Rebecca and Melissa at hearing (Stateimpact photo) 3-22-18
Melissa DiBernadino (Goshen United for Public Safety), Rebecca Britton (Uwchlan Safety Coalition), and Andrew Williams (Environmental Defense Fund) at the Pipeline Safety hearing (Photo: State Impact PA)

Yesterday (March 21) there was a hearing in Harrisburg on “pipeline safety”. The focus was on the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2). I didn’t make it to Harrisburg because of a schedule conflict, but I watched the livestream (replay available here). The hearing lasted about 2½  hours, and much of it involved criticisms of the sad state of pipeline regulation in Pennsylvania and how Sunoco has abused the system.

No new factual information surfaced at the hearing, but the problems were well described and I got a new perspective on Senator Dinniman’s approach to winning support for his pipeline bills.

In the course of the hearing, we got to see Senators Dinniman, Rafferty, and Leach exercising their prosecutorial skills in grilling representatives of the Public Utility Commision (PUC), the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and a representative of the Marcellus Shale Coalition. Sunoco was not invited. The PUC defended its position of regulatory inactivity (until a few weeks ago) and its unwillingness to conduct a public risk assessment. I thought the DEP came off as timid, slow to enforce, and somewhat incompetent; and you have to wonder why it sent only a third-level administrator to testify. The PUC, by contrast, was represented by the Chairman, Gladys Brown, backed up by two lawyers. And of course the representative of the Marcellus Shale Coalition tried to reassure everyone that the industry was working to make everything as safe as possible.

A highlight of the hearing was the powerful testimony by Rebecca Britton of the Uwchlan Safety Coalition, beginning at 1:32:30 of the video. If you watch nothing else, you should check that out.

Finding common ground with the oil-and-gas industry. To me, the most interesting new wrinkle that emerged was the strategy that Senator Dinniman (and to some extent, Leach and Rafferty as well) used to bridge the gap with the oil-and-gas advocates among his senate colleagues. Dinniman has been pushing hard for a package of bills that would tighten regulations on the industry. These bills, while they would not affect the Dragonpipe, would help prevent many of the same kinds of abuses in future pipeline projects, including routing issues, eminent domain abuse, and unethical land agents. To get these bills passed, votes are needed from elected representatives in the Marcellus shale area (which includes most of the western and northern areas of the state), and many of them are unabashed advocates of drilling and fracking, unwilling to rein in the industry.

Senator Yaw (who, as head of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, chaired the hearing) is an example of one of those industry supporters.

To gain industry and legislative support, Dinniman’s approach is to paint Sunoco as an unethical company that is taking advantage of Pennsylvania’s regulatory environment and poisoning the well for the other companies. The industry claims to self-regulate, but in Sunoco’s case it isn’t working. And if self-regulation doesn’t work, then the government must step in.

Here are a few of the key quotes from Dinniman’s tirade delivered to Keith Coyle, the Marcellus Shale Coalition representative, in the closing minutes of the hearing:

“There’s no money that can be made from this gas unless it gets to market. We all understand the prosperity that can come. We want Pennsylvania to share in that prosperity. We want the jobs. But when you have one company—your trade group has to crack down on them.”

“Senator Yaw can’t get his gas to market if my County is constantly putting up resistance.”

“A conflict between the southeast, which has the pipelines, and the production in the rest of the state is going to lead us nowhere. We have to find a way to work together as one. If you want it to be a reality, your companies need to tell Sunoco, ‘You’re screwing it up for the rest of us and you’re hurting the people of Pennsylvania’. And that’s what any trade group needs to do to protect its own interests, and in the process also protect the interests of the citizens.”

Will this approach really prompt other companies to pressure Sunoco to do better? Will it win over enough legislators from the Marcellus region? Even if both of these goals are long shots, and even though they won’t stop the Dragonpipe, they are certainly worth trying.