Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Independent judges: Sunoco Logistics pipeline can’t bypass local zoning laws

Sunoco Logistics can’t bypass local zoning laws to develop its natural gas liquids pipeline project known as Mariner East. That’s the word from a pair of independent administrative law judges for the state’s Public Utility Commission, or PUC.

Sunoco Logistics wants to build 31 pump and valve stations to keep natural gas liquids flowing along the pipeline’s 300-mile route from western Pennsylvania to Marcus Hook.

For months, the company has attempted to make the case – to local residents and to the PUC – that it is a public utility corporation, and that the pipeline itself offers a public utility service.

The judges dismissed that claim, resulting in a win for residents who have teamed up with environmental groups to fight the project.

“We’re happy that it proves what we’ve been saying all along,” said Tom Casey, the head of a citizens’ advocacy group in Chester County.

However, Casey, a resident of West Goshen Township, could not officially declare victory.

The case will ultimately be decided by the five-member Public Utility Commission. A PUC spokeswoman said the commission can accept, reject or modify the judges’ decision. Regardless of the outcome, the parties in the case can appeal to the state’s Commonwealth Court.

Jeff Shields, a spokesman for Sunoco Logistics, said the company believes the PUC will “continue to recognize that the proposed Mariner East service will result in numerous public benefits.”

PUC Chairman Robert Powelson was formerly the member of a group of key industry players and business leaders promoting energy projects in the Philadelphia region, leading some advocates to question his objectivity in the Sunoco Logistics case.

In May, Powelson stepped down from the group, he said, “to avoid even the appearance of bias.”

Lynda Farrel, executive director of the Chester County-based Pipeline Safety Coalition, believes Powelson should recuse himself from the Mariner East vote.

“Removing himself from the energy [team] was a passive way of admitting that he does have a bias,” she said.

When asked by StateImpact Pennsylvania previously, Powelson said he was not sure whether he would recuse himself, and that he was able to do his job by looking at the facts.

A PUC spokeswoman said the parties in the case will have through the end of August to file exceptions and replies if they disagree with the judges’ ruling. It is not clear when the five commissioners will take up the issue.

The Mariner East pipeline would bring natural gas liquids developed in western Pennsylvania for delivery to local propane markets and to supply a demand for ethane overseas.

Correction: Sunoco Logistics plans to build 31 pump and valve stations for the Mariner East pipeline, not 18. 

You can read the ruling here:

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