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Climate Change: The engineer’s dilemma

Chris Crockett, deputy commissioner of planning and environmental services for the city of Philadelphia's water department stands by the Delaware river at high tide.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Chris Crockett, deputy commissioner of planning and environmental services for the city of Philadelphia's water department stands by the Delaware River at high tide.

This week ministers from 190 nations will be in Paris to hammer out a treaty to cut carbon dioxide emissions. It’s a geo-political gathering aimed at staving off the worst impacts of climate change – including sea level rise. Predictions of how high and how soon oceans will rise keep changing. And that leaves town planners and local officials with a dilemma. They are the ones responsible for protecting their cities from rising tides and hotter summers. But there’s no seat at the table for them in Paris, and likely no help.

Chris Crockett is the guy everyone told me to talk to about climate change in Philadelphia. He works with the city’s water department and I met him on banks of the Delaware River, just before high tide. He pointed to a storm sewer grate in the roadway, where water had begun to rise on a sunny day.

“Once every two weeks or so, on Delaware Avenue at this location, we have the water pond up a little bit and the question would be, what if you added three feet to that?”

It’s Crockett’s job to help prepare the city for rising sea levels. And while Philadelphia is in a better position then cities like New York or Boston when it comes to the impacts of sea level rise, the city does sit along a tidal river, the Delaware. And the tide here along the Delaware river rises and falls 6 to 7 feet, two times a day, all the way up to Trenton, New Jersey.

“It’s just like a big bath tub sloshing back and forth,” says Crockett, “and so we want to make sure the salt line doesn’t come up to the city’s water supply intakes.”

Crockett is an engineer. So when he’s faced with a challenge, like deciding how to maintain a centuries old water and sewer system, he thinks like an engineer and wants to proceed logically.

“One of the fun things in engineering is, we would always teach this concept of stationarity, which is you go back and look at the historical record and say: OK, this is the 100 year storm, this was the fifty-year storm. And that sets your design criteria for how you design a road, a highway, a pipe, a bridge.”

And this is where Crockett’s job is getting a lot more difficult. While planning for new systems, Crockett can’t simply depend anymore on looking to the past as his guide to the future. Those 50 and 100-year flood maps that the Federal Emergency Management Agency puts out are based on past events. They’re pretty useless when it comes to rising sea levels.

Five years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers predicted three feet of sea level rise by 2100. But today, some are predicting a two-foot rise as soon as 2050.

“You really want to know how high can it go?” he told me. “When is it going to stop? Should we just plan for everything melting?”

Will the seas rise two feet by 2050? Or even higher? Crockett wants to know.

“So we can actually stand here and say: OK, it’s going to to be four feet, five feet, let’s draw some lines, let’s stand here and look at it and see what it means. And how would we have to change how we design, build or operate this city?”

Local Officials Plot Their Own Course

Climate change models show Philadelphia becoming hotter and wetter. And the wetter part will happen mostly in the winter. Those predictions have already started to play out. Since 2010 Philadelphia experienced its two wettest years, and its two hottest summers on record.

To prepare for climate change, cities like Philadelphia are making sure new electrical infrastructure will be above rising sea levels.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

To prepare for climate change, cities like Philadelphia are making sure new electrical infrastructure will be above rising sea levels.

But even in today’s highly interconnected world, there’s no real road map for local officials. So it’s left to people like Katherine Gajewski to figure it out. Gajewski runs Philadelphia’s office of sustainability. It’s her job to work with all the city’s departments, from the people who fix potholes, to the people who manage the city’s budget, and get them planning for climate change.

“We can’t wait for someone to tell us what to do and how to do it,” she says, “we need to start planning for our own benefit.”

She wanted to meet me at the corner of 17th and Chestnut streets so she could show me one of the things the city is doing to plan for warmer temperatures. Concrete pads are now replacing asphalt at busy bus stops. That’s because when busses stop and start, it generates a lot of heat that makes the asphalt buckle. Concrete is more durable. And with higher temperatures, buckling city streets are just going to get worse.

“So climate effects are felt at the local level,” she said. “Climate solutions are going to have to come from the local level. So whatever national agreements come [from the Paris talks], we need to recognize the role of cities.”

It may seem like a mundane solution to a far reaching global problem. But the city has to adapt on the cheap. It’s installed rain gardens and green roofs. It’s also installed experimental pervious pavement. Basically, it wants to keep every drop of rain water it can from entering the sewer system and flooding basements. And since parts of the city has been built on former swamps and wetlands, it won’t be an easy job.

The News From Paris

When you hear the news from the Paris climate talks over the next couple of weeks, there will be a lot of numbers and abstractions with references to carbon budgets and emissions limits, and questions about whether the richer countries will pay the poorer countries to burn less fossil fuels. But you won’t hear anything from people like Katherine Gajewski or the water department’s Chris Crockett, because local governments have no role.

“And so you have nations coming together to put their commitments on the table,” said Gajewski, “but with a disconnect from what we’re understanding on the ground is achievable, realistic, or not.

Further up along the banks of the Delaware river, the water department’s Chris Crockett shows me rain gardens installed along Delware Avenue, in hopes to stem flooding from high tides and storm surges. Along a bike trail near the Sugerhouse Casino, trees, grasses and flowers grow in pits lined with gravel.

“It looks to the average person to be a typical flower bed or long grass median,” he says. “But it’s taking thousands and thousands of gallons of stormwater, cleaning it up, and reusing it. The trees suck carbon dioxide out of the air and create oxygen.”

None of these solutions came from state or federal agencies. Philadelphia, like cities all over the world are still on their own when it comes to mitigation and adaptation.

So here’s Crockett’s hope. He wants the bureaucrats who are meeting in Paris to give him the certainty he needs as an engineer to plan future construction. And allow him to make the city more resilient to higher tides.

“When you suddenly say the past doesn’t predict the future, and now you’re left with almost acting like a stockbroker,” he said. “And climate change goes from a standard scientific approach to almost acting like a Wall Street broker predicting what the stocks are going to do.”

And Crockett isn’t interested in playing the market. He wants to solve problems.

Gas leaks: A hidden culprit for dead trees

Gas safety consultant Bob Ackley stands next to a dead tree across from the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

Gas safety consultant Bob Ackley stands next to a dead tree across from the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Street trees can be especially vulnerable to pests, disease, and lack of water. But it turns out a hidden culprit could also be killing trees — gas leaks.

Here’s something most people who work for gas companies know, but the rest of us don’t, when you want to sniff out a leak check for dead or dying vegetation. Evidence for this dates back to the mid-1800′s when naturalists documented the connection between street gas lamps and dying trees, says Nathan Phillips, a tree physiologist and professor at Boston University.

“The causal mechanisms are most likely, primarily, oxygen deprivation,” said Phillips.  ”Roots need oxygen to grow and maintain themselves, and natural gas has no oxygen.”

But tree lovers take comfort, there is at least one guy who has made it his mission to save the trees from gas leaks.


“I call him the urban naturalist because he understands the visible indicators above ground of what’s happenening below ground,” said Phillips. Continue Reading

Déjà vu all over again: why the shale gas tax keeps flaming out

GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai


At a June 2015 press conference, GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai voiced his opposition to a severance tax while reading directly from a booklet of talking points prepared by EQT, a major drilling company near his home district in southwestern Pa.

Over the years, both Republicans and Democrats in Harrisburg have wanted to raise revenue by passing a severance tax on Marcellus Shale drillers. Polls have consistently shown a majority of Pennsylvania voters support it. Last year, the idea helped propel Democrat Tom Wolf into the governor’s mansion.

But now, as Wolf and the Republican-led legislature struggle to reach a budget deal after a nearly five-month long standoff, the severance tax is once again off the table.

The tax has been debated since the shale boom took off, so why hasn’t it happened?

There are two main reasons: lawmakers who loathe raising taxes– and lobbyists.

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Talking methane rules, oil trains on WITF’S Smart Talk

A Cabot Oil & Gas drill rig nestled into the landscape in Kingsley, Pa.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A Cabot Oil & Gas drill rig nestled into the landscape in Kingsley, Pa.

President Obama’s latest effort to stem climate change includes new rules to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. The administration cut methane leaks from this sector by 40 to 45 percent by the year 2025. Methane is the second most common greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S., accounting for 10 percent of the country’s contribution of climate-altering gases. It’s a potent greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.

StateImpact Pennsylvania and Allegheny Front reporter Reid Frazier spoke with WITF’s Scott LaMar about the impact of the new regulations on Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry and environment.

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Scarnati says natural gas tax would cost Pa. 250,000 jobs

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, at Gov. Wolf's budget address in March.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, at Gov. Wolf's budget address in March.

More than a month into a budget stalemate between Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-led state legislature, the governor and Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati continue to spar over whether to tax natural gas drillers.

Scarnati, speaking on WITF’s Smart Talk Wednesday morning, implied a natural gas severance tax would cost the state 250,000 jobs–a figure deemed “inaccurate” by a Penn State economist.

When asked by Smart Talk host Scott LaMar about state polls showing support for a severance tax, Scarnati replied:

“It depends on how you read the poll. If you want to put 250,000 people out of work, ask the poll on that question. How’s that going to fare in polling?”

When a surprised LaMar asked Scarnati to confirm the large job loss figure, he replied the state already has a severance tax in the form of an impact fee, which brings in more than $200 million a year. Then Scarnati settled on a more generalized job loss scenario.

“If you’re going to take the plan this governor has proposed, you will put people out of work. Unquestionable, you will put people out of work.”

But Tim Kelsey, a Penn State economist who studies the impact of the industry on the state’s economy, questioned Scarnati’s claim.

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Unmapped, unregulated maze of rural pipelines poses hidden risks

Crews weld a pipeline the Loyalsock State Forest.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Crews weld a pipeline from a wellhead in the Loyalsock State Forest.

The Wolf Administration says Pennsylvania will be getting tens of thousands of miles of new pipelines over the next couple of decades. Recently we reported on how poorly mapped some of these pipelines are.  Many of those unmapped pipelines are also unregulated. These are rural gathering lines, or pipelines that take the gas from the wellhead to a larger transmission line, or gas processing facility.

DEP Secretary John Quigley told StateImpact that he expects the industry to add 20-25,000 miles of gathering lines. Most of those lines will be in rural areas, the so-called “class one” lines, which no state, federal or local authorities oversee.

The Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration is looking at changing those rules. Linda Daugherty, a deputy associate administrator for field operations at PHMSA, told a room full of pipeline safety workers at a conference back in 2013 that the agency has been working on new rules, but the process was slow.

“What keeps me up at night? Gathering lines,” said Daugherty. ”This worries me. There are a whole lot of gathering lines out there in Pennsylvania that are not regulated.”


Daugherty said the slow pace of federal regulatory change had the agency begging states to take action. But so far, Pennsylvania hasn’t been one of those states.

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Pipelines’ paths remain a risky mystery beneath our feet

This story began with a simple task: Let’s make a pipeline map!

Everyone wants to know where all the new Marcellus Shale gas pipelines are or will be. The new proposals have been piling up.  Many have poetic names like Atlantic Sunrise, Mariner East, and Bluestone. There got to to be so many they started to get numbers: Mariner East I, Mariner East II.

Here at StateImpact Pennsylvania, try as we might, we couldn’t keep track of them all in our heads. We also wanted to map all the smaller lines, and the lines that may have been there for decades, which everyone tends to forget about.

The Wolf Administration estimates that 30,000 more miles of new pipelines will be built in Pennsylvania within the next two decades. So, where will they be?

This map of interstate pipelines currently running through Susquehanna County is all that's available to the public on PHMSA's website.

screenshot / Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration.

This map of interstate pipelines currently running through Susquehanna County is all that's available to the public on PHMSA's website.

Pipeline companies know exactly the routes for all the pipelines they maintain or plan to build.  But  they aren’t required to share that information with public.

Instead they release vague maps with colorful lines swooshing across Pennsylvania, showing where a proposed line might go.

We spoke with our resident map maker, who told us that wasn’t good enough. She needed geospatial data, the kind of thing that in this high tech digital world means plotting the line along its actual path, instead of just drawing a line that approximates the path.

We took a look at all the plans submitted for new pipelines, but they were just drawings, without data. We checked with the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), which has a national map of the major interstate pipelines. But again, just a drawing, no geospatial data available to the public, and by the way, don’t even try to do a right-to-know request.  Interstate pipeline maps are exempt from that in this post-911 world.

Then we contacted Mark Smith, who runs a map-making company called Geospatial Corporation. We told him what we wanted to do: map the web of pipelines beneath our feet.  He laughed at us.

“Well, it’s not universally mapped,” said Smith. “In fact it’s probably the last piece of infrastructure out there that’s not mapped.”

Wait, this stuff is highly flammable right?


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Project would bring 400,000 tons of drilling waste to Pa.’s ‘Grand Canyon’

The Pine Creek Gorge in Tioga County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Plans call for 400,000 tons of natural gas drilling waste to be placed on a steep embankment near a tributary to the Pine Creek Gorge in Tioga County. The gorge is often called the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

As Marcellus Shale gas drilling has proliferated, so has the amount of waste it generates. Last year in Pennsylvania, over two million tons of drill cuttings were sent to landfills.

Cuttings are the waste dirt and rock that comes up from drilling wells. The material contains naturally occurring radiation, heavy metals, and industrial chemicals.

Over the past three years, a Montgomery County waste disposal company has found a novel way to avoid landfills, by processing and recycling drill cuttings. But critics argue it’s simply a way to avoid regulations.

Now plans to put the gas waste next to one of the state’s most pristine waterways have sparked a backlash.

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In a power shift, natural gas closes in on ‘king coal’

In Pennsylvania when you flip on a light switch, odds are you’re burning coal. But as the fracking boom continues to unlock huge quantities of natural gas, the electric grid is changing. Power plants are increasingly turning to this lower-cost, cleaner-burning fossil fuel.

The shift is being driven by both market forces and new regulations.

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As gas boom cuts into forests, scientists study how to put it back together


In the seven years since Marcellus Shale gas companies began working in Pennsylvania’s state forests, none of the nearly 1,700 affected acres has been fully restored and put back the way it was before drilling began.

Now state foresters and Penn State scientists are trying to plan for the future and help gas companies figure out the best ways to clean up after themselves.

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