Energy. Environment. Economy.

Susan Phillips


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.

Reporter’s Notebook: Tracing the tracks of the oil trains

An oil train moves through the University Village neighborhood of Chicago. The trains pass through Chicago on their way to East Coast refineries.

Trudy E. Bell

An oil train passes apartments in the University Village neighborhood of Chicago. The trains travel through Chicago on their way to East Coast refineries like those in Philadelphia and South Jersey.

Driving south on Lakeshore Drive through the Lakeview section of Chicago, it’s easy to ignore the city’s role in industrial transport. Lake Michigan looks placid and blue. People are riding their bikes along the shore, or strolling, or picnicking. It’s a pleasant, sunny Sunday evening after a long hard winter. Chicagoans bustle through new parks and grand museums. But keep going, and avoid google maps’ efforts to divert you to the highway, and it’s soon obvious how this place serves as the nation’s bottleneck for oil trains.

Chuck Quirmbach, a seasoned public radio reporter from Wisconsin, served as my chauffeur and tour guide, pointing out old and new, like the city’s Millennium Park.

“Don’t know why they built that,” he said, adding that the city had plenty of other nearby parks.

Quirmbach, with his head of thick white hair usually framed by a pair of headphones, microphone in hand, is one of those reporters who has probably covered every kind of story imaginable. And he’s still curious. We stay on route 41, which takes us through the South Side, hugging Lake Michigan. But the green spaces along the lake soon give way to industry young and old. Or new parks interspersed with old decaying industry. At one point we drive by thick masonry walls, abandoned to weed trees, another form of greening. Continue Reading

Study: Lower than expected air pollutants detected at Marcellus drilling sites

A Bradford County drilling rig

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A Bradford County drill rig.

An article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, published today, says measurements of air pollution from Marcellus drilling and transportation sites in Bradford and Sullivan counties were lower than the researchers expected. The study, “Atmosphere Emission Characterization of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Development Sites,” also reports levels of methane emissions were higher than those indicated in previous research.

Peter DeCarlo is assistant professor in the civil, architecture and engineering department at Drexel University and lead researcher on the report.

“We had seen a lot of data from other natural gas or oil development areas and we had seen pretty high levels of pollutants,” said DeCarlo. “So we went in expecting to see similar things in the Marcellus. The geology in the region is different in that [it produces] a lot of natural gas but we didn’t see a lot of the air quality pollutants that we expected.”

The researchers used a more sophisticated measuring technique than is typically available to researchers or regulators such as those at the Department of Environmental Protection. The researchers used tracers to track the plume of emissions in order to measure levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.

“We did very fast measurements over large spacial areas and downwind of the gas sites,” said DeCarlo. Continue Reading

What’s in those tank cars near the Amtrak derailment?

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Patrick Semansky / AP

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia with tank cars in the background. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

News footage of the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia Tuesday night shows nearby tank cars that look similar to the rail cars carrying crude oil or other hazardous material across the country each day. In aerial photos, it looks as if the Amtrak train, traveling at 100 miles an hour, nearly missed creating an even greater catastrophe, if it had struck an oil train, say, or a train carrying chlorine gas. Residents quickly took to twitter, wondering about the content of those tank cars, and whether it was hazardous.

“This could be just one more in a litany of near misses,” said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, an activist group working to ban oil trains.

Conrail spokesman John Enright confirmed on Thursday that the nearby tanker cars did not contain flammable crude oil or ethanol. But he wouldn’t say what was in those cars, only that some cars in the yard were empty, and others weren’t.

But it wouldn’t be far-fetched for a passenger rail car to collide with an oil train, dozens of oil trains run through the state on their way to Philadelphia and South Jersey refineries each week. In fact, Norfolk Southern runs oil trains on a track that crosses above Amtrak lines, close to the derailment. Bakken crude oil from North Dakota crosses those lines daily, traveling across the Delaware river, and down to refineries in South Jersey. WHYY reporter Tom MacDonald says he saw the black tankers about 50 yards from the derailed Amtrak train. Oil trains frequently run parallel to commuter rail lines throughout the city.

But it’s still unclear what is in those tank cars sitting near the Amtrak crash site. Continue Reading

Energy industry invests in Philly mayor’s race

Protestors opposed hydraulic fracturing march past City Hall, from outside a Marcellus Shale industry conference, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, in Philadelphia.  Gov. Tom Corbett on Thursday attacked anti-drilling activists as the "unreasoning opposition" who accept the nation can land a space vehicle on Mars but don't believe energy companies can safely harvest gas a mile under the earth's surface. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Protestors opposed to natural gas drilling rally in front of Philadelphia City Hall during the industry conference in September, 2012.

Since Marcellus Shale development boomed, Philadelphia has been a thorn in the side of the gas industry. The city has not seen many of the economic benefits that places like Williamsport, or Pittsburgh have. And it tends to be home to well-organized, experienced environmental groups used to taking on powerful adversaries.

When the industry invited Mayor Michael Nutter to speak at its annual convention in Philadelphia, Shale Insight, back in the fall of 2012, he chided them, as protestors chanted outside.

“Many of us are deeply concerned about water quality in our watershed,” Nutter told the assembled industry executives. “There is no economic opportunity for which jeopardizing our water quality is acceptable.”

Earlier that year, when the state legislature was about to vote on new oil and gas legislation, including the impact fee, Republican leaders and gas drilling proponents like Joe Scarnati had to strong arm members of the Philadelphia delegation into voting for it. Scarnati threatened to leave the city out in the cold when it came to revenue generated by gas drilling. Continue Reading

Pipeline expansion could bring more shale gas to Philly

Spectra Energy wants to expand the capacity of the Philadelphia Lateral, shown here.

Spectra Energy

Spectra Energy wants to expand the capacity of the Philadelphia Lateral, shown here.

Philadelphia may be getting more Marcellus Shale gas if all goes well with plans for an expansion of the Philadelphia Lateral, a section of the Texas Eastern pipeline system. Spectra Energy, the pipeline company that operates Texas Eastern, has plans to enlarge the capacity of the pipeline that connects the transmission line to Philadelphia.

Devin Hotzel, a spokesman for Spectra Energy, says the current pipeline needs to be larger to meet demand for Marcellus gas in Philadelphia.

“The demand has gone beyond what we can deliver through those pipes,” said Hotzel.

Hotzel says Spectra is in the earliest stages of planning the “Greater Philadelphia Expansion Project.” ”Open season” for the project, which allows potential customers to request additional capacity through the pipe, ends today. That information will be used to decide if and how the project moves forward.

“It’s as early as it gets in the project,” said Hotzel.

Continue Reading

Environmentalists sue FERC over Cove Point LNG project

Twenty-four protesters were arrested for blocking a public passageway outside the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July, 2014.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Twenty-four protesters were arrested for blocking a public passageway outside the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July, 2014.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s decision to approve Dominion Energy’s Cove Point LNG export terminal in Lusby, MD. FERC had granted approval to the $3.8 billion project back in September, and construction on expanding the idled import terminal into an export terminal began in October. But environmental groups had sought to halt construction, and force FERC to consider the upstream impacts of an export facility on Marcellus Shale development. FERC rejected those arguments in a decision posted Monday.

The environmental law firm Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in D.C. circuit court on behalf of a number of groups including the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Patuxent Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club.

“After months of delay, we will finally get our day in court to challenge the fundamentally flawed approval of Dominion’s climate- and community-wrecking project,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, in a release. “Time and again, FERC has shown a blatant disregard for the health and safety of people and the climate and, we believe, the law. Tragically, FERC’s foot-dragging has allowed Dominion bulldozers to start construction before Calvert County residents had legal recourse to challenge the agency’s decision.”

Continue Reading

FERC rejects environmentalists appeal on Cove Point LNG exports

A seagull takes flight from the offshore loading pier out into the Chesapeake Bay.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

A seagull takes flight from the offshore loading pier at Cove Point out into the Chesapeake Bay. Construction on the idled terminal in Lusby, MD is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has denied a request by several environmental groups to halt construction on Dominion Energy’s Cove Point LNG export terminal in Lusby, MD and conduct a more thorough environmental review. Environmentalists have been fighting the conversion of the mothballed import terminal into an import/export facility, saying FERC should consider the environmental impact of upstream Marcellus Shale production.

FERC had approved the project in September, after conducting an environmental assessment, which is less stringent than an environmental impact statement. The project, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2017 will ship out more than 5 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas each year. Cove Point is the fourth export terminal approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. The agency issued its opinion regarding environmental opposition this week.

Ryan Talbott, an attorney and executive director of the Allegheny Defense Project, says he wasn’t surprised by FERC’s decision.

“One of the problems with FERC’s environmental analysis, and every analysis they do whether it’s for compressor stations or pipelines, is it’s all being done to develop to Marcellus and Utica shales,” said Talbott. “Under federal law they have an obligation to consider the cumulative effects.”
Continue Reading

New study links gas drilling to water contamination in NE Pa.

A drilling rig in Bradford County.

Scott Detrow / StateImpactPA/WITF

A drilling rig in Bradford County.

New research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows evidence of a connection between gas drilling and water contamination that occurred in Bradford County in 2010. The researchers used a new method of testing for contaminants that can detect much smaller amounts of chemicals than the instruments typically used in commercial laboratories.

“[It's] probably the most equipped technique to find a problem like this,” said Frank Dorman, a professor of biochemistry at Penn State University and one of the authors of the study. “It can see lower down than many techniques and it can see a wider variety and more complex samples than other techniques. It could be a game changer. We found something that wasn’t findable by commercial laboratories.”

The report could point to a new tool for those who believe they have suffered from gas drilling contamination, only to have water tests say otherwise.

The instrument Dorman used in his lab at Penn State to test the drinking water samples in the study is called a comprehensive 2D gas chromatography coupled to time-of-flight mass spectrometry (GCxGC-TOFMS).

The results of the tests showed levels of the chemical 2-n-Butoxyethanol, or 2-BE, as well as unresolved complex mixtures (UCMs). Previous tests by both the Department of Environmental Protection and environmental consultants using traditional laboratory methods did not show these chemicals. Dorman says the chemical 2-BE is used as a surfactant in drilling fluid and marketed under the product name Airfoam HD. The UCM signatures also matched sampled Marcellus Shale flowback fluid that Dorman had tested using this same method.

Dorman and the researchers on the paper are quick to point out that the contamination happened before the wells were hydraulically fractured, and could be traced either to poor well construction or the leakage of an impoundment pit that contained drilling fluid. The contamination did not occur as a result of frack fluid migrating from the Marcellus Shale upward, the report says. Continue Reading

Feds issue new oil train safety rules

In this photo taken April 9, 2015, children play in view of train tank cars with placards indicating petroleum crude oil standing idle on the tracks, in Philadelphia. Rail tank cars that are used to transport most crude oil and many other flammable liquids will have to be built to stronger standards to reduce the risk of catastrophic train crash and fire under a series of new rules unveiled Friday by U.S. and Canadian transportation officials.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

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

The Department of Transportation joined with Canadian officials Friday to announce stronger safety rules for shipping crude by rail. About 70 to 80 trains carrying more than a million gallons of crude oil from the Bakken Shale fields in North Dakota travel across Pennsylvania each week, heading to Philadelphia area refineries. The long-awaited rules come on the heels of a number of dangerous oil train derailments in both countries.

So far Pennsylvania has been lucky. Four crude oil trains have derailed in the state since January 2014. But none exploded into giant fireballs like the recent incidents in West Virginia, Illinois and Canada. in one case, an accident in Westmoreland County resulted in a crude oil spill.

New rules aimed at preventing those accidents include phasing out the current tank cars, implementing stronger tank car standards and requiring better braking systems.

Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration, told StateImpact that “stronger, better tank cars are on the way.”

“Some of the tank cars that are out there today, I think everyone would agree, are not strong enough to survive a derailment or an incident the way we would like them to,” said Feinberg. “So the good news is we’ve now landed on a new tank car standard. And so safer tank cars will be used in the transportation of this crude and also frankly with ethanol as well.” Continue Reading

Governor Wolf hires rail expert to evaluate oil train risks

Seven cars of a 101-car train traveling from Chicago to a refinery in South Philadelphia slid off the tracks on the Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge around 12:30 a.m. Monday.

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Seven cars of a 101-car train traveling from Chicago to a refinery in South Philadelphia slid off the tracks on the Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge in January, 2014.

Governor Tom Wolf has hired a rail expert to examine Pennsylvania’s railway infrastructure and report back on safety issues. The appointment is the latest move by Gov. Wolf to address increasing concerns about crude-by-rail transport. An oil train derailment and explosion in West Virginia earlier this year was touched off by a broken track, and led to a spill from defects in the tank cars, according to federal regulators.

Pennsylvania has experienced four train derailments since January 2014. Two of those derailments happened in heavily populated Philadelphia, but none resulted in a fire.

The Wolf Administration announced Tuesday that Allan M. Zarembski, a professor at the University of Delaware, will spend three months evaluating risks associated with transporting crude oil across the state’s freight rail lines. Zarembski will also make safety recommendations to the Wolf Administration.

Nationwide, crude by rail shipments have risen about 4000 percent in the past several years because of the shale oil boom in North Dakota, and the lack of pipeline infrastructure to carry all that crude to refineries on the East Coast. Continue Reading

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »