Most people who take an interest in the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system) are aware of Governor Wolf’s Friday (Feb. 8) announcement. They understand that it halted the issuing of permits by the DEP for the Dragonpipe and that it delayed the resumption of operation of Sunoco’s Revolution pipeline, which exploded in September in Beaver County. But it is still unclear exactly what it means in practical terms, leading some pipeline opponents to express delight with the governor’s statement, and others to express disappointment.

In this blog post, I will summarize the outlines of the announcements by the governor and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). I will highlight some of the questions that remain to be answered and explain why I am cautiously optimistic.

What did the DEP say? The story really starts with the DEP, whose investigation of the Revolution explosion in Beaver County in September resulted in an October “field order” calling for Sunoco to take various steps to remediate unstable ground and erosion problems along the Revolution pipeline route. The apparent cause of the explosion was the collapse of the earth supporting the pipeline in an area where it ran along the steep side of a valley. Apparently, the pipe buckled, broke open, and exploded. The field order required Sunoco to “stabilize disturbed areas and prevent further erosion from the construction area”.

revolution pipeline 2-11-19
This map shows the route of Sunoco’s Revolution pipeline (red line) west of Pittsburgh, and the location of the explosion in September. The pipeline, in just its first week of operation, was carrying raw gas from nearby wells. The “cryo plants” at either end of the pipeline use very low temperatures to separate the “natural gas liquids” from the “dry gas”. The pipeline has been shut down since the explosion. (Base map: Google Maps)

The DEP’s inspectors subsequently found that Sunoco “had not fulfilled the terms of the order and was not progressing toward compliance.” They found violations including “unreported landslides, impacts to aquatic resources, construction activities occurring in unpermitted areas, and several sections of the pipeline that required the installation of additional measures to prevent accelerated erosion”.

In the DEP’s press release, DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell states that all permits will be put on hold, and that “this hold will continue until the operator corrects their violations to our satisfaction.” Although the DEP did not specifically mention any issues with the Mariner system, it too will be affected. McDonnell is quoted as saying “the permit hold will affect an in-service date for the Energy Transfer operated Revolution pipeline… and the Sunoco … Mariner East 2 pipeline, and all other clean water permit applications and approvals.”

The press release contains the following confusing statement: “Mariner East 2 is in service, however there are additional approvals needed for additional pipeline infrastructure as part of the project. There are 27 approvals currently under review by DEP for Mariner East 2.” This may mean that what Sunoco currently calls “Mariner East 2” (the cobbled-together “Frankenpipe”) is in operation, but the missing pieces of the original 20-inch Mariner East 2 (including substantial parts of it in Chester and Delaware Counties) still require approvals.

Questions about the DEP statement:

  • What does Sunoco need to actually do to “correct their violations to our satisfaction”?
  • When that is done, will all the permits (including those for ME2) be issued immediately?
  • What locations and issues are covered by the 27 permits that are “under review”?

As I uncover answers to these questions, I will report them.

What did the governor say? Governor Wolf gave the company a scolding. In his press release, he said, “There has been a failure by Energy Transfer and its subsidiaries to respect our laws and our communities. This is not how we strive to do business in Pennsylvania, and it will not be tolerated.”

  • He described the actions, noted above, that the DEP had taken (at his direction, allegedly) and called on the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to “continue to hold Energy Transfer (ET) and its subsidiaries accountable to stringent safety requirements which the PUC is charged with enforcing.” His proposed budget adds four PUC pipeline inspectors.
  • He asked the PUC to “address lapses in communication by immediately providing county and municipal agencies responsible for public safety … any and all information required under state and federal law.”
  • He directed the Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) “to coordinate with county and local leadership to assist with review of emergency management plans.”
  • He wants the PUC to insist on “a remaining life study of Mariner East 1,” to be “reviewed by independent experts”.
  • He notes that the DEP has already implemented new processes for better coordination with the PUC and federal authorities, a new Regional Pipeline Permitting Coordination Office, and new permit and policy guidelines for future pipelines.

He asks the legislature to close gaps in existing laws, including:

  • Providing the PUC with pipeline siting and routing authority.
  • Requiring schools within 1,000 feet of a pipeline to be notified about how to respond to a leak.
  • Requiring pipeline operators to meet with county emergency coordinators to provide emergency response and evacuation information.
  • Requiring “automatic or remote shutoff valves” in high consequence areas “in compliance with federal requirements”.

What’s behind the governor’s statement? Most of the points that the governor raises, apart from the hold on DEP permits, are not news. Yes, the PUC could do better at enforcement, and yes, the PUC isn’t good at communicating. (But it’s not clear what information the PUC has that it is required “under state and federal law” to provide to county and municipal agencies.)

PEMA is finally getting involved in helping with emergency management plans, and that’s a good thing as far as it goes. The “remaining life study of Mariner East 1” is probably the same as the request by PUC’s investigative arm to set a “retirement date” for ME1. The changes mentioned at the DEP seem to be mostly those agreed to after the settlement of a complaint last summer by Clean Air Council and others. The legislation the governor requests is in line with laws that State Senator Dinniman and others have been pushing—without success—in Harrisburg, and it’s not clear what the governor can do to help with that.

In summary, the governor has provided a series of sound bites, but (again, excepting the DEP permit halt) no clear new actions in terms of pipeline safety.

So what’s the good news in this? I my opinion, there are two important positive results from Friday’s events.

First, the DEP’s permit suspension really is important. It will certainly get Sunoco’s attention, and it will slow down their progress on Revolution (and possibly on the 20-inch pipeline). While it is only a delay, it is a sign that the DEP, perhaps with more backing from Wolf, is willing to get tougher on enforcement.

Second, although Wolf’s statement can be criticized as tough talk with little real action, the tough talk itself is very important. We must remember that this is the same governor who, in the past, has been unwilling to talk at all about pipeline safety and has emphasized the importance of pipelines to our economy. This is the governor who has acted as if he were in the pocket of the oil and gas industry, and the governor whose key staff member is under ethics investigation for inappropriate pressure on the DEP to issue Mariner East permits without proper review.

And this is a governor who almost never reverses his stance on any issue. But he has reversed himself on this one, and that is a major success for pipeline opponents.