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." 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.

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.

Continue Reading

Marcellus Shale boom cuts costs for Pennsylvania ratepayers

The township hopes the resolution spur legislative action to address royalty complaints.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A Cabot Oil and Gas well site in Northeast Pennsylvania. The Marcellus Shale gas boom has reduced utility bills for residents by 40 percent on average.

Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale gas boom has significantly cut energy costs for consumers across the state, according to a new study released Friday by the University of Pennsylvania. Residential gas customers have seen a price drop of 40 percent on average, compared to costs ten years ago. Before Marcellus production ramped up, Pennsylvania produced just one percent of the nation’s supply of natural gas, but today the state accounts for 16 percent. Production jumped 2,800 percent in the ten-year period covered by the report.

“That additional supply has helped drive prices down at a significant savings for consumers.” said Christina Simeone, policy director with Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and author of “Pennsylvania’s Gas Decade.” Continue Reading

Costa Rica banks on low-carbon coffee

Erasmo Arrieta Soto tastes coffee at the Santa Anita Coffee Estate, Naranjo Costa Rica.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Erasmo Arrieta Soto tastes coffee at the Santa Anita Coffee Estate, Naranjo Costa Rica.

Ulises Ramírez began picking coffee when he was ten. It’s a family trade that dates back generations in the western valley of Costa Rica, where high altitudes and volcanic soils help produce some of the best coffee beans in the world. The 37-year-old now oversees farming at the Santa Anita Coffee Estate, a 250-acre coffee plantation in Naranjo, Costa Rica. Ramirez has seen a lot of changes in the past 17 years.

“The climate is crazy. Sometimes it will rain for days and then there won’t be rain and there’s way more pests than there used to be so we have to buy more products to combat the pests,” he said.

Ramírez works on a farm that is not only trying to adapt to a changing climate, it’s trying to do its part to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Santa Anita is one of a few coffee farms in the country pioneering efforts to produce low-carbon coffee.

The low-carbon coffee that Costa Rica is pushing is part of an overall plan by the country to become the first carbon neutral nation and serve as an example to the rest of the world for how to tackle climate change. It’s a small country with big climate ambitions.

Pascal Girot is a senior advisor to Costa Rica’s Minister of Environment and Energy.

“The idea of being climate friendly, climate neutral, low emissions coffee, low emissions meat, we’re seeing this as a niche product,” said Pascal Girot, a senior advisor to Costa Rica’s Minister of Environment and Energy.

Continue Reading

PJM says plan to subsidize coal, nukes, “not workable”

-A Norfolk Southern freight train hauling coal makes it way through downtown Pittsburgh Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. The Department of Energy has proposed subsidizing coal and nuclear power in the face of competition from natural gas and renewables.

Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

A Norfolk Southern freight train hauling coal makes it way through downtown Pittsburgh Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. The Department of Energy has proposed subsidizing coal and nuclear power in the face of competition from natural gas and renewables.The DOE says it's necessary for grid reliability but that argument is discounted by its own reliability study.

PJM Interconnection, the region’s electric power grid operator says the Trump administration’s proposal to subsidize coal and nuclear is “unworkable.” In comments filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday, PJM opposes the effort by Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry to have utilities compensate coal and nuclear plants that store a 90-day supply of fuel, in the interest of grid reliability.

The proposal would now specifically target the mid-Atlantic region where coal and nuclear plants are shutting down in the face of competition from cheaper natural gas, wind and solar. PJM’s footprint includes 13 states and the District of Columbia, where about half of the power generation comes from coal and nuclear. It operates a competitive electricity auction each year. If FERC follows through on the DOE’s request, it could mean higher energy prices for consumers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware as well as other ratepayers in PJM’s territory. Continue Reading

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