News

09/25/2020 - Pa. utility regulator says Sunoco must do more to share safety information on Mariner East project in Cumberland County

The order requires Sunoco to schedule a public awareness meeting and pay a $1,000 fine.

09/24/2020 - Known for her record on women’s and civil rights, Justice Ginsburg also leaves an environmental legacy on the Supreme Court

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be the first woman to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol on Friday. While many are mourning the late Supreme Court Justice as a feminist champion, Ginsburg also leaves a strong legacy of opinions written to uphold environmental protections.

“As much as people are talking about women’s rights and civil rights, environmental protection is very much in the balance at the Supreme Court,” said Delaware Riverkeeper Network director Maya van Rossum.

“I am very concerned that we are going to see a concerted effort at the highest level in the federal courts to roll back environmental protections, which would have a devastating effect on people’s lives and health.”

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear several important environmental cases addressing climate change, construction of a border wall, and interstate water wars. The court could also take up New Jersey’s case against the PennEast pipeline company.

A year ago, a federal appeals court blocked PennEast pipeline company from condemning state-owned land for its proposed 116-mile long line that would ship Marcellus Shale gas from northeast Pennsylvania to New Jersey. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals sided with New Jersey, ruling that condemning public land violates the 11th Amendment of the Constitution.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said the state-owned properties are open space preserved for recreation, conservation and agriculture and should not be used to ship natural gas. Grewal argued the 11th Amendment grants states immunity from eminent domain takings by private entities. PennEast appealed the ruling, and in June, the Supreme Court asked for further briefs.

One of the often cited decisions written by Ginsburg for the majority is Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, which established the rights of citizens, or organizations who represent them, to sue in order to force regulators to enforce violations of federal environmental rules like the Clean Water Act.

“That case holds that citizens who express concerns about values, aesthetics, or health related activities can get into court to sue those who are infringing on those rights,” said Charley McPhedran, a staff attorney at Earth Justice.

The case revolved around a waste water treatment plant that had exceeded permit limits on mercury discharges into the North Tyger river in South Carolina. One of the issues was whether the group had “standing,” or the ability to bring the case in the first place. Ginsburg wrote that they did, not based on a personal injury per se, but on how the pollution hampered their use of the river.

“…the affidavits and testimony presented by FOE in this case assert that Laidlaw’s discharges, and the affiant members’ reasonable concerns about the effects of those discharges, directly affected those affiants’ recreational, aesthetic, and economic interests,” Ginsburg wrote.

McPhedran said the case “gives a workable metric to people like me who represent citizens and citizen groups.”

The Delaware Riverkeeper’s van Rossum says “standing” is a key issue.

“Litigation has been and is and will continue to be fundamentally important for environmental progress,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the only option we have.”

Van Rossum says in the mid-1990s, Delaware Riverkeeper successfully sued Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware for lack of enforcement over a key part of the Clean Water Act, permits for pollution discharges into waterways known as NPDES or National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

“If we can’t have access to courts than all  industry has to do is convince the president, or the governor to back off,” she said. “And there can be a political decision to walk away from environmental  protection.”

In the Laidlaw case, Ginsburg also wrote that civil penalties against polluters were an important deterrent to future violations of environmental laws.

In a case closer to home, Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, a Pennsylvania coal plant. The case involves what is known as the “transport rule” or the “good neighbor provision,” where airborne pollutants that create smog travel from one state to the next. The EPA established a program that gave the states the ability to enforce pollution controls, but if the federal agency was unsatisfied, as it was in this instance, it would step in and set limits.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who at the time served on the D.C. Circuit, wrote the opinion that EPA needed to give the states another chance to control the pollution.

Justice Ginsburg wrote the opinion that overturned Kavanaugh’s decision, and upheld the EPA’s role.

09/24/2020 - Wolf vetoes bill that would keep Pennsylvania out of RGGI

Wolf said letting the bill become law would “effectively deny that climate change is an urgent problem that demands prudent solutions.”

09/24/2020 - Guardian/Vice poll: 7 of 10 U.S. registered voters favor government action to address climate change

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who supports the complete shift to clean energy, and seven in 10 voters support U.S. involvement in the Paris climate agreement, the poll found.

09/24/2020 - What do you want elected officials to do about climate change?

Polls show about 70% of Pennsylvanians want the legislature to do more to address climate change. StateImpact wants to know what type of action voters are looking for.

09/24/2020 - Scientist spotlight: Dr. Camille Gaynus finds climate connections in coral reefs

As part of StateImpact Pennsylvania's focus on climate change, American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Fellow Donna McDermott spoke to scientists about their connection to one of the world's critical issues.

09/23/2020 - Scientist spotlight: Penn State’s Ellie Nasr on how wetlands can mitigate effects of climate change

As part of StateImpact Pennsylvania's focus on climate change, American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Fellow Donna McDermott spoke to scientists about their connection to one of the world's critical issues.

09/22/2020 - DEP approves changes to Mariner East construction methods at three troubled sites in Delaware, Chester counties

Mariner East construction at three sites that require drilling through porous limestone can shift from horizontal directional drilling to open trench.

09/22/2020 - Scientist spotlight: Dr. Aja Carter, who studies dinosaurs, says climate change is outpacing animals’ ability to evolve

As part of StateImpact Pennsylvania's focus on climate change, American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Fellow Donna McDermott spoke to scientists about their connection to one of the world's critical issues.

09/21/2020 - Trump’s energy secretary questions mainstream science on human impacts of climate change

On a tour through Western Pennsylvania Monday, the Trump administration’s top energy official questioned the mainstream scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change.

Department of Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette made the remarks at a news conference touting Pennsylvania’s natural gas and petrochemical industry. 

When asked how the Trump administration would fight climate change, Brouillette said:

We have a lot to learn about what causes changes in the climate, and we’re not there yet.” 

When asked to clarify whether he believed the scientific consensus that human-caused carbon emissions are fueling hotter temperatures, he said: “No one knows that.” 

When told by a reporter that scientists say humans are causing climate change, he said:

“Scientists say a lot of things. I have scientists inside of the Department of Energy that say a lot of things. Look, the bottom line is we live here, so we must have some impact. The question is, what is the exact impact that we’re having? And that’s the question that has not been resolved.”

Brouillette’s trip included a tour of a chemical plant Shell is building west of Pittsburgh that will turn the region’s natural gas into plastic. 

“We know a lot about carbon, we know a lot about carbon’s impact on various components of the environment. What we do not know is the exact impact that we’re having,” he said.

Scientists said Brouillette’s description of “what we know” about climate change is inaccurate and misleading.

“We know more than he’s suggesting in his statement,” said Paulina Jaramillo, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. 

“We know the scientific consensus is that human activity is causing climate change and that we’re already seeing the impacts on human and environmental systems.”  

Scientists say that climate change is a contributing factor to the strength and frequency of events like heat waves, wildfires and hurricanes the country has recently experienced. 

At current emissions rates, the world could reach irreversible levels of climate change by as early as 2030, according to the UN’s panel on climate change. The Trump administration has rolled back several major climate regulations installed by the Obama administration.

“There’s some uncertainty as to how bad things are going to get, but there is increasing evidence that they’re pretty bad,” Jaramillo said. 

Saying “no one knows” how much climate change is caused by humans is “seeding doubt about what we know, that’s just not accurate,” she added. 

Scientists have criticized Trump administration officials who cast doubt on the basics of climate change, a scientific phenomenon that has been well understood since at least the 1960s. 

“If you don’t think humans are the dominant source of warming, you are making a statement that does not have a single factual or scientific leg to stand on. Yet leaders of science agencies are saying exactly that today. This is the world we live in,” Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech, wrote on Twitter in 2018 in response to a NASA official’s comment that he couldn’t say if humans were the dominant cause of climate change.  

Aaron Bernstein, interim director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in an email response to Brouillette’s comments:

“We cannot afford scientific ignorance and the spread of disinformation from our public leaders. At this very moment, in this country, people are dying because of climate change and from the air pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels.”

Speaking on the roof of a Hilton Garden Inn overlooking Shell’s chemical plant in Monaca, Pa., Brouillette praised the project, which the company is building with help from a $1.65 billion state tax credit. 

Tim Lambert / WITF

Shell’s ethane cracker outside Pittsburgh, shown under construction in August 2020.

“You’re looking at the future of the American economy right here,” he said. “This is where it all starts, with facilities and with infrastructure, just like this one.”

He said that fracking has allowed the country to become the world’s No. 1 producer of oil and gas, and allowed it to lower its emissions by switching electricity sources from coal to natural gas. He said petrochemicals like the plastics Shell will produce at its ethane cracker are also vital to the American economy. 

“Today we’re buying hand sanitizer. The bottles that they come in are created by these types of facilities,” he said.

Brouillette is scheduled to meet with Pennsylvania labor leaders and participate in a live-streamed energy discussion with Carnegie Mellon officials on Tuesday.

CORRECTIONS: A previous version misidentified Dr. Aaron Bernstein and misreported the switch in electricity fuels. It is coal to gas.