What regulatory authority do local governments have regarding pipelines in the commonwealth?

Question from Mike Lynch, East Goshen Township, Pa.

  • Amy Sisk

This question has popped up amid construction on major pipelines to bring natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shale to market.

Municipalities in the Philadelphia suburbs are grappling with it as the Mariner East 2 pipeline is built through this densely populated region. Residents have expressed concerns over water contamination, the risk of an explosion and the pipeline’s effect on property values. There’s no clear-cut answer, yet, as to how much power a municipality has over pipeline construction.

Officials or activists in three Chester County townships are taking legal action as construction moves into their communities, and the outcome of those cases will likely offer clarity. The townships have passed ordinances attempting to exert greater control over pipeline projects, including establishing a minimum distance between homes and a new pipeline. It remains to be seen whether the ordinances will stand up in court. Some local officials have suggested that townships band together to exert greater influence.

Sunoco, the company building the Mariner East 2 pipeline, scored a key victory in a recent court decision. A panel of Commonwealth Court judges ruled in February that a new zoning ordinance passed by leaders of West Goshen Township does not apply to the Mariner East 2 because Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission granted the project public utility status, meaning it can take land through eminent domain. The judges maintained that the pipeline falls under PUC regulations, which preempt local rules.

Opponents of the project had argued that the commission lacks jurisdiction over the pipeline’s siting, and therefore communities should be able to pass rules restricting a project’s location.

It’s important to note that siting for natural gas pipelines hinges on other factors, including whether the project crosses state lines. While various state agencies are involved in permitting a pipeline, some projects also fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government and must receive approval from agencies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or Army Corps of Engineers.

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