In a strongly-worded filing in Commonwealth Court, the legal team representing the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) has confirmed the potentially catastrophic risk from the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system). While one PUC administrative judge and the PUC’s inspection bureau have previously gone on record about the potential for a catastrophe, their statements may not have reflected the opinion of the full commission. This marks the first time that the PUC, at the level of the commissioners themselves, has provided such a clear-cut public statement.
The filing comes in the context of a dispute between the PUC and Sunoco over whether State Senator Dinniman has the right to file a complaint with the PUC. In this court case, Sunoco argues that Dinniman’s complaint (filed in May of 2018) should be thrown out because Dinniman lacked standing to file it; the PUC supports Dinniman’s right. For now, I will ignore most of the details of the case and focus on some of the statements in the PUC’s recent brief, which you can read in full here.
Throughout the brief, the PUC emphasizes its role in protecting the public and indicates that public safety considerations are more important than legal quibbles about standing. For example, the brief states:
…given the Commission’s grave duty to ensure public safety in regard to the public utilities that it regulates, in the exercise of its discretion, it can and should take a permissive view toward standing in situations in which it is presented with credible facts regarding a potential emergency that affects public safety.
Where facts that warrant prompt emergency action by the Commission pursuant to 52 Pa. Code § 3.2 exist, and to preclude the potential catastrophic harm to the public in the vicinity of a natural gas pipeline that transports highly volatile gas liquids, the Commission should not be held to the strict legal standards [regarding determination of standing] that are applicable to civil proceedings.
These zoning cases [that Sunoco cites concerning standing] have no relevance to the issue presented by Senator Dinniman’s complaint and request for interim emergency relief. For the most part, the protestors [in the zoning cases] may be aesthetically offended but they do not risk being physically injured. They would not experience an exploding pipeline or be buried in a sinkhole or be affected by the release of gas into the atmosphere. There may be cases where the complainants standing is too remote to bring an emergency action, but this isn’t it. No one is too far away within the boundaries of West Whiteland Township to not be harmed by a catastrophic event.
In this brief, the PUC is taking very seriously the “public safety” side of its problematic “dual mandate” (to provide for public safety while still creating an environment for public utilities to thrive). In the past, it has too often tipped that balance in favor of the oil and gas industry. Let us hope that this brief is a sign that it is correcting that imbalance.