has now proposed opening up 90 percent of the nation's coastlines to drilling.

President Trump wants to open up almost all federal waters to offshore drilling, including waters along the coasts of New Jersey and Delaware. The draft proposal could lead to the largest lease sale ever. But the plan would face substantial opposition along the New Jersey and Delaware shorelines.

The proposal reverses course from previous administrations and would make more than 90 percent of the outer continental shelf available to oil and gas developers. Most of the lease sales would be in Alaska. But Trump also proposes to open up the Atlantic coast. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says it’s part of Trump’s “America first” strategy.

“This is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance,” Zinke said in a call to reporters Thursday. “And under President Trump we’re gonna become the strongest energy superpower.” Continue Reading

DEP suspends all construction on Mariner East 2 pipeline

Eric Friedman, right, who lives nearby, takes video of a Mariner East 2 pipeline work site at Shepherd Lane in Glen Mills on Wednesday. Because of permit violations, construction of Sunoco's Mariner East 2 pipeline was halted Wednesday by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which said the company must meet certain conditions before it will be able to resume work.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Eric Friedman, right, who lives nearby, takes video of a Mariner East 2 pipeline work site at Shepherd Lane in Glen Mills on Wednesday. Because of permit violations, construction of Sunoco's Mariner East 2 pipeline was halted Wednesday by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which said the company must meet certain conditions before it will be able to resume work.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection on Wednesday suspended all construction on Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline, saying it has violated the conditions of two kinds of permits.

“Sunoco must cease all construction activity on the pipeline project, except for maintenance of erosion controls and limited maintenance of horizontal directional drilling equipment,” the DEP said in a statement.

“Until Sunoco can demonstrate that the permit conditions can and will be followed, DEP has no alternative but to suspend the permits,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “We are living up to our promise to hold this project accountable to the strong protections in the permits.”

DEP directed the company to submit details on how it plans to prevent drilling mud spills – or “inadvertent returns” – that have challenged the project in their dozens since construction began last February.

It also instructed the company to address impacts to private water wells in Silver Spring Township, Cumberland County, and to identify all “in progress and upcoming construction activities.” Continue Reading

Dominion’s Cove Point plant preparing to export LNG

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

This photo shows Dominion Resources Cove Point terminal in Maryland. It has completed its conversion from a gas import facility to an export terminal to ship Marcellus Shale gas to Asia. In December, it received its first natural gas shipment, which will need to be liquefied before being loaded onto a tanker.

A once idled natural gas import terminal along the Chesapeake Bay — which had become a haven for gulls feeding on scraps from a nearby dump — completed its $4 billion transformation to a liquefaction plant and export facility this month by taking its first shipment of natural gas.

Marcellus Shale gas flowing through pipelines from Northeast Pennsylvania will be cooled to  minus-260 degrees at Dominion Energy’s converted Cove Point liquefied natural gas plant in Lusby, Maryland. The gas will be loaded onto newly built tankers and shipped to Japan and India.

It’s the second LNG export terminal to come online in the U.S. in the past several years, and with five others planned, it will help the country move from being a net importer of energy to a net exporter.

Sam Andrus, a natural gas analyst and senior director with IHS Markit, says the shale gas boom, particularly in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, helped fuel the switch from imports to exports.

“Ten years ago we were expecting to be importing natural gas and we were expecting our price of natural gas to be 7, 10, 15 dollars,” Andrus said.

Today, that price is less than $3, which made it worth spending $4 billion to convert the Cove Point plant to serve overseas markets hungry for a cheap energy source other than coal. Continue Reading

FERC, saying ‘much has changed’, will review natural gas pipeline policy

FERC's headquarters in Washington, DC. The agency said it will review its longstanding policy on certification of natural gas pipelines.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

FERC's headquarters in Washington, DC. The agency said it will review its longstanding policy on certification of natural gas pipelines.

The top federal regulator for the pipeline industry said Thursday that it will review its 18-year-old policy on the certification of natural gas pipelines.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave no specific reason for the review but issued a brief statement saying that “much has changed” in the energy world since the agency began the policy on how to review natural gas pipeline applications in 1999.

The new FERC chairman, Kevin McIntyre, said it was “incumbent upon us to take another look at the way in which we assess the value and viability of our pipeline applications.”

He said the review would be “thorough,” and will take into account the views of all stakeholders. Continue Reading

EPA union leader: Public records request was ‘retaliation for my political activities’

Protesters march on Arch Street in support of the EPA. Tuesday, March 21, 2017.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Protesters march on Arch Street in support of the EPA, Tuesday, March 21, 2017. EPA employee Gary Morton spoke at the rally. About a week later, a Freedom of Information Act request was made seeking any emails between him and Sen. Bob Casey.

With looming budget cuts threatening jobs, employees at the Environmental Protection Agency have something else to worry about. A private agency investigated employees who criticized the EPA, according to a report in the New York Times.

When EPA union official Gary Morton protested proposed budget cuts during his lunch hour last March outside EPA’s Region 3 headquarters in Center City Philadelphia, he didn’t think it would lead to a public records request regarding his emails.

“I said, wow, this is a George Orwell type state,” Morton said.

Ten days after that rally, an attorney working with America Rising, a Republican opposition research group that specializes in digging up dirt on rival candidates, used the Freedom of Information Act to seek emails between Morton and Democratic Senator Bob Casey. The Times reports that the EPA has since hired an affiliated group of America Rising to monitor press coverage for the agency. Continue Reading

Congressman Meehan seeks pipeline risk assessment for Mariner East 2

A sign marks the path of the Mariner East 1 pipeline through Chester County.

Kim Paynter / Newsworks

A sign marks the path of the Mariner East 1 pipeline through Chester County.

Responding to landowners’ concerns regarding pipeline construction in Delaware and Chester counties, suburban Philadelphia Congressman Pat Meehan (R-7) has asked Gov. Tom Wolf to conduct a risk assessment of Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline. In a letter to Wolf on Dec. 12, Meehan wrote “a risk assessment would be a welcome and responsible step in providing residents with the information they need to better understand the construction and operation of this pipeline…”

The Mariner East 2 pipeline received its permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in February 2017, after the company failed several attempts to produce completed applications and was repeatedly sent back to the drawing board by DEP. Critics said the permits issued by the administration did not meet standards set by the DEP.

The construction along the 350-mile pipeline that would carry natural gas liquids has since been plagued with problems, including dozens of drilling mud spills. In one case the construction ruined an aquifer in a Chester County community. The pipeline project also resulted in 552,000 gallons of bentonite mud spilled into LeTort Spring Run, an Exceptional Value wetland in Cumberland County. Bentonite is non-toxic, but in large amounts can smother aquatic life. Continue Reading

Study: Low birth weights linked to fracking sites

A natural gas well pad in central Pennsylvania.

Scott Detrow / StateImpact PA

A natural gas well pad in central Pennsylvania, with a home in the foreground. A new study shows infants born to mothers living within a half mile of active fracking sites have a higher risk of low birth weights compared to those living further away.

Infants born to mothers who live very close to natural gas fracking sites have a higher risk of low birth weight, according to a new peer-reviewed study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. 

The study is the largest of its kind, and was conducted by researchers from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and Princeton University. It builds on previous research that also found health impacts to infants born near gas wells in Pennsylvania.

The report, “Hydraulic Fracturing and Infant Health: New Evidence from Pennsylvania” used data from 1.1 million births in all Pennsylvania counties during a ten year period between 2004 and 2013. The time frame begins before fracking for natural gas took off in the state, and includes the height of the gas boom. Researchers were able to know addresses of mothers as well as the birth weight of their babies, and combine that information with data that included the location and dates of fracked gas wells. Continue Reading

Lawmaker: Natural gas lobby too influential in severance tax debate

Debate continues in the state Legislature over a severance tax on natural gas drillers.

Debate continues in the state Legislature over a severance tax on natural gas drillers.

A Democratic lawmaker from Delaware County says the current debate over the severance tax is unduly influenced by the natural gas industry, which has spent millions lobbying lawmakers.

With more than 200 gas industry lobbyists registered in Harrisburg, State Rep. Greg Vitali says the industry has spent $3.7 million on lobbying the Capitol this year alone.

Using campaign finance reports, lobbying disclosure reports, lobbying registration statements and lawmakers’ statements of financial interests, Vitali has regularly tracked industry spending.

He says in order to pass a severance tax, House members would have to agree to changes in the way the Department of Environmental Protection regulates the industry.

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