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.

Officials say no drinking water impacted by Sunoco pipeline rupture

An aerial photo shows flood water damage of the roadway and the Wallis Run Bridge in Gamble, Pa. Sunoco officials say the bridge washed downstream and struck the pipeline, spilling an estimated 55,000 gallons of gasoline.

courtesy of Sunoco Logistics

An aerial photo shows flood water damage to the roadway and the Wallis Run Bridge in Gamble, Pa. Sunoco officials say the bridge washed downstream and struck the pipeline, spilling an estimated 55,000 gallons of gasoline.

Updated 10/25/16

The state Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA continue to sample water downstream from a gasoline pipeline break in Lycoming County, and say so far no levels of petroleum have been detected that would risk public health. Terry Maenza, a spokesman for American Water, which serves about 12,000 customers in the area near the accident says their sampling has also found no traces of the contaminant. American Water had shut down its intake valves and asked customers to conserve water on Friday after an estimated 55,000 gallons of gasoline spilled into a tributary of the Loyalsock Creek. The Loyalsock runs into the Susquehanna River. Officials speculate that the flood waters that likely caused the pipeline rupture were so heavy, that the leaked fuel was quickly diluted as it flowed downstream.

“Everything is back to normal,” said Maenza. He says the company lifted it’s conservation request and resumed operations on Sunday.

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Sunoco gas pipeline ruptures in Lycoming County

Heavy rains brought flash floods to Lycoming County, which washed out a bridge  on Wallis Run Road. The yellow pipeline marker shows the location of the Sunoco pipeline that ruptured and spilled an estimated 55,000 gallons of gasoline into Wallis Run creek.

courtesy of Carol Kafer/ Loyalsock Watershed Association

Heavy rains brought flash floods to Lycoming County, which washed out a bridge on Wallis Run Road. The yellow pipeline marker shows the location of the Sunoco pipeline that ruptured and spilled an estimated 55,000 gallons of gasoline into Wallis Run creek.

Flash floods and landslides in north-central Pennsylvania have caused a Sunoco pipeline to rupture, spilling an estimated 55,000 gallons of gasoline into a tributary of Loyalsock creek in Lycoming County. Sunoco’s control center responded to the rupture at about 3 a.m. Friday morning, after a decrease in pressure was detected and residents noticed a strong smell of gasoline, according to Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields. The Department of Environmental Protection says it sent staff to the spill in Gamble Township along with local emergency crews, the state Fish and Boat Commission, the EPA, and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

The DEP says the area is difficult to access safely because of heavy flooding. The agency says the flood waters will have to recede before determining the source of the rupture, which may not be until Saturday as rain is expected to continue. In the meantime, Sunoco had shut down the 8-inch line that runs from Reading to Buffalo, N.Y. Sunoco has taken a lot of heat for its pipelines recently. Local opposition against the Mariner East 2 pipeline has resulted in arrests and lawsuits. Sunoco is also behind the planned Dakota Access pipeline that has drawn international attention for protests by Native Americans. And a recent analysis by Reuters of government data on pipeline spills shows Sunoco pipelines leak more often than any other operator, with 200 releases since 2010.

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Higher than expected “sunny day floods” caused by climate change

Police patrol flooded streets in a military vehicle in Dewey Beach, Del., on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015. Tidal flooding from a nor'easter continues to make driving a challenge in the storm-battered resort town of Ocean City, Maryland.

Randall Chase / AP Photo

Police patrol flooded streets in a military vehicle in Dewey Beach, Del., on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015. Tidal flooding from a nor'easter made driving a challenge in the storm-battered resort town of Ocean City, Maryland.

It no longer takes a bad storm to cause floods in towns up and down the Delaware River, as well as the Jersey Shore. Rising sea levels are making high tides even higher, creating what some refer to as “sunny day floods.” And its human-caused climate change that is behind them, according to a new report from researchers at Climate Central. The research organization looked at 27 tidal gauges across the country along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts, and found that 76 percent of flood days that occurred between 2005-2014 would not have happened without the impacts of climate change. The report bases its figures on 6 inches of sea level rise, as well as work published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that quantified the amount of sea level rise attributed to climate change.

In Philadelphia, 83 out of 120 flood days during those 10 years were due to higher sea levels, according to the report. In Atlantic City, it was 162 out of 229, and in Lewes, Delaware, that number was 143 out of 214. Ben Strauss, vice president for sea level and climate impacts at Climate Central says the research results surprised him.

“I did not expect that that so little sea level rise could cause that much a high fraction of our coastal floods,” said Strauss. “And it really underscores for me that we are really just inches into a problem that’s going to be measured in feet.” Continue Reading

PA Senate race: A proxy war for national interests

 In this combination of photos shows Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidates Democrat Katie McGinty, left, in Philadelphia, and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, in Villanova, Pa.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

This combination of photos shows Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidates Democrat Katie McGinty, left, in Philadelphia, and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, in Villanova, Pa.

When it comes to Beltway politics, all eyes are on the Pennsylvania Senate race. The tight contest between incumbent Republican Pat Toomey and his Democratic challenger Katie McGinty could help decide which party controls the Senate. Millions of dollars are flowing in from outside groups, including those aligned with fossil fuel interests, and those supporting national environmental groups. The millions in dollars from big oil and big green flowing into this race reflects how the two candidates have starkly different views on energy, environment and climate change.

In the debate over the nation’s energy future, a lot rides on which party controls the U.S. Senate. So even if these are not the top issues for Pennsylvania voters, you can bet they are for the fossil fuel industry worried about new environmental regulations like the Clean Power Plan, as well as environmentalists racing to put a halt to a warming planet. On the airwaves and in mailboxes across the state, it’s as if two sides are waging a proxy war over energy and the environment in the Pennsylvania senate race.

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Energy pops up as a surprise topic in Sunday’s presidential debate

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton exchange views during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.

Julio Cortez / AP Photo

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton exchange views during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.

Questions over the country’s energy future surfaced in the Presidential debate Sunday night. It was a surprising five minutes of policy discussion in a tense debate that focused on character attacks.

Undecided voter Ken Bone, who found unexpected popularity on social media and later said the debate felt like watching his parents fight, posed this question:

“What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly, and minimizing job loss for fossil [fuel] power plant workers?”

This really is the perfect question for anyone running for office right now – how do we combat climate change, maintain clean air, keep the lights burning, and not fire people who have no college education, and few prospects for good paying jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, coal miners make an average fifty-thousand dollars a year. Compare that to trying to get a comparable job in the wind or solar industry. Although the BLS doesn’t track earnings for those jobs, it does track manufacturing in general. And the average wage for someone making semi-conductors for solar installations is about thirty-two thousand dollars a year. Continue Reading

While global methane emissions are up, study says fossil fuels not the culprit

NOAA researcher Stefan Schwietzke and pilot Stephen Conley prepare to take off on a research flight to measure methane emissions in Colorado.

Will Von Dauster / courtesy of NOAA

NOAA researcher Stefan Schwietzke and pilot Stephen Conley prepare to take off on a research flight to measure methane emissions in Colorado.

A new study from NOAA, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, puts a new twist on a tricky question about the impact of increased oil and gas production on greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists have detected increased rates of methane emissions globally since 2007. That uptick corresponds to the rapid boom in U.S. shale gas and shale oil production, and some hypothesized that the two could be connected. But it turns out that the correlation may not necessarily be a cause.

The research published Wednesday in the journal Nature found that although previous methane emissions from fossil fuel production, which includes coal, oil and gas, were significantly underestimated, the overall atmospheric increases in methane is not due to oil and gas production. NOAA, which has been measuring methane in the atmosphere since 1984, says the global increase in methane could be coming from microbial sources including wetlands, rice paddies and agricultural livestock like cows. Methane is considered more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide because although it breaks down more quickly than CO2,  it traps heat 28 times more effectively over the course of 100 years.

Researchers compiled the largest database yet on global methane, which produced a truer picture of the total number of methane molecules in the atmosphere, as well as a clearer view of where that methane originated. As a result, the researchers say they’ve identified more methane from oil and gas production than previously thought, an increase of 20 to 60 percent. But that’s not enough to account for the global rise of methane in the atmosphere. Continue Reading

Feds look deeper into Chesapeake Energy’s accounting practices

Bradford County has nearly 1,000 acres leased to Chesapeake Energy and is considering suing the company for allegedly underpaying royalties.

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Chesapeake Energy revealed in a recent regulatory filing that the Department of Justice is seeking more information into its accounting practices.

Chesapeake Energy, which is facing a royalty owners revolt here in Pennsylvania, will have to share more details of their accounting practices with the U.S. Department of Justice. The company revealed in a recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that the Justice Department has subpoenaed records on the gas driller’s accounting methods for “the acquisition and classification of oil and gas properties and related matters.”

The Justice Department has been investigating the company for anti-trust violations. Chesapeake is also facing lawsuits from royalty owners claiming underpayment in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Pennsylvania royalty owners are pushing for legislation that would clarify language in a state law requiring at least 12.5 percent royalties.

Depending on the language of a lease contract, drillers and landowners may share post-production costs. These are expenses incurred when gas is processed and transported to market through pipelines. But people allege some companies charge exorbitant, and possibly fraudulent post-production costs, leaving them with little to no royalty money in some instances.

In the filing posted on Chesapeake’s website last Thursday, the company says it is working with the Justice Department, the U.S. Postal Service and state agencies, and plans to respond to the subpoenas. A company spokesman says he had no further comment.

Attorney for PUC says “small cadre” trying to kill gas industry

Attorney Matt Haverstick (Right) seen here with client Eric Arneson(L), from the office of open records in Harrisburg. Haverstick represented the PUC  in the Robinson Township case.

AP Photo

In this file photo, attorney Matt Haverstick (Right) seen here with Eric Arneson(L), from the office of open records in Harrisburg. Haverstick represented the PUC in the Robinson Township case. He said there was a "small cadre trying to kill" the gas industry.

*This story has been updated with a comment from the PUC.

A private practice attorney representing the Public Utility Commission before the Supreme Court in the Robinson Township case, has told a Pittsburgh newspaper that he was discouraged by the court’s decision to toss aspects of the state’s oil and gas law saying “there’s an industry trying to bring prosperity to Pennsylvania and there seems to be a small cadre trying to kill it.” Attorney Matt Haverstick confirmed that he gave the statement to a reporter at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. But he said through an email that he wasn’t speaking for the PUC.

A spokesperson for the PUC said Haverstick’s comment do not reflect the views of the PUC or it’s commissioners.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that sections of Act 13 related to PUC review of local zoning ordinances regulating oil and gas operations are no longer valid. The PUC has reviewed the Court’s ruling and accepts the decision without reservation. As a result of this decision, the PUC will continue to carry out its statutory obligation under Act 13 to collect and distribute unconventional gas well Impact Fees.

“The PUC has always sought to be an independent and unbiased agency, focused on ensuring safe and reliable utility service while also safeguarding the public interest,” said Commission Chairman Gladys M. Brown. “The Court has spoken very clearly on this matter and the Commission will continue to focus on its key responsibility under Act 13, which is the collection of Impact Fees and the distribution of those funds to counties and municipalities across Pennsylvania.”

Haverstick, a partner at Kleinbard LLC, said through an email that the “small cadre” did not refer to the Supreme Court, but would not elaborate on who or what the phrase did refer to, and did not return calls seeking clarification. Haverstick has also served as an attorney for Senate Republican Caucus and his firm biography says one of his legal specialties is public corruption. His comment has raised concerns among advocates who say it illustrates a bias on the part of the PUC. Continue Reading

PA Supreme Court rules with environmentalists over remaining issues in Act 13

The DEP recently made changes to proposed regulations governing the  state's oil and gas industry.

AP Photo David Smith

The Supreme Court struck down a number of provisions in the law governing the state's oil and gas industry.

In a win for environmentalists and municipalities, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has struck down  a number of provisions to the state’s oil and gas law. At issue were several items related to the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Robinson v. Commonwealth, the controversial and wide ranging environmental ruling that eliminated parts of the state’s revised oil and gas law, known as Act 13. On Wednesday, a majority of the court ruled that the “doctor gag rule,” eminent domain for natural gas storage facilities, and the exclusion of private wells from notification of hazardous spills is unconstitutional.

The industry no longer has a fast track to commonwealth court when it comes to challenging local zoning ordinances. And the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission will have no role in examining local zoning decisions.

Jordan Yeager, the attorney who argued for the towns and environmental groups involved in the challenging the law, said it’s a big win.

“It’s great,” he said. “And it’s great for the residents of Pennsylvania to have the courts recognize that their rights matter more than the gas industry’s power in Harrisburg.” Continue Reading

States feud over fossil fuels in federal court

Steve Earle, international vice president of the United Mine Workers, from Greenville, Ky., center, marches with international president, Cecil Roberts, left center, as they lead some 5000 members of the United Mine Workers and supporters through the streets of downtown Pittsburgh to the William S. Moorhead Federal Building in support for American energy and jobs in the coal and related industries Thursday, July 31, 2014. The Environmental Protection Agency begins two days of public hearings on new regulations designed to cut carbon-based pollution from power plants. Similar hearings were held in Atlanta, Denver and Washington earlier this week.

Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

Steve Earle, international vice president of the United Mine Workers, from Greenville, Ky., center, marches with international president, Cecil Roberts, left center, as they lead some 5000 members of the United Mine Workers and supporters through the streets of downtown Pittsburgh July, 2014 to protest Obama's Clean Power Plan. A federal appeals court will hear oral arguments related to the challenge on Tuesday morning.

A federal court in Washington, D.C. will be hearing arguments Tuesday morning about the future of the country’s electricity. President Obama’s landmark climate change initiative will be subjected to arguments from both sides, with 28 states aligned with coal companies facing off against the EPA, which is backed by a number of other states and environmentalists.

The Clean Power Plan is Obama’s giant push to make the nation’s electricity cleaner, and signal to the international community that the world’s second largest carbon emitter is doing something to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The plan gives states different options to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas causing carbon emissions from their existing power plants.

But the controversial plan is opposed by the coal industry, which says it will force coal plants to shut down and cause power plants to convert to natural gas or renewables to comply. Proponents of the plan argue that the coal industry’s woes have nothing to do with the Clean Power Plan, but rather, with the availability of cheaper natural gas from new plays like Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. More than 40 new natural gas plant applications have been submitted to Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection within the last five years. Continue Reading

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