Prove your humanity

The Allegheny Front is now part of StateImpact Pennsylvania. It’s the public media collaboration focused on the state’s energy industry, and our partners are WESA, WITF, and WHYY. One lucky part of this new arrangement is that we get to work with Amy Sisk. She’s a new reporter with WESA and StateImpact Pennsylvania. Amy’s just moved to Pittsburgh from North Dakota, where she’s been covering the energy industry–including coal, oil and wind. Kara Holsopple talked with Amy Sisk about the differences and similarities regarding energy development in our region and in North Dakota, and how she’ll be approaching her beat here.

Kara Holsopple: What kind of influence do the oil and coal industries have in North Dakota? What does it look like, what does it feel like?

Amy Sisk: I would say quite a lot. North Dakota is a relatively fossil fuel friendly state. Revenue that the state collects from oil makes up a huge chunk of the state budget, so it’s really an important resource for the state. People are pretty welcoming of fossil fuel development in North Dakota simply because it fuels the economy and provides a lot of jobs. It has brought a lot of wealth into communities. And I think one thing that’s important to understand about a state like North Dakota is that 10 years ago, the population of a lot of the small towns that are in that oil patch out there was shrinking. There wasn’t a lot to keep people there. Then with the shale fracking boom that just brought a huge influx of people to these communities and revitalized to them.

KH: In North Dakota, the fracking there is fracking for oil, whereas we’re fracking for natural gas here. And renewable energy is also big in North Dakota.

AS: We’ve seen this huge increase in the number of wind farms that have gone up in the state in the last 10 years. 22 percent of the electricity in North Dakota is generated by wind. And compare that to a decade ago only 2 percent of the state’s electricity was generated from wind. It seemed like every time I would get on the interstate to drive across the state, I would see trucks hauling these gigantic wind turbine parts to set up at some new wind farm.

LISTEN: “Meet WESA’s New Energy Reporter”

KH: Is there a renewable versus fossil fuels kind of feeling there or is it sort of all seen as one big picture?

AS: A lot of people within the energy industry in North Dakota. regardless of whether they work for oil or coal or wind, talk about an “all of the above energy strategy” that needs to encompass both renewables and fossil fuel. However, there is a lot of tension in the state, particularly between wind and coal since they’re both sources of electricity generation. And we saw that really this past legislative session with some lawmakers that were wanting to ensure some stability for the coal industry there, trying to impose laws that would hurt the wind industry. So, for example, there was an effort to try to impose a two-year moratorium on new wind farms. That ultimately failed, but we saw a lot of efforts like that.

KH: The coal is mined in North Dakota is different from what we’re used to thinking about in our region.

AS: Yeah, it’s a different grade of coal; it’s called lignite coal. And it is different because it is very water heavy.Water makes up about a third of the weight of that coal. And so because of that, it’s not economic to transport that coal via train long distances. So lignite coal is mined in North Dakota, and then it is burned at power plants that are literally right next door to the mines. And because of that the industry saves on transportation costs there. So the coal industry is a bit more resilience than the rest of the country. We haven’t seen a lot of power plant shutdowns for example in North Dakota that I know that we’ve seen you know elsewhere.

KH: I know the biggest story that you covered in North Dakota was the Dakota Access Pipeline. We aired some of your reporting here on our show. And the Dakota Access Pipeline is, of course, an underground pipeline that carries oil from what they call the Bakken in North Dakota through the Midwest to Illinois. And last year its construction, or one final piece of it, was the sight of a huge internationally publicized protest by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and environmentalists over concerns about potential water contamination. So what was it like to cover that story. You must have a lot of stories about it.

AS: It was a very intense experience. I covered that story pretty much every single day for seven months. One day that really stands out to me was October 27th, 2016. It was a day that pipeline protesters had set up a camp on private property, right at the site of pipeline construction. And police went in to raid that camp and force the protesters off of that private property. And I got down there and just saw this huge police presence: police in riot gear, dozens of Humvees and armored vehicles; police surveillance helicopters flying overhead, and you could just hear that sound of the helicopter the whole time I was out there.There were a couple of hundred protesters on this highway, and a couple of hundred police officers responding. And then you had protesters who had set up roadblocks, essentially — hay bales and tires – and had lit them on fire trying to keep police back. And so by the time I got there you could still see the smoke from that. And that was the day that I realized that North Dakota was going to have to go through a lot of healing as a result of all the tension that bubbled up over the pipeline protest.

KH: What did that experience teach you about environmental reporting or covering energy issues?

AS: I think before the Dakota Access Pipeline protests happened, I was very focused on how people felt about energy development in North Dakota. And then when the pipeline protests happened, it brought all these people from across the world who were very concerned about environmental issues to try to advocate against this pipeline. And so it made me very aware that in the future, as I’m reporting on these issues, I shouldn’t just be talking with people in the communities that are affected. I also need to take into consideration the broader context of how people elsewhere feel about these issues.

KH: OK, well now you’re in Pennsylvania. And you’ve had a little bit of time to explore your energy beat here. What are your first impressions? How different is it from North Dakota first of all?

AS: In some ways it’s very similar. There’s a lot of shale gas development, and in North Dakota it was a lot of shale oil development — so a lot of drilling and a lot of fracking. However, there are a couple of things that really strike me as different. I’ve had a chance to meet with some environmental organizations my first couple of weeks here in this job, and I’m just amazed at the number of environmental organizations that exist in this state. In North Dakota there’s just very few environmental groups advocating against fossil fuel development. So that’s one big difference I see here. The other thing is that gas development in Pennsylvania is literally happening in people’s backyards. It’s happening very close to people’s homes and communities and businesses. And in North Dakota, the state is just so much more rural, and these towns are just so much more remote, that there’s really not a need to drill very close to people’s homes. And so a lot of the drilling that you see is happening much, much further away.