Energy. Environment. Economy.

A Pennsylvania Pipeline Primer: Who, How, Where and What The Heck?

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Crews weld a new pipeline in the Loyalsock State Forest.

With the explosion of a major natural gas pipeline in West Virginia this week, it begs the question on where things stand in Pennsylvania. The state’s natural gas boom won’t be much of one unless gas companies can get the gas to market. Natural gas travels through underground pipelines that criss-cross the United States. Some are large, interstate pipelines. Others are smaller lines that go from the well head to what’s called a “gathering line.” And then the gathering lines take the gas to transmission lines. Compressor stations are needed at points along the larger pipelines to pressurize the gas and make it move.

A new web of pipelines in Pennsylvania are in the process of getting built to transport the gas. 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. The Corbett Administration published a report on the state’s pipelines this week with 16 recommendations to improve regulations. Here’s what you need to know about pipelines in Pennsylvania today:

How many miles of underground natural gas pipelines exist in Pennsylvania?

Nobody knows. 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. Here’s what we do know about pipeline mileage. Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission does inspect about 46,000 miles of pipelines that are categorized as public utilities. That means those pipelines deliver gas directly to a consumer, heating their home or allowing them to cook. The PUC has eight inspectors who enforce both state and federal regulations.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, or Transco, pipeline that travels from south Texas to the major east coast markets of New Jersey and New York City. More than 55,000 miles of interstate pipelines travel through Pennsylvania. Some counties in Pennsylvania have taken it upon themselves to figure out where pipelines cross beneath their land. Bradford County Planning Commission estimates that its county has about 500 miles of natural gas pipelines and has actually mapped those lines.

Susan Phillips / WHYY/

The interstate Tennessee pipeline runs through Wayne County, Pa. with gas on its way to New Jersey and New York.

So who inspects all of these unknown miles of pipeline?

In some cases, nobody.

Until recently, thousands of miles of what are called “gathering lines” did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Utilities Commission. And the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration did not have the resources to inspect them. PHMSA asked Pennsylvania to broaden the PUC’s jurisdiction to include these lines. That was also one of the recommendations made by the Marcellus Shale Commission. In December, 2011, Gov. Corbett signed the Gas and Hazardous Liquids Pipeline Act, also known as Act 127, which grants the Public Utilities Commission jurisdiction over most of the state’s 886 miles of intrastate pipelines. Rural pipelines, known as Class 1 are exempt from the PUC’s safety inspections and are not currently inspected by either PHMSA or the PUC. To aid with increased inspections and oversight, the PUC has hired five new inspectors and two supervisors. The Commission will also develop a registry of pipelines and their operators in the state.
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 is still tied up in the courts.

How many new miles of pipelines need to be built to transport the Marcellus Shale gas to markets?

Nobody knows that either. And here’s the problem. The state’s current network of pipelines is not equipped to carry the volume of shale gas with the necessary pressure to get it to market. The new pipelines will have to be larger in diameter. That means, if they go through forested areas, a clear cut of between 70 to 130 feet wide is needed to lay the pipe and keep it available for maintenance. The Pennsylvania Chapter of the Nature Conservancy estimates that between 10,000 to 23,000 new miles of pipeline will be needed to transport the Marcellus Shale gas yield.

Kim Paynter / WHYY/

A marker indicates the location of where the proposed Marc 1 Hub pipeline will be built in Lycoming County, PA.

So, can companies just lay pipelines wherever they want?

Not really. First, rights of way needed 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.

The proposed Marc 1 Hub pipeline that will run through Lycoming, Sullivan and Bradford counties continues up into New York. So it’s an interstate line and falls within the jurisdiction of FERC. But thousands of miles of gathering lines, which take the gas from the wellhead to the transmission lines, are in the gray area. They do need permits if they run through wetlands or cross waterways, and those permits come from yet another agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. All lines need sediment and erosion permits from the DEP, and 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 is still tied up in the courts.

Who owns and operates these pipelines?

Private companies own and operate the pipelines. Sometimes a natural gas company has a subsidiary, referred to as a “mid-stream” company, that builds pipelines. But sometimes, the pipelines are built by companies that don’t actually do any drilling; they just own and operate pipelines and lease them to gas companies. Think of it like a toll road.

Do the companies who own and operate the pipelines pay a specific tax associated with the rights of way and transportation of the gas?


Do any of the impact fee proposals include pipeline companies?


Kim Paynter / WHYY/

A new gathering pipeline cuts through a forest in Lycoming County, Pa.

Who likes pipelines?

Deer, elk and snowmobilers love pipelines! Miles of clear cut paths through forests make good travel routes and sources of food for grazing animals. But environmentalists worry that too many pipelines will create what’s called an “edge effect.” That means some species such as interior forest birds, amphibians, and certain wild flowers, which like staying under the canopy, will see their habitat diminished.


  • Anonymous

    A few misconceptions, but otherwise a very well written article. Some of the facts are partial or just wrong, but obviously not out of malice. There are several more stipulations to a project being FERC regulated, and being interstate isn’t one of them. One of the biggest is the use of the dreaded “eminent domain” to acquire right of way. If a gas company can acquire all the right of way through positive land owner negotoiations, that usually seperates it from a FERC project. Another myth is the right of way width quoted as “70′-130′”. The majority of the midstream work here in the Marcellus region is 50′-75′ with extra work space at creeks, roadways, and areas where there will be a need to store excavated dirt away from the actual construction. One point that is never talked about, nearly all the pipelines in use now are at capacity because of our nation’s energy consumption. The Marcellus gas has been estimated to have the capability to provide 80% of our nation’s natural gas needs by 2020. The pipelines being planned/built are updating and expanding our America’s energy infrastructure and is desperately needed.

    • Ebeast

      How much redundant right of ways? Can the energy companies share these pipelines? Mandatory replanting of trees to minimum requirement of right of ways after construction? I live in Bradford co. Pa Tuscarora two. runoff is and will be an issue.

      • Gerahi9

        Many might seem redundant without looking at the big picture of vastly different markets to serve. Yes, many pipelines do serve several different gas companies. The smaller gathering lines out of different gas company wells tap into larger transmission lines which have buyers for the gas. Right of ways are separated into 2 categories; permanent and temporary. Temporary is acquired and cleared for construction purposes and often replanted with trees, permanent is kept free of future tree growth as the root system of many species could become a problem in the future. With all the negativity associated with pipelines, it’s still the safest way to transport this nation’s energy. Many people ask why so many lines are needed?? This nation uses THAT much energy.

  • Anonymous

    Miss Phillips, I and the rest of the pipeline industry would LOVE for someone with objective reporting( like you demonstrated in the above article) to do a piece on actual pipeline construction.

    The first and biggest hurdle is proper planning by the gas companies, the second most important step is proper contractor selection.

    I beg for someone to report on the HUGE differences between a Williams or Dominion sponsored project versus a Consol Energy/CNX Gas project. The professionalism and related responsibilities of the gas co.’s and their chosen contractors is night and day

    • Lkfarrell

      Pipeline Safety Coalition is a relatively new PA nonprofit formed to increase pipeline safety through education, increasing public awareness and participation and by building partnerships with residents, safety advocates, government and industry. You may contact me by leaving a message through our website, currently under construction:
      I look forward to hearing from you and anyone else interest working with PSC. Lynda Farrell, Exec Director

  • Michael Holmstrom

    I’m still troubled that some gathering pipelines don’t participate in 811, the call before you dig hotline. Even though it’s not written into the rules, digging into pipelines has killed people.

  • c k

    We are utterly opposed to the Keystone pipeline project::
    1.Devastates the pristine lands and native homes of both Americans and Canadians;
    2.Distillation of low-grade, transport, and use of such material will contribute to climate change;
    3.Delay critical development of green energy innovation;
    4.Construction of pipeline by demonstrably technically incompetent, indifferent companies with Â
    atrocious safety histories notable for outstanding fines and continuing and long-term failure toÂ
    properly clean and dispose of numerous existing spills;
    5.Pipe planned for use is of substandard steal and will not weld correctly or safely;
    6.Monitoring of pipeline is provably unreliable by current and proposed technologies. Period;
    7.The technology to build this large of a pipleline is unprecedented as are the challenges. The technology simply does not exist at the present time to insure the safety of all those in the impact zone of this project;
    8.the sole motivation for this project is the obscene profit to be made by a few while many may toil to
    build this edifice to hubris, their jobs will be shortlived and a sad testimony to man’s greed and hubris.
    9.TransCanada continues to lobby congress and baldly disseminate misinformation regarding the number and types of jobs they purport to be involved (20,000 versus 5,000 jobs) among so much more..
    Many other reasons remain, just as consequential as the above and details can be provided if requested. Please do not make the mistake of passing this devestating project which poses a dire threat to the safety and health of this nation and ultimately the world. Â This is far more than some jobs program and throw-away to the republicans in congress – passage of this bill will stain the Obama presidency for years to come and will rival the success of the Healthcare Act. Please act in the planet’s best interest.

  • Debbie

    I own mineral rights and royalties in 3 parcels in Greene county western Pa. Signing bonuses have been paid, rights of way have been leased. We have been told the EPA has to approve the permits for the pipeline. Two wells are operating and producing. The pipeline then will be joined to the existing pipeline and wells. I know it is not eady to pin point exactly when the gas/oil will be flowing but can anyone offer an estimate on how long it might be for all of this to happen and we start getting our royalties? Months or years? Thanks for your help. Sincerely, Debra Pennell

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