The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) is an agency with a set of inherently conflicting objectives. According to its mission statement, it “balances the needs of consumers and utilities” but in its dealing with Sunoco to date, it has tipped the balance in favor of the needs of the “utility” and against the public interest. That’s what you might expect of an agency whose commissioners all have long business ties with utilities and with the oil and gas industry.

However, there are signs that the cozy relationship with Sunoco is starting to fray. The 3-2 split decision on Thursday (August 3) to allow Sunoco to resume construction of the Dragonpipe (Mariner East 2 pipeline) in West Whiteland Township is a prime example. Three commissioners thought Sunoco had done enough to meet the requirements of PUC’s construction stoppage order, but two thought otherwise.

All the documents cited below can be downloaded from the PUC’s website here.

The majority. Three of the five PUC commissioners (Coleman, Kennard, and Sweet) sided with Sunoco, deciding that it had satisfied the PUC’s requirements.

Sunoco had been required to file “inspection and safety protocols, comprehensive emergency response plans, and safety training programs”, and these commissioners were satisfied with Sunoco’s response.

Sunoco was also required to show that “the Department of Environmental Protection has issued the appropriate permission for continued construction of Mariner East 2 and Mariner East 2X.” Sunoco, in its response, distinguished among 12 segments of the Dragonpipe in West Whiteland: the four where it had originally proposed construction using horizontal directional drilling (HDD) but it may now be proposing open trench, and the eight places where it had proposed open trench from the start.

Sunoco has not received the go-ahead from the DEP on the four HDD-to-open trench proposals. But the eight other segments where open trench was originally proposed by Sunoco were approved by the DEP from the beginning and never contested. Sunoco proposed to the PUC that it should be able to continue construction on those eight segments.

The three-commissioner majority approved that plan, allowing Sunoco to proceed with work on eight segments, but not the remaining four.

The dissents. The other two commissioners (Chairman Gladys Brown and Vice Chairman Andrew Place) dissented. Within the constraints of their formal bureaucratic language, they were highly critical of Sunoco.

About the plan to resume construction on eight separate pipeline segments, Brown wrote:

“[The PUC order] speaks of West Whiteland Township as a whole because it was not our intent to allow the resumption of construction in a piecemeal fashion. The clear intent of [the order] was to verify … that all DEP work stoppage directives … were lifted, and that the Company had express authority to resume or begin construction of Mariner East 2 and 2X.” (Emphasis added.)

Writing about safety concerns, Brown voiced some of her frustrations with Sunoco’s arrogance:

“Sunoco opted not to provide one iota more than was requested and did not, in my opinion, attempt to assuage the concerns regarding lack of transparency voiced by the Parties in this proceeding.”

While Chairman Brown was relatively restrained in her language, Commissioner Place was more forthright. About the DEP permits, Place wrote:

“…Sunoco has not met the requirements set forth in [the PUC order]…. Sunoco indicated that they have not yet received all necessary DEP permits required for continued construction in West Whiteland, including that the Company has yet to apply for some of the required permits. Sunoco’s actions are contrary to the Commission’s directives which I believe are clear regarding the need for the receipt of all necessary permits to ensure safe resumption of construction…”

Place continues:

“…Sunoco does not explain when or how it will complete certain requirements such as a satisfactory reevaluation report at the Devon Drive/Shoen Road/Biddle Drive location or its ongoing site activities at the Exton Bypass/Lisa Drive location…. Sunoco’s submissions are scarce in necessary details and hamper the Commission’s ability to review their permits and pending modifications to determine if they have complied with [the PUC order]. “

He is very critical of the bare-bones information that Sunoco provided:

“The public safety issues alleged in this proceeding do not call for the submission of minimal information. Rather, the Commission directed that comprehensive permitting information is needed so that we can ensure the continued safe operation of ME 1 and the safe construction of ME 2 and 2X in West Whiteland Township. Because Sunoco has failed to furnish all necessary DEP permits and related information regarding its construction in West Whiteland Township, I believe that Sunoco has not complied with [the PUC order]. Also, because of the lack of specificity in Sunoco’s submittals which are counter to the clear and comprehensive requirements of [the PUC order], I dissent in this matter.”

With two Commissioners going public with their frustrations, and with other voices in the industry complaining about Sunoco as a “rogue operator” and a “bad apple”, Sunoco may find that its cavalier attitude toward regulators and the public has backfired. Sunoco benefitted from an extraordinary lack of oversight during the early stages of this project. Perhaps that is starting to change.