Ex-Wilmington Trust president gets 6 years prison for fraud, conspiracy

The former president of the only financial institution criminally charged in connection with the federal bank bailout program has been sentenced to six years in prison for fraud and conspiracy.

Former Wilmington Trust president Robert Harra Jr. was sentenced Monday. He and three other bank officials were convicted in May of concealing the bank’s troubled condition from regulators and shareholders following the 2008 financial crisis.

Prosecutors were seeking a sentence of eight years, while Harra’s attorney asked for probation, citing his long history of community service.

The defendants were convicted of misleading regulators and investors about Wilmington Trust’s massive amount of past-due commercial real estate loans before the bank was hastily sold in 2011. The century-old bank imploded despite receiving $330 million from the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program.


Study raises questions about oversight of facilities that house foster youth in Pa.

Foster children who live in residential facilities in Pennsylvania suffered physical and verbal abuse in hundreds of documented cases between 2010 and 2018, according to a new report. The study found that at some facilities, which include group homes and larger institutions, violations continued to occur even after state inspectors recorded earlier instances of abuse.

Report co-author Elissa Glucksman Hyne considers the repeated violations “really alarming” because, she said, they show that children in foster care are “being maltreated by [facility] staff, and it seems nothing is done about it … It’s just business as usual, and nothing seems to happen.”

“No child should ever be removed from their home and then harmed in the places that they are supposed to be placed to be safe,” added Hyne, a senior policy analyst at the New York-based nonprofit, Children’s Rights. “If that happens, then we would hope that something is done about it.”

The inquiry was based on a sample of facilities located mostly in Philadelphia and central Pennsylvania, Hyne said. It included instances of abuse believed to have been committed by staff and other children, with staff accused in over 70 percent of cases.

Children’s Rights released the report with Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center last week, about a month after a separate study showed the state is more likely than the rest of the nation to place foster youth in residential facilities. According to that research, 47 percent of the Pennsylvania’s foster youths aged 14 to 21 live in these facilities, as opposed to with relatives or unrelated caretakers in a family setting. Nationally, 34 percent of foster youth live in residential placements.

In total, last week’s report said, more than 3,700 foster youth in Pennsylvania live in institutional settings, which “range in size from four-bed group homes to over 170-bed institutions.”

Dangers at these facilities, the report found, included physical injury as well as verbal threats of injury. At some facilities, Hyne said, staff punished children by choking them, grabbing them by their hair, and pulling their arms back to the point of pain. The study noted other cases where adults slapped, hit, or punched children.

Limited oversight information

These infractions are allowed to persist, the study found, “because [the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services] fails to adequately license and monitor residential placements in Pennsylvania.”

The department typically inspects facilities that house foster children at least once a year. The report’s authors found that, while inspectors report violations and review facilities’ subsequent correction plans, there’s scant evidence they follow-up to ensure compliance. Repeat violations, they added, further suggest the department does not provide enough oversight.

Spokesman Colin Day said the department is “engaged in a multi-year process” to improve its licensing process and that it plans to meet with the study’s authors.

But, he noted that his agency is “shortening timeframes for … licensing staff to act upon plan[s] of corrections submitted by providers. This also includes assuring timely verification of the plan of corrections.”

Day said the department is also working with the University of Pittsburgh to use predictive analytics “to identify struggling providers before actual harm occurs.”

What the research does and does not show

The findings in last week’s study were based on a sample of licensing compliance reports for nearly half of Pennsylvania’s 541 residential facilities. The reports, which are publicly available on the department’s website, span an eight-year period and number in the thousands, according to Hyne.

In total, the records show children at the sampled institutions were “physically maltreated” 156 times, “verbally maltreated” 43 times, and “exposed to inappropriate sexual contact” 73 times. Inspectors with the state’s Department of Human Services reported the abuse whether it was committed by staff or other children.

The data indicate that staff were responsible for three-quarters of the cases involving physical abuse, and all the cases of verbal abuse. They were about as likely as children to be accused of sexual misconduct.

While the study did not show how Pennsylvania compares to other states, it noted that the number of violations “is likely significantly higher than documented.” It is uncomfortable, the report said, for children to report trauma they experience at the hands of “authority figures who are in control of their living situation.”

Each of the 259 facilities reviewed belong to one of 36 separate legal entities. Within 44 percent of those entities, the study found, more than one violation for physical or sexual maltreatment was documented between 2010 to 2018.

The study acknowledged that it did not randomly select entities for review. Rather, it “focused primarily on facilities that house children from Philadelphia County because it has the largest population of children in foster care. It also “added facilities mentioned … by statewide stakeholders” and located in other counties.

Still, the authors contend that their findings “broadly reflect risks to which many children are exposed statewide as a result of [the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services] patterns and practices.”

Allegheny County, however, stood out as a bright spot in the report. The authors said it has reduced the number of children in congregate care, another term for 24-hour residential placements, by 60 percent between 2012 and 2017. Now, just 5 percent of Allegheny County foster youth live in residential facilities, according to the report.

The county has made such strides in part by “using residential facilities only for children whose needs require such restrictive placements,” said the report’s authors. Instead, the study said, it has placed an increasing number of children with relatives and switched to more community-based services.

“Ideally, that’s what should be happening in every county in the state,” said Hyne of Children’s Rights. “Some children, depending on their stage in the system or their level of need, they may require short placement in congregate care … But there should be a decrease in congregate care because children, at the heart of it, should be raised in families.”


Obamacare sabotage is in the news again? Seriously?!

If your head swiveled 360 degrees, Exorcist-style, after learning Friday that a federal judge in Texas had ruled Obamacare unconstitutional, I totally get it. You have every right to be confused. The U.S. Supreme Court, six years ago, gave the green light to Obamacare by a vote of 6-3, so what the heck is this going on here? Why is Donald Trump crowing on Twitter that a lower judge’s ruling is “great news for America”?

Before I dispel the confusion, it’s important to understand that the roughly 20 million Americans who benefit from Obamacare will continue to do so, because, for the foreseeable future and quite likely beyond, the previous president’s signature achievement ain’t going anywhere.

Trump may not know much about jurisprudence, or have a clue about how things work, but I do. Prominent conservative legal scholars believe that the sweeping decision by federal judge Reed O’Connor is absolutely bonkers. Jonathan Adler, who’s no fan of Obamacare, says that O’Connor went “down a rabbit hole,” using “questionable legal arguments to support a political agenda. This is not how judges are supposed to act.” He says the “shocking” ruling is a “sad day for the rile of law.” Even the conservative, Obamacare-hating Wall Street Journal editorial page says that the ruling “is likely to be overturned on appeal and may boomerang politically on Republicans.”

And why might it boomerang politically on Republicans? That’s an easy one. This is the party that has tried and failed umpteen times to kill the coverage of 20 million Americans; the party that has refused to accept that Obamacare is the law of the land even after John Roberts’ court upheld it (with a vote from Roberts); the party that has tried and failed umpteen times to craft a health reform alternative; the party that was swept from power in the House because Democrats defended Obamacare on the midterm campaign trail. And now, to top things off, the judge in Texas got the opportunity to assail Obamacare only because a last-ditch Republican lawsuit landed in his lap.

In a nutshell – I promise to keep it simple – here’s what happened:

Republican attorney generals in 20 states decided to sabotage or kill Obamacare by suing it (never mind that the Supreme Court had basically settled the issue). Meanwhile, last year, when the Republican Congress passed its big tax bill (the bill that massively reduced rich people’s taxes), it also took aim at a key Obamacare provision. As you may recall, Obamacare requires Americans to pay a penalty if they forego health coverage; the Republicans, in their tax bill, reduced that penalty to zero. They did not abolish the penalty provision per se; they just neutered it.

Judge O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee, got the lawsuit. In his Friday ruling, he basically decreed that because the Republicans had neutered the penalty, it meant that the penalty itself was unconstitutional; and that since the penalty was supposedly unconstitutional, that meant the entire law had to be unconstitutional. But O’Connor’s reasoning is “pretty bananas” (so says conservative legal scholar Adler), because, according to traditional (i.e. conservative) legal doctrine, the courts cannot blow away an entire law when Congress took aim at only one provision.

Cue the conservative Wall Street Journal’s editorial: “Millions of people now rely on Obamacare’s subsidies and rules – which argues against judges repealing the law by fiat.”

Repealing the law by fiat…True that. Conservatives always complain about “judicial overreach,” about liberal judges “legislating from the bench.” Yet here we have a classic example. The broad sweep of this ruling – if allowed to stand – would wipe out everything in the law, from the popular protection of people with preexisting medical conditions, to the popular coverage for young people until age 26, to the expansion of Obamacare via Medicaid – which has become so popular that it’s now a feature in 36 states, including Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah, and West Virginia. Those I’ve listed are all red states.

But will this ruling be allowed to stand? Doubtful. Most legal scholars believe that the U.S. Court of Appeals (even the conservative circuit where it goes next) will nix the ruling for its judicial overreach. An appeals decision, either way, won’t happen until next spring. And even if it somehow winds up back in the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision there wouldn’t happen until the spring of 2020. In the meantime, Obamacare remains in effect; in the words of Trump’s health administrator, it’s “still open for business. There will be no impact to enrollees’ current coverage or their coverage in a 2019 plan.”

And in the meantime – here’s where we talk politics again – Democrats will hammer away at this latest manifestation of Republican sabotage. the newly empowered House Democrats will likely intervene in the case as it heads to the appeals court – as well they should. They believe in the policy that covers 20 million people, and they’re rightly confident about the politics. Their defense of Obamacare triggered a net gain of 40 House seats, and a nationwide winning House margin of 9.73 million votes. According to the ’18 exit polls, health care was the top voting issue by a decisive margin; those voters favored Democratic candidates by 75 to 23 percent.

Which is why Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar observed yesterday that the GOP “seems bound and determined to take away people’s health care.” They’d prefer not to re-fight this rhetorical battle, but the high road is wide open. And Republicans, forced again to play defense, will demonstrate yet again that political stupidity is their preexisting condition.



What you need to know about the Affordable Care Act after Texas ruling

The Affordable Care Act faces a new legal challenge after a federal judge in Texas ruled the law unconstitutional on Friday. The decision risks throwing the nation’s health care system into turmoil should it be upheld on appeal. But little will be different in the meantime.

“Nothing changes for now,” says Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent of Kaiser Health News.

“If you need to sign up for health insurance you should,” Rovner tells NPR’s Michel Martin. “If you’re in one of the several states where it’s extended where you can sign up through January, you have time to do that too.”

Below are some questions and answers about the ACA.

1. What was the Texas ruling?

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the Affordable Care Act was not constitutional. O’Connor made his decision after 18 Republican state attorneys general and two GOP governors brought their case, Rovner reports. They claimed that the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 because it included an individual mandate — or a tax penalty for Americans who did not buy health insurance. After Congress repealed the individual mandate in 2017, O’Connor said the rest of the law fell apart.

2. Who might this ruling affect?

The Affordable Care Act runs for more than 1,000 pages and includes many provisions — the exchanges for individuals that are frequently political footballs — and a long list of other measures and protections designed to expand insurance coverage.

NPR’s Alison Kodjak reports that the ACA expanded Medicaid, which has allowed more than 10 million people to get coverage in states that chose to expand the program. The law also protects people with pre-existing conditions and allows people up to age 26 to be covered under their parents’ insurance; requires calorie counts at restaurants and gives protections to lactating mothers. The ACA also secured more money for Native American health care and made significant changes to allow for generic drugs and to provide funding for Medicare.

Rovner says people should act as if the ACA is still in place, but the ruling opens a possibility for “an enormous disruption.”

“It would really plunge the nation’s health care system into chaos,” Rovner says. “The federal government wouldn’t be able to pay for Medicare because all the Medicare payments have been structured because of the Affordable Care Act.”

3. What next?

Judge O’Connor did not rule the law has to be enjoined immediately. Saturday was the last day of open enrollment for the ACA in most states. NPR’s Kodjak reports people can still enroll in health plans in states with extended deadlines. She says even the newest ACA insurance policies will go into effect until more legal action plays out in courts. The federal site for insurance, Healthcare.gov, is running a banner that reads, “Court’s decision does not affect 2019 enrollment coverage.”

NPR’s Kodjak says the state of California has already said it will appeal the ruling. Other states will likely join California in the fight to preserve the law, Kodjak reports. Rovner says the case will probably reach the Supreme Court, though lower courts may reject O’Conner’s ruling first.

4. What are the political stakes in this decision?

The political stakes are great. Voters saw health care as an important issue in November’s midterm elections. Kodjak notes Congress voted multiple times in 2017 to repeal the ACA but did not succeed.

“Lots of Republicans were running ads during the midterms saying they were the ones who were going to protect people’s health care, and specifically protect people with pre-existing conditions,” Kodjak says.

The challenge to the ACA brought by Republican attorneys general is aimed at eliminating protections for pre-existing conditions, Kodjak says.

“So now you have Republicans trying to play both sides, which is going to be difficult,” she says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Why the Jersey Shore is worth a look during the holidays

Things seem pretty quiet on the Jersey Shore for the holidays, compared with the big crowds of summer. But all along the Shore, towns, business districts and homeowners pull out all the stops to light up the dark nights of early winter.

From Smithville in Atlantic County to Cape May at the southern tip of the state, displays celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah and other holidays help brighten the longest nights of the year.

It’s a good time to visit if you want to see how the Jersey Shore looks to the locals who are lucky enough to call this home year-round.

Absecon, New Jersey. (Bill Barlow/for WHYY)

Since Cape May transforms into a Victorian village each year, we decided to dedicate an entire gallery to this historic resort town.

Why so many people visit Cape May in December 

The Queen Victoria Bed & Breakfast in Cape May, N.J.(Photo courtesy of Werner Tedesco)



PennEast now faces tough scrutiny from DEP after winning court battle

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Now comes the hard part for PennEast.

While the pipeline company won a long-awaited federal court ruling on Friday, allowing it access to private and public lands in New Jersey, it must next meet a long list of permit requirements from other agencies, notably the Department of Environmental Protection, which is expected to provide the sternest test yet over whether the pipeline can be built.

To build its proposed 120-mile natural gas pipeline through New Jersey, the company must satisfy the DEP that it will not violate federal water-quality standards, and that it complies with many other state rules including those on flood hazards, storm water and endangered species.

In the hope of meeting those standards, PennEast must conduct surveys for environmentally sensitive features such as streams and wetlands on the properties of 136 landowners who have previously refused access but are now required by the ruling to allow PennEast officials on their land for surveying purposes.

U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti granted PennEast the right of eminent domain over the properties some eight months after hearing oral arguments over whether it has the right to take properties from landowners, including the state, which have rebuffed its offers of compensation.

Martinotti rejected the landowners’ arguments that a federal certificate approving the $1 billion pipeline was not final, and that the company could not “condemn,” or take possession of, portions of the properties immediately.

Pipeline company entitled to proceed

“This Court finds PennEast is entitled to the condemnation orders … and they are entitled to them on an immediate and expedited basis,” he wrote in a 50-page opinion.

The judge also rejected arguments by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office that the federal Natural Gas Act is silent on whether a private company can take land by eminent domain. In fact, he wrote, the law allows any party that has a certificate of public convenience from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which issued one to PennEast in January — to acquire rights of way by exercising eminent domain in federal court.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s office, which earlier this year asked FERC to suspend its approval for PennEast, said it was reviewing Martinotti’s ruling, and would have no comment.

If built, the pipeline will carry natural gas from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to Mercer County, New Jersey. The company says the project will give New Jersey customers better access to low-cost gas from the abundant reserves of the Marcellus Shale. Opponents say the company’s claims of strong demand for the gas are undermined by the fact that states are adopting strong energy goals that do not include fossil fuels like natural gas.

PennEast welcomed the ruling and said its next steps will be to conduct “routine land, environmental and other ground-level surveys” to meet state and federal permit requirements.

A promise to reduce environmental impact

Tony Cox, chairman of the PennEast Board of Managers, said in a statement that the company aims to reduce environmental impact such as tree cutting by running about half of the pipeline along existing rights of way, primarily those already occupied by overhead power lines.

Cox also said the company will allocate “millions of new dollars” for open-space preservation to comply with state law requiring mitigation of preserved lands where the company wants to build the pipeline. In February, the state rejected PennEast’s offers of compensation for several parcels of protected land in Hunterdon County where the pipeline would run.

Private landowners will be compensated for permanent and temporary impacts to their properties, and will retain ownership and use of the lands, including for farming, but will not be allowed to build structures or plant trees directly over the right of way, Cox said.

“We strive to build positive relationships with landowners, the community and agencies and will continue working toward that goal,” said Cox. “With today’s ruling, PennEast can collect and supply scientific data as required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the NJDEP for PennEast’s permits to ensure a thorough and complete application.”

In February, the DEP formally denied PennEast’s latest application for a permit to cross freshwater wetlands, saying the company’s application did not contain all the necessary information.

Will DEP stand in its way?

Martinotti’s ruling is the second recent boost for the pipeline project which has faced strong opposition in many communities, and been assailed as an environmentally damaging and unnecessary project by critics including the New Jersey Rate Counsel, an advocate for utility ratepayers.

In early December, a federal judge in Pennsylvania granted the company its first eminent domain rights in that state, over the property of one landowner who had denied survey access. Other Pennsylvania landowners have granted survey access but continue to fight the condemnation of their lands.

Meanwhile, PennEast’s critics say the company will have its work cut out to convince the DEP that it can build the pipeline without violating the federal Clean Water Act, which the state is responsible for implementing.

“I still think it’s going to be difficult for them to get the permits from New Jersey because they are going through so many environmentally sensitive areas,” said Tim Duggan, an attorney who represents about 40 landowners as well as several nonprofits and local government entities. “It’s going to be hard for them to show that there’s no adverse impact on our water quality.”

Duggan predicted that it will take about a year and a half for PennEast to do its surveys and submit a new application for a water-quality permit, and then for the DEP to evaluate the application. If so, the process would prevent the company beginning pipeline construction in 2019, as it has stated it will.

Company expects to start construction in 2019

PennEast spokeswoman Pat Kornick said Sunday that the company “still anticipates beginning construction in 2019.”

Critics say that preliminary work like tree cutting could still take place in 2019, raising the prospect that some of the rights of way will be cleared before the project gets its final permits from all agencies including FERC.

That would invite comparisons with the proposed Constitution Pipeline which cut trees on a northeastern Pennsylvania farm in 2016 but was then denied a water-quality permit by New York State in a decision that has since been upheld by an appeals court and by FERC. It is now unclear whether that pipeline will ever be built.

In New Jersey, Martinotti’s ruling was not a major surprise but still came as a shock to some landowners.

T.C. Buchanan, who grows fruit, vegetables, hay and Christmas trees on 32 acres in Delaware Township, Hunterdon County, said she had been in tears since hearing from a reporter that opponents had lost the latest battle in their long-running war against PennEast.

If the pipeline is built on the property which her husband’s family has owned since the 1960s, Buchanan said it would mean removing Christmas trees as well as those growing apples and Asian pears, and it would run through her two largest hay fields.

Landowner: ‘I find it very hard to believe…’

“I find it very hard to believe that anybody with a true sense of right and wrong would just allow a corporation that is totally about profit to take and destroy people’s lands that they have bought with their blood, sweat and tears, that they have worked their entire lives for. It blows me away,” said Buchanan, who has lived on the farm for 23 years.

But she expressed confidence that opponents will eventually win the fight, especially if the DEP denies water permits to PennEast.

“I believe we have a state government that cares about the environment, and the people and the drinking water,” she said.

While Martinotti’s ruling is a setback for PennEast’s opponents, the length of time it took to be issued signals that the judiciary is taking seriously its responsibility to consider environmental rights after other branches of government have “abdicated” their responsibilities in that area, argued Maya van Rossum, leader of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

“The judicial branch is an increasingly key player in holding government accountable, so while the outcome was expected, the process behind it sent a powerful message that the judge recognized he had a unique role and duty,” she wrote in an email.

The project also needs permits from the Delaware River Basin Commission, which has yet to begin its review of the PennEast application, and from some federal agencies. DRBC spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment late Friday.


A fresh, new look at ‘A Christmas Carol’ (Lantern Theater Co.)

Lantern Theater has a Christmas gift, in the form of a finely considered reworking of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The storyteller is the theater artist Anthony Lawton, who joins forces with lighting and scenic designer Thom Weaver and sound designer Christopher Colucci — three powerhouses in local professional theater with individual track records over the years.

Their intimate, smooth production of Dickens’ novella, adapted by Lawton, uses a good deal of the original, venturing out of the story at times for some commentary from Lawton. He cites the retro quality of the phrase “Bah! Humbug!” and asks the members of the audience to replace it in their minds with something more current and meaningful. After Lawton tells of Scrooge dismissing a man who seeks charity for workhouses, he explains what a London workhouse was and why it was a place of despair. At one point, Lawton quotes C.S. Lewis on the subject of fear. (He has also adapted Lewis’ work for the stage.)

It all blends seamlessly with the story, which Lawton amends slightly and smartly in this one-man production. His Ghost of Christmas Present, for instance, takes Scrooge magically onto the London streets early Christmas morning, where they observe the happy rush before the day begins in earnest — people scurrying in the shops and making last-minute food purchases in the markets for Christmas dinner. And in a second we’re out of the crowded streets of London and into the Reading Terminal Market and the stalls along Ninth Street. In Lawton’s excited telling, it makes perfect sense.

He accomplishes this with little more than a lectern as a prop. He pushes it to one part of the bare wooden stage and, overturned, it’s the bed Scrooge sleeps in when he’s visited by his late partner Marley, who comes to introduce Scrooge to the nightmare that will be his transformation. The lighting and sound designs by Weaver and Colucci, respectively, become key as the 90-minute show moves forward with images of ghosts and bells and crowds mentioned in its narrative.

Lawton’s role goes all the way back to Dickens himself, who liked to give public readings of “A Christmas Carol” and, as the Lantern’s Meghan Winch writes in the program notes, even whittled the novella down to a reading he could give in 90 minutes. More recently, Dickens’ great-great-grandson, the British actor Gerald Dickens, has given readings of “A Christmas Carol” in historic places in the United States, including the Philadelphia region.

The Lantern version has several rich moments — two of my favorites are the appearance of Marley in Scrooge’s bed chamber, which Lawton offers up in stirring fashion, and that little Christmas morning tour, during which you can almost smell the roasts in the ovens all over London (and Philadelphia).

Costume designer Kierceton Keller dresses Lawton in a disheveled red morning coat and tattered tan pants, with a fluffy cravat falling down his shirt. His face is white-washed in grease paint and his nose is a clownish red — a makeup effect that seems out of place until the story begins to pump and in the stark lighting, Lawton looks much like we imagine a ghost. It’s a tremendously effective image in a new take on a story that’s inextricable with the holiday and the season.

“A Christmas Carol,” in a version commissioned and produced by Lantern Theater, runs through Jan. 6 in the Black Box Theater at Drexel University’s URBN Center Annex, 3401 Filbert St. 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org


At Penn State, researchers push for answers on carbon capture: Will it stay where we put it?

If power plants that burn fossil fuels could capture their carbon emissions and store them somewhere, it would go a long way toward preventing greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.

That would dramatically lessen the effects of climate change. While many scientists and engineers in Pennsylvania work to develop this cutting-edge technology, it’s slow to roll out and so far exists only outside the commonwealth.

Some of the newest research comes from Penn State. It’s in the field of carbon capture and sequestration, better known to the public as “clean coal” technology. It generally involves filtering out carbon dioxide from the rest of the emissions from a coal or gas-fired power plant. The CO2 then shoots through a pipeline to an injection site, where it’s pumped into the ground. Sometimes it’s done just for storage in rock, and other times it takes place in old oil fields to help squeeze more crude out of the ground.

“It’s not like there is a swimming pool where these things are stored,” said Sanjay Srinivasan, professor and head of the department of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State. “These gases and supercritical fluids have to migrate through very small pore spaces.”

The hope is they’ll stay trapped inside the rock forever.

But, what if one day the carbon dioxide moves somewhere unwanted?

“It’s really important to keep track of where the CO2 is,” said Eugene Morgan, assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering.

In places where this is being tested, he said carbon dioxide is often injected down old wells into oil fields.

“Those wells offer a very nice pathway for CO2 to travel,” he said.

No one wants it to move into an aquifer or back up into the air, but the professors say more research needs to take place to know whether that’s likely.

The team, along with researchers from several other institutions, received a federal grant to develop a way to track carbon dioxide with seismic data from injection sites in Texas and Mississippi.

When pushed underground at a high pressure, carbon dioxide forms small cracks in the rock. To help explain, Tieyuan Zhu, assistant professor of geophysics, queues up a Powerpoint presentation and hits play.

A series of pops erupt from his computer.

“You can hear the sound at the beginning is very strong,” he said.

Those pops indicate the energy from the carbon dioxide traveling about the fractures. Eventually, they slow.

“If it opens a very small fracture … you are going to hear the weaker sound,” Zhu said.

The goal is to create a way to follow the spread of carbon dioxide in real time. Each researcher plays a different role in making that happen, from developing a detailed geologic model of the site to processing data on the speed of the seismic waves and how the energy from the waves dissipates as they interact with the rocks.

Could projects testing this technology come to Pennsylvania?

Between Penn State, other universities and a federal lab near Pittsburgh, a lot of research on carbon capture and sequestration takes place in Pennsylvania. But on-the-ground projects testing this technology are located elsewhere.

Some people, like John Quigley, say they could be here. A decade ago when he was secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the agency released several reports on the feasibility of the technology in Pennsylvania.

“We found that Pennsylvania had several hundred years worth of storage potential,” he said.

Quigley wanted to pursue what he calls a carbon network — capturing carbon dioxide from the state’s coal plants and piping it to a site for storage.

FirstEnergy’s Bruce Mansfield Power Plant in Shippingport, Pa. (Reid Frazier/StateImpact Pennsylvania)

He knows that’s a heavy lift, and he said the state’s energy landscape has changed drastically in the years since as rigs drill deep into the Marcellus Shale for natural gas. The focus has shifted to gas, which, when used to generate electricity, emits less carbon dioxide than coal.

Quigley served in the Rendell administration when DCNR did the bulk of its carbon capture and sequestration research. He said governors since then have not followed up much on the subject.

“It starts with a demonstration of leadership and intent at the state level, that this is a priority, and then gathering these stakeholders and starting the really complicated conversations about how we are going to move this thing off square one,” he said.

The topic has not totally fallen off the state’s radar. The Pennsylvania Geological Survey is in a regional partnership testing storage underground.

A spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf said the administration is eyeing a carbon capture project in Texas, and he urged Congress to increase a tax credit for storage projects.

That measure passed earlier this year. It could make a meaningful difference, said Jarad Daniels, director of strategic planning, analysis and engagement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s office of fossil energy.

“There are a lot of people out in private sectors and private companies in the United States that are talking about it,” he said.

A high price tag and big stakes

The buzz surrounding the tax credit has to do with a major obstacle for capturing carbon emissions: cost. Take, for example, the $1 billion project completed at a coal plant in Texas last year — the first major carbon capture system in the United States.

“If you go out and talk to some of the folks that started those first-of-a-kind units, they know that if they built a second-of-a-kind, it would come in probably 20 or 30 percent cheaper just because of the lessons they learned building and operating that first unit for a year or two,” Daniels said.

Federal and state subsidies have helped the industry pioneer the technology.

Some of it is being developed by DOE itself. The National Energy Technology Laboratory south of Pittsburgh, for example, is working on membranes that could be used to filter emissions.

“They have come up with a way of taking different materials and mixing them together in a very thin sheet,” said John Litynski, who manages DOE’s carbon capture program. “Essentially they selectively move carbon dioxide through that thin sheet. You have a pure form of CO2 on one side and remaining nitrogen on the other side.”

While that may not take care of all carbon emissions from a power plant, using membranes could significantly reduce the amount that goes into the atmosphere and be more cost-effective than other technologies that seek to capture more emissions, Daniels said.

Some experts, like Ed Rubin at Carnegie Mellon University, point to the history of environmental controls at power plants. For example, acid rain was a huge problem facing some communities until coal plants installed scrubbers to remove sulfur dioxide from their emissions, said Rubin, a professor in the departments of mechanical engineering, as well as engineering and public policy. Over a few decades, Rubin said costs for that technology have come way down.

“The more you do it, the better you get at it,” he said.

He expects the same will happen with carbon dioxide controls, but he said tougher regulations are needed to make that technology more widespread.

“Policies come in two flavors: carrots and sticks,” he said. “Turns out most people like carrots more than sticks.”

That tax credit Congress passed last year? He considers that a carrot. But, he said, we need sticks too — major policies like the Obama-era plan requiring states to dramatically cut emissions, or a market-based approach such as a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax.

“If the motivating issue is climate change, we need deep reductions in emissions, not shallow reductions, and we need them fairly quickly,” he said.

At the Penn State campus, the researchers also feel the clock ticking as they work to better track the movement of carbon dioxide underground.

“That sort of tool needs to be developed, proved and field-ready,” Morgan said.

Then, even bigger carbon storage operations can start up. Srinivasan said that’s an important part of the strategy to combat climate change because the transition to renewable energy is slow. Flip on a light switch and more often than not, that electricity still comes from fossil fuels.

“Carbon sequestration, especially geologic sequestration, is almost a must,” he said. “We have to do it.”

Read the Governors Letter on Carbon Capture Incentives here.


Despite finishing PTC work, NJ Transit hasn’t said when Atlantic City trains will resume

Work might be finished on New Jersey Transit’s Atlantic City Rail line, but service hasn’t been restored and it’s not clear when that will happen.

The line shut down in September for installation of positive train control, the automatic braking system that engages in emergency situations. NJ Transit rail service planners are now evaluating a schedule for restoring regular service to the Atlantic City Rail Line, the Princeton “Dinky” line and others, said spokesman Jim Smith.

“We are still intending to restore service as fast as possible, following the successful meeting of the end of year PTC installation deadline,” he said.

The trains and workers have been reassigned to help ease overcrowding in North Jersey, and buses are shuttling the approximate 2,000 commuters use the rail service daily.

NJ Transit is hurrying to meet a December 31 deadline for installing PTC on all its lines.  Congress had mandated all passenger train lines install PTC by the end of 2015. But once it became clear the vast majority of trains in the country would not be able to meet the deadline it was extended to 2018.  Despite this extension, NJ Transit has been rushing to get all the work done, modifying schedules and curtailing some service.

When it suspended service on the Atlantic City line, riders questioned whether this was the first step towards getting rid of the service entirely.  NJ Transit has insisted that is not its plan, and that service will resume.


Youth vote still surging in Philadelphia

Philadelphia saw a big increase in youth voting in the midterm election last month, according to an analysis by the City Commissioners office, the three-member panel that runs elections.

While citywide turnout Nov. 6 increased by 40 percent compared with the 2014 midterm, the turnout of voters aged 18 to 34 increased by 111 percent.

More voters in that age cohort cast ballots in November than any other age group.

Voter turnout in Philadelphia: Percentage change from 2014 General to 2018 General, by age cohort (Philadelphia City Commissioner)

City Commissioner Al Schmidt said that the young voter surge is a trend.

“It is now the fourth election in a row that shows increases among younger voters outpacing everybody else,” Schmidt said. “So it’s not a one-off thing we’re seeing. We’re seeing a sustained increase in younger voters participating.”

The youth movement began in the 2017 Democratic primary, when young voters helped send a progressive candidate, Larry Krasner, to the district attorney’s office and gave first-time candidate Rebecca Rhynhart a surprise win in the city controller’s race.

Analysts credit reaction to Donald Trump’s election with energizing young voters, and the elevated participation kept up in the 2017 general election, the 2018 primary, and the Nov 6 vote.

Schmidt said the increases in turnout were heaviest in Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Center City and South Philadelphia, communities relatively heavily populated with millennials.