Public-Comment 9-27-19

In June, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission put out an “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Order” soliciting comments about enhancements to pipeline safety regulations. The final deadline for submitting comments was September 11.

Over 2,700 people responded to the PUC’s invitation to comment. They came from all over the state, representing at least a dozen counties.

The outpouring was remarkable. 104 people and organizations went to the trouble of writing individual documents and submitting them to the PUC. Many made their way through the PUC’s unintuitive on-line filing system to submit comments electronically.

In addition to those who submitted individually-written comments, there were 2,649 who signed on-line petitions via the websites of the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, State Representative Otten, or Bucks County Concerned Citizens; or who submitted copies of the Clean Air Council comment via the CAC website.

Of 2,700+ responding, all but 10 wanted stricter regulations. Aside from the ten organizations that supported the status quo (see below), every comment and every petition asked for improved regulations. There was not a single member of the general public, unaffiliated with the industry, who thought current regulations were adequate.

Of course, the most common request was for a greater focus on safety. This included requests for better emergency planning; regulation of routing, siting, and setbacks; improved leak detection; deeper burial; addition of odorant; a pre-construction approval process, and much more. A majority of the comments were at least partly about safety.

Environmental concerns were mentioned in over a third of the comments. Topics included protection of wells, groundwater, and waterways; loss of habitat; and the noise and dust from construction.

About a quarter of the comments mentioned abuse of landowners’ rights, including seizure of land and misrepresentation by land agents.

Dozens of the comments advocated for renewables instead of petroleum products or simply made broad complaints about the pipeline companies or about the PUC’s lack of aggressive regulatory action.

Several comments from western Pennsylvania (including two from residents of Ivy Lane, site of last fall’s explosion of a Sunoco natural gas line) asked for regulation of gathering lines (which bring gas from wells to nearby processing plants). These lines are currently completely unregulated.

One of the most modest requests was for a rule requiring annual meetings by the pipeline companies to answer the public’s questions.  That was the subject of an identically-worded resolution submitted by four townships, two township associations, and two counties. Annual public meetings would be a useful step, but woefully inadequate if it is the only step requested.

Ten organizations thought the present regulations were perfectly fine. Of the 2,700+ responses, there were 10 that suggested that no changes were needed. They were all from organizations that support the oil & gas industry:

  • Three fracking and pipeline lobbying and PR organizations: the Marcellus Shale Coalition (a PR group for the frackers), the Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance (invented by Sunoco’s PR firm), and the Shepstone Management Company (an even sleezier fracking PR operation)
  • Two oil & gas industry groups: the Pennsylvania branch of the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of Oil Pipe Lines
  • Two unions involved in pipeline construction: Operating Engineers Local 542 and Steamfitters Local 420
  • Two industry boosters: the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry and JARI, a chamber-of-commerce type organization in Cambria and Somerset counties
  • And of course, Sunoco Pipeline LP

They all recommended no changes, and Sunoco even suggested ominously that any changes the PUC might be considering could be illegal.

Here are some comments I found valuable. I know there aren’t many people who will read (or even glance at) all of the comments. In all, they probably total 2000 pages or more. If you’d like to read a selection of them, here are links to some that I found to be particularly useful:

The comment from Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety touches on the major risk-related issues associated with the Mariner East pipeline. (Full disclosure: I had a hand in writing this, along with Caroline Hughes and Eve Miari, plus input from others). 14 pages.

The Chester County Association of Township Officials put a lot of thought into their comments. They urge the PUC to work with the legislature to ensure the PUC has siting authority. They ask the PUC to change optional regulations to make them mandatory. The various sections dealing with construction and the one dealing with leak detection are especially useful. 14 pages.

There is a comment from the PUC’s own Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement that proposes improved wording for many of the changes needed in the PUC regulations issues surrounding construction, maintenance, leak detection, operator qualifications, construction preapproval, protection of wells, and so on. Among many other things, they propose that an odorant always be added to HVL pipelines. 24 pages.

The Clean Air Council’s comprehensive comment document emphasizes the need for pre-construction review and permitting of pipelines. Most of the first 10 pages of the document are devoted to the details of this proposed permitting process. There are sections on every aspect of pipeline regulation, including a good analysis of “end-of-life” determination. The section on land agents and eminent domain is very good. 45 pages + exhibits; 94 pages total.

The comment from Chester County represents a thoughtful analysis of many areas for possible improvement. I was impressed with the section on “Pennsylvania specific enhancements to public utility’s public awareness programs”. 16 pages.

The comment from the Pipeline Safety Coalition provides a long list of improvements for the PUC to consider. It differs from most of the other comments in that it considers existing state and federal requirements as a baseline, and then discusses the improvements (or improved enforcement) that are needed. There is an excellent opening section on why the PUC is losing public trust and what it needs to do to regain it. 20 pp.

Representative Danielle Friel Otten provided a wide-ranging and insightful 4-page comment, and 336 people signed on to it. I particularly liked the sections on public warning, leak detection, and the abuse of “public utility” status.

Finally, I wrote a comment specifically about the unfairness of the PUC’s formal complaint process. It is nearly impossible for an ordinary citizen to have the PUC hear a safety complaint. There is an overwhelming bias in favor of utilities, who can field highly-paid teams of lawyers. Does the PUC really “balance” the interests of consumers and utilities, as its mission says it must?

These are just a few of the comment documents that stood out for me. There are dozens of others, including many excellent comments from individual Pennsylvania residents, that I could easily have added to this list, and I am grateful for all the effort that went into preparing them.

Please use the comments facility of this blog to point out others that you think readers should take a look at.

To access all of the 100+ comments, go to the PUC’s online docket for this topic and scroll to the bottom. There is a link for each comment document.