The completion date for the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline project) has been pushed back almost every time Energy Transfer holds one of its quarterly briefing for financial analysts. It is now several years behind schedule, and it is becoming clear that more delays are in the works.

In most cases, Sunoco has only itself to blame for its problems, many of which can be traced to the wild-west approach that Energy Transfer (Sunoco’s parent) takes to pipeline construction: do whatever it takes to get it finished quickly, and deal with the legal, regulatory, and public-opinion consequences afterwards. This is the approach that led to the Revolution pipeline explosion in western Pennsylvania, and to Energy Transfer’s current legal problems with the Dakota Access Pipeline. We see the same approach at work with Mariner East.

Many companies, when contemplating multi-billion-dollar projects, will make sure that all contingencies have been examined and addressed to the extent possible. They are also willing to change course when it becomes obvious that their plans aren’t working out. That doesn’t seem to be Energy Transfer’s style.

In this post, I will list a few of situations that are particularly likely to result in further delays in the completion of Mariner East, and the underlying reasons for them.

The “Safety 7” case. The final hearings for this case before the Public Utility Commission are happening as I write this (October 11, 2020). The primary issues are whether Sunoco’s public-awareness program and emergency response plans will actually keep people safe in the event of a serious leak, and whether Sunoco has adequately maintained Mariner East 1. I will be writing more about these hearings in subsequent blog posts.

If the judge’s findings are not in Sunoco’s favor (and that now seems possible), the pipeline might be delayed very substantially or shut down entirely. There probably won’t be a ruling until early next year. 

The issues in this case stem from Sunoco’s decision to use an existing easement through densely-populated suburbs without considering the special safety concerns associated with the highly-volatile contents of the pipelines. Apparently, no alternative routes (which could have avoided “high-consequence” areas) got serious consideration. That problem was compounded by extremely aggressive tactics and poor public-relations efforts.

The Marsh Creek Lake rerouting order. As a result of a major drilling-mud spill into a drinking-water reservoir, the Department of Environmental Protection has ordered Mariner East construction rerouted farther from Marsh Creek Lake. That order is currently being appealed by Sunoco. The only way construction will happen any time soon is if Sunoco can negotiate some kind of settlement with the DEP that will allow construction to resume along the existing route. That seems quite unlikely, but the DEP has settled with Sunoco in the past, so it could happen.

If Sunoco’s appeal fails and the rerouting order stands, the new route will threaten a whole new set of property owners. The innocent days of unlicensed land agents securing easements based on vague promises and threats are over now. It will be much harder for Sunoco to secure the land it needs for an alternate route. In its appeal of the rerouting order, Sunoco admits that “the re-route is expected to take up to a year or more to complete,” and (given the processes involved in securing the necessary land, getting the necessary permits, and construction) I assume it could be far longer than a year.

Sunoco had plenty of warning that a major spill into Marsh Creek Lake could occur. There were frac-outs at the same site during previous construction. But the company plowed ahead with the same construction approach that caused issues before, and now they are dealing with the consequences. 

The whistleblower suit. The Clean Air Council has announced that it is filing suit against Sunoco for compelling “independent” professional geologists to falsify their records of problems with Mariner East construction. They are being told what to report, they are being prevented from gaining access to information they need, and their reports are being edited after the fact by non-geologists.

In the case of a sinkhole that appeared last January, the geologist was told to “close out” his reporting after a week, and to refer to the sinkhole as an “earth feature” (which does not require review by the DEP). The geologist was concerned that the sinkhole might threaten active pipelines.

By May, the sinkhole had doubled in size. When he attempted to report this, the geologist was immediately fired. He also reports that he and other geologists had been refused access to areas they needed to see and to employees they needed to talk to. They were told that no pipeline-related issues were to be reported if they occurred outside a Sunoco-defined “limit of disturbance”.

Here again, expediency apparently took priority over responsible construction practices, and now the company faces a lawsuit. If it turns out that the allegations are true, they will probably apply to other geologists and other locations. If so, that would throw the safety of many pipeline locations in doubt and lead to investigations across the state.

The problems at Snitz Creek. The rock under Snitz Creek in Lebanon County has turned out to be very unfavorable for horizontal directional drilling (HDD), which Sunoco is attempting to use for constructing the pipeline there. At least 10 frac-outs have occurred there dating back to 2017, including three just in September of this year. The frac-outs have resulted in repeated pollution of the creek, and the DEP has issued “Notices of Violation”, which have so far turned out to be toothless documents.

Each time, Sunoco has immediately filed the DEP’s required “restart report” (which is supposed to tell how the problem will be avoided the next time) and the DEP has allowed drilling to resume, only to have more frac-outs.

At what point does Sunoco decide this construction approach is not working? At what point does the DEP decide “enough is enough” and require the pipeline to be rerouted, as it has at Marsh Creek Lake? Given Sunoco’s cavalier attitude and the current tide of public opinion, the DEP may find it needs to stop being so accommodating to Sunoco.

Sunoco has had three years since the first frac-out in October of 2017 to consider better alternatives, but it does not seem to have done so.

The pumping station in Lebanon County. Sunoco has built a pumping station in Lebanon County, using an improperly-obtained zoning variance. The variance did not go through the proper hearing and public-comment procedure. The lawsuit contending that the buildings are illegal has been confirmed by Commonwealth Court and the State Supreme Court, so now Sunoco is faced with trying to start over with a new zoning variance application (or, alternatively, with removing the buildings).

This case has been in the courts for years, and Sunoco has been on the losing side throughout. Depending on what happens next, this situation could take a long time to finally resolve.

The easement at Tunbridge Apartments. Last spring, Sunoco sought to renew and expand existing temporary work-area easements, and to expand its permanent easement, near the Tunbridge Apartments in Middletown Township, Delaware County. The landowner involved is the nearby Borough of Media. In a terse two-sentence email, the Borough turned down Sunoco’s request.

Since then, it appears that Sunoco is preparing to start construction anyway, on land it has no rights to. It remains to be seen how this situation will be resolved, but it could become a major dispute—and one that Sunoco could have foreseen and dealt with long ago.

Is there a pattern here? To one extent or another, these are all problems that Sunoco has brought on itself. In every case, they are problems that Sunoco has mishandled. And all of them have the potential to delay construction. Some could shut down the pipelines permanently. Meanwhile, Sunoco is racking up millions of dollars in legal costs and fostering increasing levels of hostility among the public, the regulators, and elected officials.

Southeastern Pennsylvania is an area where dozens of pipelines have existed with political support and minimal opposition until Mariner East came along. Now, supporting Mariner East is political poison.

It was recently announced that Energy Transfer’s founder and CEO, Kelcy Warren, has been “kicked upstairs” to become Chairman of the Board. It was his “ask-questions-later” style that helped propel Energy Transfer to become the vast pipeline powerhouse that it unquestionably is, but that same approach has gotten the company into trouble now. Perhaps that will change with Warren removed from day-to-day decision making, but it has probably come too late to have an impact on most of the Mariner East problems.

Now is the time to make your voice heard. Contact your county’s elected representatives and ask them to act. Given Sunoco’s behavior in all the instances above, isn’t it time they took a firm stance? Well, they haven’t yet, but they could (and I understand some of them are now seriously considering it). Here are the county officials and their email addresses. Let them know you would support them in taking a more aggressive position in stopping this dangerous pipeline:

For Chester County Commissioners:

  • Josh Maxwell,
  • Marian Moskowitz,
  • Michelle Kichline,

For Delaware County Council: