Your guide to pipelines
Thousands of miles of new pipelines in Pennsylvania will have to be built to transport Marcellus Shale 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 to be updated.
Nobody knows exactly 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.
The federal government, through the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), regulates the safety of the interstate pipeline system, which includes about 2.6 million miles of pipelines.
To build a pipeline, rights of way need to be secured from private and public landowners. Energy 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, and it has only denied two such proposals in the past 30 years. The Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission has to approve any that serve consumers directly.
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. Counties are notified of new pipeline construction through earth disturbance notifications.
In 2011, former Governor Tom 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 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 1,200 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 company vowed not to make those mistakes again. But critics of the project in southeastern Pennsylvania said it’s too late for the people who are living near the pipelines.
Continued problems with Sunoco’s Mariner East project, and the company’s failure to fix problems related to a line in western Pennsylvania, have raised the profile of legislation that has stalled in the past.
The pipeline will carry volatile propane, ethane and butane, which has raised fears of many who live near it — even though explosions are rare. As part of StateImpact Pennsylvania’s “Mariner East 2: At what risk?” series, we put together this video to explain what those substances are and how they act both inside the pipeline and if they got out, and how you should respond if there’s a leak.