Thousands of miles of new pipelines in Pennsylvania will have to be built to transport Marcellus Shale gas. The Energy Information Administration says that about 4,600 miles of new interstate pipelines could be completed by 2018. That’s on top of the 6,800 miles of existing pipelines as of April, 2014.
The new pipeline construction will benefit those in need of jobs, and the companies that do the building. But some residents and local politicians worry about the environmental impacts, and say the current regulatory structure needs updating.
Nobody knows how many miles of pipeline already exists in the state. That’s because Pennsylvania does not have one regulatory authority that oversees intrastate gas pipelines. In fact, out of 31 states that produce natural gas, Alaska is the only other state, besides Pennsylvania, that doesn’t.
In 2011, Pennsylvania lawmakers did approve Act 127. Gov. Corbett signed the Gas and Hazardous Liquids Pipeline Act, which made some changes to how pipelines are regulated. Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission was given authority to do safety inspections over what are called gathering lines, these are the pipelines that deliver natural gas from the wellhead, to larger intrastate, or interstate pipelines. Gathering lines are classified based on the population density of the area in which they are built. The PUC has jurisdiction over class 2, 3, and 4, which include about 1200 miles of pipe.
As an example, class 2 lines encompass any pipelines that are constructed in an area populated by more than 11 buildings designed for human occupancy within one square mile. In reality, these inspections are confined to paperwork, such as checking on a welder’s certification during construction.
Class 1 lines are in the most rural areas, (less than 10 buildings per square mile) and do not fall under any local, state or federal jurisdiction. Class 1 gathering lines encompass the bulk of the gathering pipelines. The PUC estimates that Pennsylvania has about 12,000 miles of these unregulated pipelines.
In addition to the intrastate, interstate and gathering lines, there’s another undefined category called “production pipes,” which may be constructed from the wellhead to a gathering line. The PUC has no information on these lines.
According to federal regulations, pipeline companies only have to notify the PUC if the pipeline is longer than 10 miles, or cost more than $10 million to install.
The PUC has 13 inspectors for about 46,000 miles of pipelines that are categorized as public utilities. Both the PUC and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency have to be notified within an hour if an incident occurs. But when it comes to class 1 pipelines, notification requirements only kick in if there’s a death or injury. And in that case, the company would contact the state fire marshal.
The federal government, through the Department of Transportation, regulates the interstate pipeline system. Those are the pipelines that travel across state boundaries. One example would be the Transcontinental Gas Pipeline, or Transco, which travels from south Texas to the major east coast markets of New Jersey and New York City.
To build a pipeline, rights of way need to be secured from private and public landowners. The companies pay for those rights of way. Then permits are needed. But a confusing network of regulatory bodies handles the permitting process. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has to approve any interstate pipeline. The Public Utilities Commission has to approve any that serve consumers directly. But few of the new gas lines connected to Marcellus Shale drilling fall neatly into either of those categories.
If the pipeline runs through wetlands or cross waterways, permits are needed from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Also, the DEP has oversight if the pipelines cross through areas with endangered or rare species. Sometimes county, or local, level regulations come into play, but not always. Pennsylvania’s new drilling law, ACT 13, restricted local governments from implementing zoning rules for natural gas development, including pipelines. But that provision was struck down by the state Supreme Court.
Still, when it comes to building new, larger, interstate pipelines, FERC holds the power. This has led several communities to attempt to ban pipeline construction, or the accompanying compressor stations used to move the gas through the lines. The Wolf Administration has said it wants form a pipeline task force, which would allow state regulators to sit down at the table with pipeline companies and attempt some kind of coordination. But beyond the limited permits to cross waterways, the state has no authority.