Amid growing tension surrounding the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s role in a high-profile pipeline project, Commission Chair Rob Powelson has stepped down from an energy advocacy and economic development group. He said he did so to “avoid even the appearance of bias.”
Powelson resigned from the Greater Philadelphia Energy Action Team in a letter dated May 14. It came two weeks after StateImpact Pennsylvania published a story about concerns that Powelson’s presence in the group could pose a conflict of interest in a case before the PUC.
The Energy Action Team is a group of business leaders, politicians, and academics convened by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce to strategize about how to expand the energy industry in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
The five-member utility commission has a key say in whether a plan by Sunoco Logistics to move natural gas liquids through a pipeline from Western Pennsylvania to Marcus Hook – a project known as Mariner East – can move forward. Powelson has previously endorsed the project’s impact on the region’s economic development.
Another member of the Energy Action Team is former state environmental protection secretary Michael Krancer, who now works for the Philadelphia law firm Blank Rome. Krancer is one of the attorneys representing Sunoco Logistics in its case before the PUC.
Through a commission spokesperson, Powelson declined to comment and said that his resignation letter to Chamber President Rob Wonderling speaks for itself.
In the letter, Powelson, a former president of the Chester County Chamber of Commerce, did not specifically mention the Mariner East project. However, he expressed concern about the potential for overlap between the goals of the team and his role as a regulator:
This is a transformative time for the energy industry in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and as a result, there are several emerging issues that may require PUC review. In recent months, several parties have proposed natural gas pipelines for the region, which is not surprising given the area’s proximity to large population centers, as well as a thriving maritime port. In addition, Pennsylvania could see a change in the ownership of Philadelphia Gas Works, given Mayor Nutter’s proposal to sell the utility and the subsequent offer from UIL Holdings to purchase it.
These proposals have the potential to change the energy landscape in Pennsylvania. However, as they develop, I am becoming increasingly concerned about the nexus between matters of interest to the Energy Action Team and my official duties as Chairman of the PUC.
Powelson notes that he had attended only two meetings of the group. He was not paid for his role on team.Lynda Farrell is Executive Director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition, a Chester County-based group that helps residents work with pipeline operators and regulators. Farrell was surprised by Powelson’s decision to resign from the Energy Action Team.
“It’s absolutely irrelevant that he recused himself from the Philadelphia energy team,” Farrell said. “What he needs to do is recuse himself from the Sunoco decision.”
Powelson has said previously that he did not know whether he would recuse himself from voting on the Sunoco Logstics case.
Farrell’s group has been working with residents in West Goshen Township who are opposing Sunoco Logistics’ plan to build a pump station for the Mariner East pipeline in a residential neighborhood. The company is seeking approval from the Public Utility Commission to be exempt from local zoning there and in 30 other townships along the pipeline’s route in order to build the necessary infrastructure to move propane and ethane to Marcus Hook.
The project has been touted as a savior for the industrial town in Delaware County where about 400 union workers lost their jobs after the oil refinery there closed in 2011.
You can read Powelson’s full letter here: