With Pennsylvania facing a wave of pipeline construction over the next several years, the natural gas industry, environmental groups and other stakeholders remain far apart on the best way for it to happen.
That much is clear from a recent report by a 48-member task force tapped by Gov. Tom Wolf to help the state develop a “world-class” pipeline network to serve its booming gas industry.
In a cover letter to the massive 657-page report, the group said it had achieved “remarkable consensus” on how to streamline the regulatory path to building more pipelines while avoiding or minimizing environmental impacts.
But on many of the 180 recommendations — more like a laundry list of ideas — forwarded by the Department of Environmental Protection, the members simply agreed to disagree.
With the advent of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, gas production has taken off in Pennsylvania, making the state the nation’s second largest supplier of the fuel. But drilling has outpaced development of the infrastructure needed to get the gas to energy markets, so almost a third of the wells drilled since 2004 are “shut in,” or capped, waiting to be hooked up to a pipeline, according to the report.
Though more than 12,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines already crisscross the state, by one projection the miles of “gathering lines” connecting isolated wells to the network could at least quadruple by 2030.
The gathering lines would be built above the Marcellus Shale formation, the source of the gas. The formation lies beneath most of the Keystone State, including all but the southern flank of the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The potential footprint of gathering line expansion is greater than the cumulative area impacted by all of the other Marcellus gas infrastructure combined, the report notes, estimating it could exceed 300,000 acres, or 1 percent of the state’s land area. Hundreds of new gas compressor stations also must be built.
“All told, this pipeline infrastructure build-out will impact communities and the environment in every county in Pennsylvania,” the task force said.
PennFuture lawyer Mike Helbing, a member of the task force, said he’d rather not see any pipeline expansion at all because of the environmental impact. But acknowledging that it’s going to happen, he said his group wants to ensure that the expansion occurs with the least possible harm to air, water and land.
Davitt Woodwell, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said that because of the political climate in Harrisburg, new legislation or regulations limiting pipeline expansion just won’t happen. In that case, he said he would like to see the DEP at least issue new guidelines.
Woodwell and Helbing were the only environmental group representatives on the task force.
DEP spokesman Neil Shader said that the agency is studying the report and considering providing additional guidance to the industry.
Leading companies are already following many of the best practices recommended in the task force report and complying with existing state and federal standards for pipeline siting, construction and maintenance, according to the cover letter from the task force that accompanies its report to the governor.
But some companies appear to be unaware of the standards and best practices, the task force letter noted. It called for more education, training and — where necessary — enforcement.
Penn Future’s Helbing said some gas and pipeline companies do better than others, but he contended that all could do more to protect the environment.
Suggestions listed by the task force include:
- Constructing no pipelines within the 100-year floodplains of rivers and streams;
- Siting pipelines using a landscape approach to protect sensitive areas and avoid intact forests;
- Using a combination of the best technologies to protect “exceptional value and high quality water;” and
- Minimizing the environmental impacts of pipeline stream crossings.
But industry representatives pushed back against those.
The primary challenge in pipeline siting is getting permission from landowners, and getting agreements on crossing private property sometimes makes it impossible to avoid forests or streams, said task force member Cindy Ivey, of Tulsa, OK-based Williams, an interstate natural gas pipeline company.
On not constructing pipelines in 100-year flood plains, Ivey said any increase in the state-mandated stream setback of 25 feet would require state rule-making.
Joseph McGinn, public affairs manager at Philadelphia-based Sunoco Logistics, said standard industry practice is to keep pipelines out of floodplains. The company operates a natural gas liquids pipeline that stretches across the Marcellus Shale area from Ohio east to its major terminal operation in Marcus Hook, PA, on the Delaware River.
McGinn, Ivey and other industry representatives also disagreed with another suggestion on the task force list, that pipelines not be situated on steep slopes or in highly erodible soils. Such terrain is avoided whenever possible, they said, but can’t be in all cases.
In general, pipeline industry representatives maintained that existing federal and state policies and company best practices provide all of the necessary environmental protections.
Helbing and Woodwell, though, insisted much more can and should be done by government and industry to protect the environment. Helbing said he holds out hope that lawmakers’ attitudes could change in the not too distant future, making more protective laws and regulations possible.