04/06/2020 - How some of Pa.’s public utility companies are adjusting during COVID-19

All of our lives are upended in some way by the pandemic. But there are a few things we still count on: Energy companies are working to keep the lights on; public water systems are pumping clean, running water; and natural-gas providers continue to supply their product to homes through pipeline systems.

StateImpact Pennsylvania reporter Susan Phillips covers energy and the environment. She joins “Morning Edition” host Jennifer Lynn to talk about how the new coronavirus outbreak is affecting her beat.

Good morning, Susan. 

Good morning, Jennifer.

Susan, should we take the fact that our lights are on for granted? I mean, what goes into keeping the utilities functioning at this time? 

You know, the utilities have actually planned for these types of pandemics. Back in 2003, during the SARS epidemic, that was one of the things that tipped them off that they really need to look forward and plan for this. And for instance, PJM Interconnection, which is the grid operator for our area, they have most of their employees working from home. But there are about 60 to 75 people who still have to show up in the control room, which is in Montgomery County. And they have two different control rooms, so they could possibly isolate people. A lot of the electrical utilities have also planned for this. One of the things, obviously, is there are crews that still have to go out there, but so far, so good. There hasn’t been any issues with electricity or water or gas.

Well, recently, the Environmental Protection Agency announced they would not enforce some rules during the pandemic. Should we be worried that no one is watching, for instance, polluters at this time? 

That’s an issue. I mean, most of the ways that we know if anything happened is completely reliant upon the companies themselves reporting that to the EPA. And so if that’s not required, that could be a big issue. You know, the COVID-19 illness is a respiratory illness. And so if there are releases of toxic air pollutants, a lot of people might not know that state and local governments actually do most of the oversight for the federal environmental rules. I mean, Delaware says nothing’s different, you know, than what they’ve ever done before. Pennsylvania DEP, the Department of Environmental Protection, says they’re considering waivers on a case-by-case basis from companies or polluters that would not have to report to them. The City of Philadelphia, I talked to them as well. And one of the things they said was that their largest polluters aren’t operating now anyway as part of the shutdown. It is a concern amongst a lot of people who are watching these companies that are operating right now.

Good point. Who else has relaxed some of its rules? 

Yeah, it’s not just the EPA. It’s also federal pipeline safety regulators. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also relaxed some of its rules as well. You know, we see that with the Limerick power plant in Montgomery County, almost 2,000 workers from all across the country are now at the Limerick plant doing a nuclear refueling operation. And these refueling operations are planned ahead of time. I guess Montgomery County officials pleaded with Exelon, the company that runs the nuclear plant, not to do it, but Exelon refused. And one of the things that Exelon says is they have to do it to, you guessed it, keep the lights on.

What’s it like trying to get the information you need during the pandemic to cover your beat at this time? I know, for instance, on the Pennsylvania state websites, unless you have an urgent need to access records, they say don’t file any new right-to-know law requests at this time. 

That’s right. I’ve gotten a number of emails from both the city and the state saying that my right- to-know requests will not be answered anytime soon. It has been kind of crazy because, you know, take, for instance, the Mariner East pipeline, something I’ve been covering for, you know, probably five, six years now. There were a lot of issues when the governor instituted the order that would not allow non-life-sustaining businesses to continue. There’s a lot of confusion over whether or not the Mariner East pipeline could continue. And it was back and forth and back and forth. Is it life-sustaining, non-life-sustaining? The typical press people I talked to didn’t know. The union didn’t know. Everyone was getting different information. Actually, at the end of, like, four or five days, we got word that the Wolf administration indeed did give Sunoco and Energy Transfer, the company that is building the pipeline, they did give them a waiver saying that pipeline construction is life-sustaining. So pipeline construction has continued.

Well, thank you so much, Susan Phillips. Joining us to talk about covering her beat in this very challenging time. She’s our energy and environmental reporter with StateImpact Pennsylvania. Thanks, Susan.

04/05/2020 - ‘The Triumph of Doubt’ digs into how dark money fuels mistrust of science

Science is supposed to be impartial. There’s a trusted method for collecting and analyzing data to test hypotheses. Scientific studies are the foundation for public health and environmental policies. But the Trump administration has not heeded the science when it comes to climate change, and the Environmental Protection Agency is moving ahead with a controversial rule to limit the use of scientific studies that don’t make underlying data public, when writing or revising public health and environmental policies. A 30-day public comment period opened March 3rd, and EPA administrators aim to have the rule finalized by May.

But science has been undermined by industry and corporate interests for years, long before the Trump administration, and with dire consequences.

David Michaels has been studying this phenomenon for a while. He’s an epidemiologist and professor at George Washington University. He’s also former Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration(OSHA) under President Obama, and worked in the Clinton administration as Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health at the Department of Energy. Now he’s the author of “The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception.”

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently talked with Michaels about his new book for the podcast, Trump on Earth.

Kara Holsopple: First, could you describe how you started down this road of looking into misinformation campaigns, and the situation that you faced with nuclear workers exposed to beryllium, which is a metal that’s toxic to people, as the Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Health at the Department of Energy under the Clinton administration?

David Michaels: We had hundreds of workers who had been made sick by exposure to beryllium, and they got a disease called Chronic Beryllium Disease. There’s not really much question about it. We were moving to issue a regulation to protect workers across the weapons complex. The beryllium industry was very concerned. They didn’t want more regulation, especially in the private sector, which wouldn’t even be covered by the regulation I was putting out.

But I read a number of reports that they issued. They hired scientists to say the evidence just isn’t clear enough, and we don’t really understand how beryllium causes beryllium disease. [They asked] is it breathing it in, or do we worry about skin contact, as well? They said we really need several more years of research before we can do anything.

I looked at that, said, ‘well, that’s crazy.’ You don’t wait for more research, you protect people on the basis of the best available evidence. And when I started to pull the string on that, I saw that there are a number of consulting companies whose businesses provide corporate clients with reports and studies that manufacture uncertainty.

I saw memos from Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a public relations firm, saying, ‘we’ve helped other industries stop government agencies or slow them down, and this is how we can do that.’ That intrigued me. I could tell it was the tobacco model, and when I started pursuing it, I saw that not just the beryllium industry, but many industries were essentially pursuing what we call the “tobacco playbook,” and using even the same scientists who worked for tobacco to do this sort of work. I’ve been writing about it really since then, which is the early 2000s.

KH: Right, you say that this corporate practice of sowing doubt in science started with the tobacco industry decades ago, and its development of something called “product defense.” You say the tobacco industry’s motto was “Doubt is our product.” What is product defense? 

DM: Product defense really comes out of the criminal justice system. It’s the idea that people are innocent until proven guilty, and what attorneys do, of course, is represent people in court and try to show that they’re not guilty–not necessarily innocent–but putting holes in the prosecution’s case that says that they’re guilty.

The scientists and lawyers who worked for product defense look at chemicals and other hazards the same way that the criminal justice system looks at people. They say, ‘we can stop regulation. We can cause enough confusion, and essentially raise questions enough that people will say these chemicals aren’t guilty.’ So these are scientists whose job it is to defend products. They’re businesses, and their business model is to provide exactly what their clients need. So you can always predict exactly what the scientists will say. They’ll say the evidence isn’t there to regulate the product, to protect people from this product.

KH: What are some of the tools of this product defense industry?

DM: One I like to look at is called mercenary re-analysis. I’m an epidemiologist. You do a study, you design the study, you put out your methods, and then you follow those methods and you’ll see what results you get. What industry does is demand the raw data from an epidemiological study, and they can re-analyze it by changing assumptions, by changing the cut points. There are lots of tricks of the trade, and you could turn a positive study into one that’s negative. Then all of a sudden you have these two studies.

They say, ‘well, look, we have opposite studies, opposite conclusions,’ and people throw their hands up and say, ‘well, what do we really know?’ It’s an unfortunate device, because to take a study that’s already been done and reanalyze it to find a different result isn’t the same validity as the study you did in the first place.

KH: Dark money, and these misinformation campaigns are often revealed much later by lawsuits or gaffes made by corporations. How does the system need to change so that corporate money doesn’t have an outsized influence on scientific studies for things like environmental toxins, lead and chemicals and how they’re eventually regulated? 

DM: Let me give you an example. We need to understand what the long term health effects are of e-cigarettes. We know combustible cigarettes are really dangerous. It’s great to get people off of them, and to move to vaping or e-cigarettes probably is a great advance. But we don’t really understand the actual long-term effects of pulling a mixture of oils, nicotine and flavors into your lungs, then expelling it.

To get that research done, we wouldn’t trust the tobacco industry after the long history of tobacco prevarications around science. But who’s going to do that research?

So I think for all of these toxins, what we need to do is set up a system where the producer pays for the research, because the research has to be done, but it’s done through a system where they don’t control which scientists are chosen to do the research, what the methods are, and how the results get interpreted. That way we can really trust the integrity of the science that we need to protect ourselves.

KH: You write that President Trump’s denial of climate science, and the distrust of scientists and scientific evidence in his administration are not unique, but cut from the same cloth as the past 50 years of Republican policy, where corporate capitalism is pitted against science and intellectualism. What do you mean by that?

DM: The tobacco industry, and then the fossil fuel industry, have poured tons of money into Republican politicians, and also these front groups, like Tea Party groups, that claim that the government is a nanny state that’s trying to control our lives. Of course, you can only say that if you can also say that the things the government is trying to do are unnecessary.

So the tobacco companies wanted these groups to say that cigarette smoking is not really a problem. The fossil fuel industry wants to say that greenhouse gases are not really a problem. But what’s happened is that this has gone on for so long, and so many Republicans have embraced it, particularly because the fossil fuel industry has been pouring money into Republican campaigns.

Republican senators, for example, no longer have to beg their constituents for campaign support. They can just get all the money they want from a couple of these big corporations. You buy into it, and it becomes part of your DNA. Then once that’s the case, you think that people who are raising these issues are wrong.

KH:  People like you. 

DM: Right. I actually had an experience like that recently. I ran OSHA for more than seven years. I probably know more about OSHA than most anybody in the country, and I’ve come back to being a professor at George Washington University.

So I was asked to testify at a congressional hearing about OSHA, and the panel was three lobbyists or people from industries, and me. One of the Republican congressmen, this fellow Glenn Grothman from Wisconsin, walked into the room and he looked at the panel and said, ‘Oh, the Democrats have invited another professor.’ Like, how could I really know anything about OSHA. That was his instinct.

We’re seeing a lot of that, this idea that public health scientists can’t really know anything. Because if we knew anything, then, you know, you’d have some responsibility to address the problems that we’re raising.

KH: So how does doubt about the efficacy and intention of science play out in a moment like we’re experiencing now, with this viral pandemic, where public health and millions of lives depend on good science and trusting scientists? 

DM: You know, anti-science, anti-intellectualism has become part of the Republican DNA. We see it not just in the White House, but on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. There’s a whole echo chamber out there. When public health scientists started raising this issue, I think President Trump had other reasons. He said, ‘well, I don’t want to make this a big issue. It’ll look bad for me if this gets out of control. It’ll look like I have poor leadership.’

So he announced that this was a problem that was in control. He said ‘we have fifteen cases of coronavirus, it’s gonna go down to zero.’ And everybody just sort of bought into that because they’re used to discarding or rejecting concerns raised by people like me and the epidemiologists around the country. It’s easy to do that if you’ve been doing this for a long time.

It really delayed a response for almost two months, where we could have really moved quickly to address this problem, and we would have had things much more under control. We’d still have an epidemic, but if you look at the epidemic in South Korea, for example, or Singapore, where they immediately got on the case, and they used all of their resources to track cases and develop a testing program, they flattened their epidemiologic curve much more quickly than — well, we haven’t flattened ours at all yet.

We will pay a huge price in terms of deaths of people, and the overwhelming of our health care system. I say this a little bit in jest, but we’re fortunate that the coronavirus doesn’t have a lobbyist, because if they were actually lobbying, like the lead industry does or the fossil fuel industry does, it would’ve taken even longer for the government to come around to saying, ‘yes, this is a real problem.’

KH: Do you think this erosion of trust in science has trickled down to the general public? Are people cynical about science? 

DM: The polls seem to say so. For many years scientists were considered among the most trusted groups in America. That’s decreased a little bit — not as much as a lot of other occupations, but certainly gone down.

This idea that scientists can’t agree, and therefore they’re conflicted or they have their own vested interest, you know, it is a problem, because sometimes that’s the case right now, because [some] scientists are paid to say certain things.

Reporters and the media play a role in this, as well. They allow this confusion. You know, for many years, well-meaning reporters always said, ‘well, there’s two sides to every story. If a scientist is reporting a study, we’ll find someone who doesn’t agree.’ They’ll find, often with the help of public relations firms working for these corporations, a corporate scientist who will say, ‘no, no, the evidence isn’t there.’ So people read those newspaper articles, and they say, ‘well, you know, scientists just can’t agree on things. What good are they?’

I think that really does have an impact that in the long run makes people think, ‘well, science isn’t that useful.’ But it’s the most important tool we have to address and shape how we’re going to respond to these crises, not just COVID-19, but the climate crisis. We’ve got a looming crisis of antibiotic resistant bugs — there are lots of issues out there that need good science, and it’s an uphill battle right now.

04/03/2020 - Citgo ruled liable for millions in Delaware River cleanup costs from 2004 oil spill

Joseph Kaczmarek / AP Photo

Work crews clean oil off the banks of the Delaware River in National Park, N.J., Monday, Dec. 6, 2004. The Athos I spilled as much as 470,000 gallons of thick crude oil into the Delaware River, killing wildlife and spreading along 70 miles of the waterway.

Citgo, the former owner of a Philadelphia-area asphalt refinery, is liable for millions of dollars in cleanup costs stemming from a Delaware River oil spill in 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week.

The spill was caused when a tanker approaching the Citgo refinery dock in Paulsboro, New Jersey, struck a submerged anchor. The anchor tore the vessel’s hull, leaking an estimated 264,000 gallons of heavy crude oil into the Delaware River. The incident temporarily shut down a nuclear power plant, delayed shipping for days, affected hundreds of miles of shoreline, and killed more than 180 birds.

In the immediate aftermath, the tanker’s owner — Frescati Shipping Co. Ltd. —  and the U.S. government paid more than $140 million toward the spill’s cleanup, Courthouse News reported. But the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed as an amendment to the Clean Water Act, allows recovery of cleanup funds from liable parties after the fact. So the government and Frescati sued Citgo for negligence and breach of contract when it came to ensuring safe passage for the oil tanker.

The resulting case bounced around the lower courts for more than a decade. In 2016, a federal judge in Philadelphia ordered the petroleum corporation to pay $71.5 million to the ship owner and operator and $48.6 million to cover about half of the federal cleanup, a total of about $120 million, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Citgo contested the ruling, which then moved the case to the Supreme Court.

The question of liability ultimately came down to a “safe-berth clause” in the charter contract that effectively spelled out the responsibilities of each party when it came to the ship and its journey and cargo — and which the Supreme Court interpreted as a guarantee of the ship’s safety during the voyage until (and including) its docking at the Gloucester County-based port. That means Citgo and its affiliated companies are responsible for the majority of cleanup costs, the court ruled Monday.

“We conclude that the language of the safe-berth clause here unambiguously establishes a warranty of safety,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority decision. “Charterers remain free to contract around unqualified language that would otherwise establish a warranty of safety, by expressly limiting the extent of their obligations or liability.”

The Citgo v. Frescati ruling resolves an inconsistency in federal maritime law regarding whether such a clause establishes an express warranty of ship safety, or a less rigorous responsibility of “due diligence,” in berth selection. Previous lower-court decisions disagreed on the interpretation of this clause.

04/03/2020 - Can air pollution make coronavirus worse? Scientists say yes — possibly in both cases and severity

A few years ago, Karen Clay and two other scientists studied the death rates for the 1918 flu pandemic in the U.S. 

Clay, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, was interested in whether more people died in cities with high levels of air pollution than those in cities with cleaner air.

They gathered mortality data from more than 180 cities in the U.S. — basically every city in the country, she said. They compared death rates between cities that used a lot of coal for electricity generation and those that used less. 

“Places with higher coal-fired capacity had more severe pandemics,” Clay said.

Death rates were about 10 percent higher in cities with the dirtiest air, accounting for an additional 30,000 to 42,000 deaths in the U.S. Other studies have found similar effects for other outbreaks, like SARS in 2003. One study found patients with SARS in polluted regions were twice as likely to die from the disease as those in regions with cleaner air. 

For Clay, the results are further evidence air pollution plays a role in the spread and severity of infectious disease, especially respiratory infections like COVID-19. 

“The basic idea is that air pollution tends to irritate and inflame the respiratory system,” Clay said. “When you’re exposed to a virus, it makes it more likely that the virus can gain a foothold in your respiratory system. And so it makes it harder for your body to fight off that virus.”

Clay said that means people exposed to pollution are more likely “to have a more severe case and/or die” compared to those who’ve been breathing cleaner air. 

So far, Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County has had fewer cases than several counties near Philadelphia, and as of Friday at noon, only 2 of the deaths 90 coronavirus deaths in the state.

But the Pittsburgh region’s air fails to meet  federal air quality standards, largely because of big industrial polluters like steel and coal plants. Clay worries that could mean more people get COVID-19, and those who do will suffer worse outcomes.

“I think that we would have a less severe outbreak if we had lower levels of air  pollution,” Clay said.

There’s plenty of biological evidence to support Clay’s fears, said Sally Wenzel, chair of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Wenzel said pollution can damage cells that line breathing passageways, which form the lung’s natural defense from foreign agents. 

“But when they’re damaged, they don’t function nearly as well as a barrier. And so things like viruses can get through that barrier and into the body, into the deeper spaces of the body,” Wenzel said.

That kicks off an inflammatory response that can lead to further infection. 

Wenzel said there are lots of other factors that weigh on the severity of the pandemic. Social distancing and hand-washing can slow the spread of the disease; and those who smoke or have underlying health issues like diabetes could be at greater risk of illness or death. 

But scientists are also studying whether the air in the industrial city of Wuhan, China and in Milan, Italy, which has some of the most polluted air in Europe, made the pandemic in those cities worse. 

The outbreak started in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people that the Chinese government eventually shut down to try to control the disease’s spread; Milan is the capital of Lombardy, the hard-hit Northern Italian region that accounts for more than half of that country’s COVID-related deaths. 

The air in both cities has cleared up as governments have locked down economies to slow the spread of the virus. That’s also happening in the U.S. 

Pollution in Pittsburgh, for instance, has “flatlined” since stay-at-home orders have shut down large parts of the economy, said Albert Presto, an associate research professor in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon. 

Presto, who’s been watching air quality monitors around Allegheny County, said those drops are especially detectable during morning and evening rush hours. 

“Typically, you know, you see a big bump (in pollution) every morning from people going to work,” he said. “That’s pretty much disappeared the last couple of weeks.”

In addition to traffic going down, coal-fired electric generation has also plummeted during the pandemic. PJM Interconnection, the regional grid operator in the mid-Atlantic, said coal-fired power generation declined by nearly 50 percent from March 2019 to March 2020. 

PJM spokesman Jeffrey Shields said part of the decline may be traced to warm temperatures this March, which were among the warmest on record in parts of the U.S. 

Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health at the Allegheny County Health Department, said U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant has slowed its production of coke, a key component of steelmaking. The plant — Allegheny County’s largest single source of particle and sulfur pollution — is lengthening the amount of time it processes coke, which limits emissions from the process, Kelly said. He said that decision was in response to market demands. 

Scientists say they don’t know yet whether a few weeks of suddenly cleaner air will blunt the impact of the virus. Those answers will only come when the pandemic ends. 

04/03/2020 - Why some financial analysts are questioning viability of the Appalachian plastics hub

Shell has suspended construction of its ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania to protect the health and safety of the thousands of workers on site from the coronavirus. Even before the collapsing economy due to the pandemic, analysts were concerned about the viability of a larger Appalachian petrochemical hub for the region.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple and Julie Grant discuss what analysts are saying.

Listen to their conversation:


What is the Appalachian petrochemical hub?

It starts with fracking. When drillers frack for natural gas, it also brings up ethane and other byproducts from deep underground. Ethane can be processed into ethylene and polyethylene, which are the building blocks of the plastic products we use everyday. When the Shell plant in Beaver County is up and running, it’s expected to produce 1.6 million metric tonnes of polyethylene each year.

Two years ago, market analysts at IHS Markit were among those forecasting as many as five ethane crackers in the region, and the Trump administration, along with the chemical industry, were promoting the development of a new plastics manufacturing industry in the Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky region. This would include cracker plants and places to store the ethane underground. All of those projects jointly are sometimes referred to as the Appalachian petrochemical hub.

Why are some questioning the viability of a regional petrochemical hub?

The Shell plant outside of Pittsburgh has started construction, but it’s been reported that plans for an ethane cracker in West Virginia fell through last year.

In Ohio, a state permit for Mountaineer NGL Storage (also called the Powhatan Salt Company in permit application materials), expired recently. That permit is for an underground ethane storage facility and is related to another ethane cracker, a multi-billion dollar plant proposed five years ago along the Ohio River by PTT Global Chemical of Thailand. The company is now partnering with Daelim Chemical, of South Korea.

What’s the significance of the permit expiration for Mountaineer LNG Storage to store ethane in the region?

The PTTGC and Daelim have not made a final investment decision on whether to build the plant in Ohio. According to Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit think tank that works toward a sustainable energy economy, without the commitment from PTTGC, there’s no need for a storage facility yet.

“They typically need an anchor tenant. Otherwise, you’re just building it for with no customer base And so there is no anchor tenant right now,” Sanzillo said. “There is a promise of PTTGC being the anchor tenant, but the company has delayed their decisions since 2016. And those delays now seem to be causing some problems.”

Mountaineer NGL Storage did not respond to phone calls. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources provided a copy of the company’s application to renew the expired permit.

What’s the status of the Ohio cracker plant?

Dan Williamson, spokesperson for PTTGC, said in an email that it is still the company’s goal to make a final investment decision this summer. According to an email sent by Matt Englehart, spokesperson for JobsOhio, a private economic development corporation that’s in discussions with the company, this is “very much an active project.”

Local officials where the facility would be built just approved tax incentives to offer PTTGC and Daelim on March 26. The Times Leader newspaper reports that Belmont County Commissioners, Mead Township trustees and the Shadyside Board of Education all approved new tax agreements, which according to Williamson, were requested by the companies.

The local government entities created an Ohio Enterprise Zone agreement, giving the project a 15-year property tax exemption. They’re expecting PTTGC and Daelim to pay $38 million to the school district, and $9.5 million to Mead Township, over the 15-year life of the agreement.

Why are there still doubts swirling around about its future?

Sanzillo said right now, the plant just doesn’t look like a good investment. In February, Moody’s bond credit rating businesses, which is used by investors to decide where to put their money, raised doubts about the project. Moody’s predicted that this year PTTGC would, quote, “not embark on any new capacity expansion plan until margins improve on a sustained basis.”  And our partners at InsideClimate News reported that IHS Markit had removed the proposed plant from its long-range plastics supply forecast.

Is this a problem just with this one company? 

No. According to Sanzillo, these industries just aren’t doing well right now, and that was happening even before the coronavirus pandemic was a factor.

Natural gas prices were depressed last year, and the warm winter further reduced demand, which is not good news for frackers.

Sanzillo said there’s also been an oversupply of plastics on the market, which hasn’t been good for plastics pricing.

“The companies that are involved in the plastic industry, all had a rough 2019,” he said. “If you look at ExxonMobil, if you look at Dow Chemical, if you look at Chevron, if you look at those companies, their returns, in their petrochemical divisions, were very low. Exxon’s was the worst in five years.

Whether plastics manufacturing in Appalachia is limited to Shell’s plant, or actually becomes a full scale hub to rival those in Louisiana and Texas, depends on other ethane crackers being built. But as Sanzillo points out, when the PTTGC plant in Ohio was first proposed, the price of plastic was significantly higher than it is today.

“And that presents all kinds of new challenges for the investment. These are long term investments, and so they take a long time to get in the ground,” Sanzillo said. “But the market has shifted substantially, and in the current environment, it’s difficult to see how they are sustained.”

It’s also unclear how the severe economic consequences as a result of the coronavirus pandemic will play into the future of PTTGC’s plant, and larger Appalachian petrochemical vision.

03/31/2020 - Trump administration rolls back Obama-era auto emissions standards

The Trump administration has finalized its rollback of a major Obama-era climate policy, weakening auto emissions standards in a move it says will mean cheaper cars for consumers.

“By making newer, safer, and cleaner vehicles more accessible for American families, more lives will be saved and more jobs will be created,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao said in a statement.

But consumer watchdog organizations, environmental groups and even the Environmental Protection Agency’s own scientific advisory board have raised concerns about that rationale, saying the weakened standards will lead to dirtier air and cost consumers at the gas pump long-term.

Read more at NPR.

03/31/2020 - NPR, Frontline investigation: Plastics industry spent millions selling recycling — to sell more plastic

Editor’s note: This story is part of a joint investigation with the PBS series Frontline that includes the upcoming documentary Plastic Wars, which premieres March 31 at 10/9c on PBS stations and online. NPR will be publishing stories from this investigative series in the weeks ahead, even as we focus our current coverage on the coronavirus pandemic. But here’s a look at some of our key findings. You can watch the full documentary film from this investigation on the PBS series Frontline.

For decades, Americans have been sorting their trash believing that most plastic could be recycled. But the truth is, the vast majority of all plastic produced can’t be or won’t be recycled. In 40 years, less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled.

In a joint investigation, NPR and the PBS series Frontline found that oil and gas companies — the makers of plastic — have known that all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.

Here are our key takeaways from our investigation:

Plastics industry had “serious doubt” recycling would ever be viable

Starting in the late 1980s, the plastics industry spent tens of millions of dollars promoting recycling through ads, recycling projects and public relations, telling people plastic could be and should be recycled.

But their own internal records dating back to the 1970s show that industry officials long knew that recycling plastic on a large scale was unlikely to ever be economically viable.

A report sent to top industry executives in April 1973 called recycling plastic “costly” and “difficult.” It called sorting it “infeasible,” saying “there is no recovery from obsolete products.” Another document a year later was candid: There is “serious doubt” widespread plastic recycling “can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”

The industry promoted recycling to keep plastic bans at bay

Despite this, three former top officials, who have never spoken publicly before, said the industry promoted recycling as a way to beat back a growing tide of antipathy toward plastic in the 1980s and ’90s. The industry was facing initiatives to ban or curb the use of plastic. Recycling, the former officials told NPR and Frontline, became a way to preempt the bans and sell more plastic.

“There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way,” says Lew Freeman, former vice president of government affairs for the industry’s lobbying group, then called the Society of the Plastics Industry, or SPI.

Another top official, Larry Thomas, who led SPI for more than a decade until 2000, says the strategy to push recycling was simple:

The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire, we got to do what it takes to take the heat off, because we want to continue to make plastic products,” Thomas says. “If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.”

More recycling means fewer profits for oil and gas companies

In interviews, current plastics industry officials acknowledged that recycling the vast majority of plastic hasn’t worked in the past. But they said the industry is funding new technology that they believe will get recycling plastic up to scale. The goal, they say, is to recycle 100% of the plastic they make.

“Recycling has to get more efficient, more economic. We’ve got to do a better job collecting the waste, sorting it,” says Jim Becker, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.’s vice president of sustainability. “Five, 10 years ago, the industry response was a little more combative. Today, it truly is not just PR. We don’t like to see [waste in the environment] either. We really don’t. We want to solve this.”

But the more plastic is recycled, the less money the industry will make selling new plastic. And those profits have become increasingly important. Companies have told shareholders that profits from using oil and gas for transport are expected to decline in coming years with better fuel efficiency and the increasing use of electric cars. Industry analysts expect oil and gas demands from the chemicals industry will surpass the demand from the transport side in the coming decade. Plastic production overall is now expected to triple by 2050, and once again, the industry is spending money on ads and public relations to promote plastic and recycling.

Plastic is now more prevalent than it’s ever been and harder to recycle. Gas prices remain at historic lows, making new plastic cheaper than recycled plastic. And the industry now produces many more different — and more complex — kinds of plastics that are more costly to sort and in many cases can’t be recycled at all. Efforts to reduce plastic consumption are mounting nationwide, but any plan to slow the growth of plastic will face an industry with billions of dollars of future profits at stake.

Plastic Wars, a documentary by Frontline and NPR, premieres March 31 at 10/9c on PBS stations and online.

03/31/2020 - EPA relaxes enforcement because of COVID-19, but state and local governments do most oversight for major federal laws

The recent announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency that it will not enforce violations if a facility’s non-compliance results from the COVID-19 pandemic created swift condemnation from environmentalists and former EPA staffers. The EPA pushed back on Monday with a news release criticizing coverage of the new policy, accusing the media of giving in to “reckless propaganda.”

The agency said the new policy applies to routine monitoring and reporting, stressing the COVID-19 pandemic will not be an excuse for facilities to exceed permitted pollution discharges. The policy does not apply to drinking water treatment.

It’s important to note that states and local governments, however, do the vast majority of monitoring, inspections and enforcement of federal rules like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“Pennsylvania DEP administers all the federal programs in Pennsylvania and they are the first to take any action,” said David Hess, who served as DEP secretary under Gov. Tom Ridge. “There are very few times that EPA gets involved in routine kinds of enforcement anyway.”

DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the state is developing guidance on how to evaluate requests from companies to waive permit conditions or requirements.

“But a company/operator/etc would have to make the case that it is necessary for COVID response, and only during the declared emergency,” Shader wrote in an email. “This would be considered only on a case-by-case basis, not a blanket policy.”

Shader said that during the corona virus pandemic, where many state employees are working from home and regional offices are closed, DEP is “prioritizing field inspections of critical infrastructure and inspections that are critical to public health and safety.”

Still, environmentalists like Maya Van Rossum with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network worry state and local governments could be overwhelmed dealing with the pandemic.

“The alarming part becomes the compilation of things,” van Rossum said. “To have an expectation that the state is going to continue to be the primary is really absurd.”

Federal pipeline safety regulators have also suspended some compliance enforcement, including operator qualification, control room management and drug-testing.

The Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration said that does “not relieve operators of their safety responsibility to use trained, non-impaired workers to perform operation and maintenance tasks.”

Some environmental rules are enforced at the county level. Both Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, for example, regulate air pollution.

Officials in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, say the EPA policy will not impact its enforcement of air quality rules.

“Air quality in our region, particularly in the Mon Valley, continues to be one of our most pressing public health challenges,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the health department, in a statement. “Even during this pandemic, with our attention focused on response and actions to deal with COVID-19 in our community, we are not losing sight of that need.”

Philadelphia public health department spokesman James Garrow said the city’s Air Management Service is taking a similar approach to the EPA, but said no “major impact is expected,” aside from “delays and loss of penalty.”

Garrow said that’s because the pandemic has resulted in closures at most of the city’s air pollution sources.

“In short, yes, we are enforcing all Federal, State, and local/AMS regulations for stationary sources,” wrote Garrow in an email, “but much of the activities that would require monitoring have stopped with the State’s stay-at-home order.”

Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control said enforcement of environmental rules continues as usual. New Jersey DEP did not respond to questions.

Another layer of regulatory enforcement that maintains water quality includes regional water basin commissions. A spokesperson for the multi-state Delaware River Basin Commission said the commissioners are evaluating whether any changes are needed due to COVID-19.

03/30/2020 - State environmental regulator cancels public hearings due to COVID-19

Neil Shader, DEP communications director, said they decided to cancel and not postpone because it's unclear when the COVID-19 pandemic will be brought under control.  

03/27/2020 - Wolf vetoes natural gas tax-break bill

Ralph Wilson / AP

In this April 23, 2010 photo, a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site is seen near Burlington, Pa., in Bradford County.

Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed a bill that would offer tax breaks to companies that use Pennsylvania natural gas to produce fertilizers and other chemicals.

The bill passed the legislature with a bipartisan majority and is based on a measure passed several years ago to lure Shell to build an ethane cracker in Beaver County. Both business and the building trades support the effort.

He invoked the coronavirus pandemic, saying Pennsylvania needs “to promote job creation and to enact financial stimulus packages for the benefit of Pennsylvanians who are hurting as they struggle with the substantial economic fallout of COVID-19.” He also cited what he says are flaws in the bill, HB 1100, and indicated it is not a “responsible use of the Commonwealth’s limited resources.”

He says the investment dollars and numbers of jobs required by the measure are not high enough to warrant the tax breaks. And given the economic impact of the new coronavirus pandemic, Wolf says more analysis is needed to enact any economic incentives right now.

Environmentalists opposed the bill and praised Wolf’s veto.

Mark Szybist, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the state should be moving away from fossil fuel incentives, and push for renewable energy jobs.

“Now more than ever, lawmakers need to provide support to struggling Pennsylvanians and build a more resilient and equitable future based on family-sustaining clean energy jobs,” said Szybist in a statement. “It’s unthinkable that legislators would even consider overriding the Governor’s veto.”

Like Wolf, Szybist criticized the bill’s labor standards, which he says leaves loopholes.

“Under HB 1100, companies must make ‘good faith efforts’ to employ local workers, and show that ‘individuals employed… have been paid the prevailing minimum wage rate for each craft or classification as determined by the Department of Labor and Industry under the … Pennsylvania Prevailing Wage Act,'” he wrote.

Supporters of the bill say they will attempt to override Wolf’s veto.

Independent State Sen. John Yudichak, from Luzerne County, says the corona virus outbreak makes this bill even more necessary.

“And as soon as we move beyond the public health danger, we’re going to get to the business that is going to be most important to the people of Pennsylvania,” Yudichak said. “And that’s job creation. Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

At a news conference earlier this month, legislators who supported the bill were joined by union workers and labor leaders.

State Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, said, “We’ve taken too many hits. And if you’re going to veto this one, I’m going to tell you right now, we are going to work like you’ve never seen us work before to gather up the votes to override that veto.”

The bill would require a company to invest more than $450 million and create at least 800 jobs. In return, companies would get a tax credit of $.47 cents for every 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas purchased from Pennsylvania producers.

Estimates for how much the bill would cost vary widely. An analysis by the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue puts the price tag at $22 million a year for an average fertilizer plant, while the Senate appropriations committee calculated $6.6 million annually.

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20200327 Governor Tom Wolf Veto HB 1100 (PDF)

20200327 Governor Tom Wolf Veto HB 1100 (Text)