Sierra Shamer, Visiting Scholar, FracTracker Alliance
While neighboring states New York and Maryland work to regulate the natural gas industry, Pennsylvania makes way for a pipeline build-out and continued unconventional oil and gas drilling. The industry, legislature, and state agencies claim that continued natural gas development is necessary, can be carried out safely, and will provide money, jobs, and energy to Pennsylvania. However, the price is increasingly evident, and the realization of these claims is yet to come.
PA residents are quickly learning that pipelines come with a cost; their permitting, construction, and supporting facilities infringe on private property rights, cause water and air pollution, and threaten public safety. On Friday April 29th in Westmoreland County, for example, Spectra Energy’s Texas Eastern 30″ gas pipeline exploded, severely burning one man, destroying his home, and damaging homes nearby. The local fire chief recounted his awe at the explosion. For him, it was “… like you were looking down into hell.” These costs prompt communities to consider whether the advertised benefits of pipelines will actually outweigh the costs. Active grassroots resistance has emerged throughout the state, and as it grows, it is consistently met with industry aggression and state repression.
This article provides an overview of the pipeline build-out in Pennsylvania, the political and economic environment promoting it, growing community activism, and, how the industry and state respond. An interactive map of existing and proposed pipelines in PA is featured at the end of the article.
The Shale in Pennsylvania
The existing interstate pipeline network moves domestic and imported oil and gas to consumers and markets within North America. These pipelines extend from regions of conventional drilling to domestic and foreign energy markets. The recent development and expansion of unconventional drilling provides access to energy reservoirs that could not be extracted before. Within the past five years, the US overtook Russia to become the largest producer of natural gas in the world.
The Marcellus and Utica shale formations exist below the Appalachian Mountains in the northeast U.S. and into Canada. The Marcellus lies beneath Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, and New York. The Marcellus is now the largest region of natural gas production in the United States. Geologists estimate that 4-8,000 ft. underground, over 600 trillion cubic ft. of natural gas is accessible. The Utica formation lies underneath the Marcellus, extending north into Ontario and New York, and south into Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Geologists estimate over 38 trillion cubic ft. of natural gas is accessible – in some locations over 10,000 feet underground.
Extraction in Pennsylvania
Almost 10,000 unconventional wells in Pennsylvania produce millions of cubic feet of gas each day. This rapid extraction flooded the market, causing natural gas prices to drop dramatically. Marcellus production also outpaced the capacity of the current pipeline network. The location and flow direction of existing pipelines is not ideal for transporting Marcellus gas to markets with higher demand. Additionally, well productivity drops 70% within the first year, so new wells must be drilled to keep the gas flowing. However, the low price of gas reduced revenues, and the cost of drilling new wells remains high. Combined, these factors have paused drilling activity throughout the state. In order to overcome this, gas companies are proposing construction of new pipelines and expansions of existing ones, resulting in the current pipeline build-out.
The Economics of Pipelines
The dominant narrative, promoted by industry and state, weaves a story of economic prosperity gained by drilling the Marcellus, eclipsing concerns of pipeline necessity and safety. Each pipeline project claims an economic impact in dollar amounts and jobs. Williams claims that their proposed Atlantic Sunrise pipeline will “increase economic activity by $1.6 billion in project regions” and create job opportunities. Sunoco Logistics claims that the Mariner East pipeline will “add $4.2 billion to Pennsylvania’s economy, supporting more than 30,000 jobs during the construction period and … 300-400 permanent jobs.” Often, the specifics of money and jobs are not explained, and when construction begins, communities are invaded by out of state workers and left with little economic benefit.
Response to this buildout arises at all levels. Support pours down from federal and state government while resistance pushes up from the grassroots. The EPA and Obama administration work to shut down coal and promote natural gas, claiming it’s a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy. Pennsylvania’s legislature and Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) have battled over drilling regulations, and the push for pipelines presents a different set of challenges. While some consider the build-out necessary to maintain the natural gas industry in PA, others, such as Phil Rinaldi, envision ways in which pipelines can bring money to the state.
Philadelphia Energy Hub
Aware that interstate pipelines carry Pennsylvania shale to out-of-state markets, Phil Rinaldi, the CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) views the shale boom as an opportunity to maintain resource and revenue in state. In 2013 he established the Greater Philadelphia Energy Action Team (GPEAT), a group of over 80 industry, manufacturing, labor, and government stakeholders. Their objective is to capitalize on shale by promoting pipeline construction and bringing energy-intensive manufacturing to the Greater Philadelphia area. In March of this year, the GPEAT released a report titled, “A Pipeline for Growth: Fueling Economic Revitalization with Marcellus and Utica Shale Gas.” This reports details strategies to hasten the transformation of Philly into the “energy hub” of the East by inviting chemical manufacturing industries, and supporting pipeline projects to Philadelphia.
At Ground Level
At a ground level, impacted communities, public health professionals, and environmental organizations face a ravenous industry. Unaccountable for property takings, fair compensation, and pollution, it as an industry that disregards public health and ecosystems within the shalefields. As a result, grassroots and advocacy groups organize and mobilize throughout Pennsylvania to amplify the voices of impacted residents and communities and to hold the industry and government accountable to the people.
Although pipelines bring large revenues for companies, industry, and the state, the story on the ground is different. New pipelines are either constructed on existing land easements, or new ones must be purchased from landowners along the proposed right-of-way. Pipeline operators have one goal: to find the most direct and least complicated route from supply to demand. While this lower their bottom line, new pipeline routes often disregard nearness to homes, schools, and other populated areas, and cause significant damage to farmland and ecosystems.
Pipeline companies often have the power of eminent domain, the ability to take possession of land in court if the property owner refuses a contract. Negotiating fair agreements requires landowners to hire their own appraiser and lawyer, which is not an option for everyone. Unlike drilling wells, landowners do not receive royalties for the pressurized gas flowing underneath their property, facing instead declines in property values and an inability to sell their home. As a result, landowners are left undercompensated, their land forcibly taken away in an unjust process.
Landowners along the right-of-way are the most immediately impacted, but neighbors and communities are affected as well. Each pipeline has a “potential impact radius” or “hazard zone,” the area within which an explosion causes immediate destruction. Residents within this distance experience a decrease in their property values, but currently have no legal recourse for compensation. Pipelines also require numerous compressor stations, facilities that operate 24-7 to maintain the pressure of the gas within the pipeline. Compressor stations are industrial, air polluting facilities that release greenhouse gases, neurotoxins, cancer causing agents, and other pollutants that negatively impact human health and the environment. Residents living near compressor stations experience various respiratory, sinus, and nervous system health issues. These are caused by both everyday operation and periodical gas blowdowns – facility operations when large amounts of methane and other chemicals are released directly into the air for station maintenance or emergencies.
In Pennsylvania, no single agency is responsible for permitting, monitoring, or regulating pipelines. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) permits interstate pipelines, those that cross state boundaries or carry product that does. Pipelines within the state are under the jurisdiction of the Public Utility Commission (PUC), the DEP, and/or the Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
Typically, the PUC is responsible for pipelines that provide directly to consumers. However, in 2011 Act 127 gave the PUC authority to permit and inspect gathering lines, those that move gas from well pads to larger transmission pipelines. All gathering lines have national safety standards except Class 1, those with no more than ten buildings within 220 yards. The PUC maintains a registry of the location, size, and length of gathering lines, but is only includes length for Class 1. Over 12,000 miles of Class 1 pipelines currently exist in PA, a number expected to quadruple by 2030.
Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force
The complex regulation and unprecedented increase in proposals prompted Governor Wolf to create the Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force (PITF) in 2015. Headed by former Secretary of the DEP, John Quigley, the Task Force included regulatory agencies, industry representatives, and government officials. Their mission: to “engage stakeholders in a collaborative process to achieve a world-class pipeline infrastructure system” and to develop “policies, guidelines, and tools to assist in pipeline development.” The DEP offered live stream of meetings, provided public information, and opportunity for public input in an attempt to be transparent.
Task Force meetings eventually resulted in a final report, outlining challenges and providing suggestions for pipeline construction. First, the Task Force recommended an increase meaningful public participation and the development of long term maintenance plans to ensure safety. Second, they suggested reducing environmental impact by improving pipeline siting and construction and maximizing efficient permitting. Finally, they recommended enhancing the workforce and economic development from pipeline projects.
The Task Force openly acknowledged problems of the pipeline build-out, stating that “permits are not reviewed for the cumulative and long term impacts at a landscape level…they do not necessarily avoid sensitive lands, habitats, and natural features, nor are the impacts to natural and cultural resources, landowners, and communities…always minimized or mitigated.” Despite this, the administration and the Task Force maintain that pipelines can be built responsibly.
Community Opposition and Criticism
Challenges to the pipeline build-out exist in many forms. Landowners challenge the bullying, harassment, and eminent domain condemnations of pipeline companies. Communities criticize the acceptance of industry funding and pipelines by local representatives. Additionally, grassroots groups and environmental non-profits challenge the minimal regulation, permitting process, and lack of public participation allowed by the DEP, and the FERC “rubber stamp” permitting process.
Awareness and opposition grow with each proposal, condemnation, rupture, and explosion. This rapid construction is compromising pipeline quality and public safety, according to a report conducted by the Pipeline Safety Trust. They found that pipelines built after 2010 had higher rates of failure than those in decades past. Whistleblowers who worked for Spectra Energy have attested to the neglect of proper inspection in the haste to construct pipelines. Spectra’s Texas Eastern pipeline, completed in 1981, was built in a decade when pipelines failed at one-sixth the rate they do today. However, their preliminary investigation indicates that the explosion in Salem Township was likely the result of corrosion due to a “possible flaw in the coating material applied to the weld joints.”
The FERC is a regular target of criticism. Funded through fees received by the companies and industries it oversees, FERC rarely denies permits for pipelines. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network has filed a lawsuit against the FERC challenging the constitutionality of its decision-making.
The DEP’s dedication to protecting Pennsylvania’s environment from the natural gas industry at large is continuously questioned due to its infrastructure permitting, negligent response to water contamination complaints, and unwillingness to hold companies accountable. The DEP’s poor record on drilling regulation continues with regard to the pipeline build-out.
Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force
The Task Force is criticized for its overwhelming industry influence and lack of public inclusion. Of the 48 Infrastructure Task Force members, 56% are tied to the oil and gas industry. Specifically, 92% of the non-governmental members have industry ties. In fact, potential opposition to the build-out was intentionally absent. PA resident and documentary filmmaker Scott Cannon of the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition (GDAC) was invited to the PITF, only to receive a letter rescinding his invitation a few days later. Additionally, concerned residents were allowed 2 minutes to make a statement, a limit strictly enforced by Secretary Quigley. While affected landowners recounted their fight for their livelihoods, the roundtable of apathetic Task Force members stared blankly. These problems resulted in escalating activist presence increasing from comments and protests outside the DEP building, to meeting disruptions and arrests.
Residents and activists weren’t the only ones unhappy with the PIFT. Cindy Ivey, representative for Williams, and Sarah Battisti, with SouthWest Energy, spoke of their frustrations. The fact that interstate pipeline projects are regulated by federal agencies, and state level organizations have a minor role caused tension in the group. According to Ivey, these issues are “hard things to try to explain gracefully.” Additionally, Battisti added that the 184 recommendations in the report wouldn’t “impact any of us in the near future.”
Despite recommendations of the Task Force, the DEP continues to issue permits that neglect cumulative impacts and complete environmental review. Unlike New York, which denied the 401 Water Quality certificate and prevented the construction of Constitution pipeline, the PA DEP granted the 401 certificate to the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline. As a result, it is under appeal by environmental groups, who argue that it violates the Clean Water Act and the Pennsylvania Code.
PA’s Political Climate
Unfortunately, meaningful updates to oil and gas regulations in Pennsylvania are consistently challenged. Although Act 13 passed in 2012, critical components were appealed repeatedly, specifically the issue of local zoning authority of oil and gas infrastructure. Lawmakers who oppose any restriction on the industry dominate the current legislature. Recently, the House panel voted a second time to block increased DEP oil and gas regulations, in the making since 2011.
Frustrations in the process peaked when John Quigley resigned as secretary of the DEP after sending a profane email chastising environmental groups for their lack of support. Weeks later, Governor Wolf signed a bill that eliminates current regulations, aiming to start new and in agreement with the legislature. As a result, many environmentalists feel that the Governor has consistently compromised on the environment, putting the lives of PA residents at risk.
The relationship between the state and the drilling industry is evident and problematic in Pennsylvania. The Marcellus Money project has tracked campaign contributions and lobbying expenses from the natural gas industry, revealing over $8 million in political contributions and $46 million for lobbying efforts. In 2013 the Public Accountability Initiative released a report revealing the “revolving door” between state government and the oil and gas industry. The report identifies individuals who have moved from the public sector to industry jobs or vice versa, and how often this occurs over the course of their careers.
NPR StateImpact Pennsylvania created an interactive webpage called, “Blurred Lines” that provides a visual exploration of the “revolving door.” As you scroll through the years, individuals slide back and forth between the private and public sector. Additionally, lawmakers have, for a third time, earmarked fiscal code legislation to fund an industry-supported non-profit Shale Alliance for Energy Research PA, (SAFER PA).
Financial gains from drilling support other aspect of the public sector as well. The DCNR’s annual budget became increasingly reliant upon revenues from gas leases within public lands. In 2013, oil and gas lease royalties and other payments provided one-third of the DCNR’s budget. Act 13 implemented a mandatory impact fee whereby the PUC collects money from companies based on the number of oil and gas wells in the state. This money is directed to local municipalities based on the number of wells within their boundaries. However, while 60% of the fee total goes directly to impacted counties, the remaining 40% can go anywhere in PA. While impact fees totaled over $233 billion dollars in 2014, 2016 is expected to be the lowest amount yet due to the decline in drilling activity. This statistic is one of many that highlights the risk of relying on a fluctuating resource.
Governmental and Industry Responses
Response to community opposition of pipeline projects is often militaristic in nature and exaggerated by the industry and the state. The oil and gas industry views community opposition to infrastructure as an “insurgency.” In 2011, it was revealed that the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency manual is used as a tactical reference. The Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition was classified as a terrorist threat by the PA Office of Homeland security, who hired the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response to track activists provide weekly information on a bulletin sent to law enforcement and gas companies. In 2012, state law enforcement, the FBI, the PA Office of Homeland Security, and the oil and gas industry established the Marcellus Shale Operators’ Crime Committee (MSOCC). This committee actively targeted activists and environmentalists in their homes.
Landowners who refuse to sign easements face an uphill battle against companies, law enforcement, and the state as they advocate for their rights. Megan Holleran of Susquehanna County lost her family’s maple syrup trees to Williams’ proposed Constitution pipeline. After protesting and challenging in court, the judge upheld eminent domain and prohibited the family from being within 150 feet from the right-of-way. Further, armed U.S. Marshalls escorted and guarded the tree cutting crew against peaceful protest. Additionally, in Huntingdon County, Elise and Ellen Gerhart faced tree clearing of their woods for Sunoco’s Mariner East pipeline. Once again, armed police escorted tree cutting crews and made several arrests of protesters, who faced bails of up to $200,000.
Pipeline Build-Out Map
The map below shows the existing major pipeline infrastructure in Pennsylvania and proposed pipelines, with the option of also viewing the unconventional wells in the Marcellus and Utica shale. For more information on pipeline regulation and public information, please view our Intro to Pipelines resource page. It includes details about current and proposed pipeline projects in Pennsylvania and throughout the country. Additionally, the intro links to a map of all proposed pipeline projects in North America.
While it is clear that companies go to every length to construct pipelines, it is equally clear that state agencies, courts, and law enforcement support pipeline development. The direction of drilling, pipelines, and politics in the state of Pennsylvania serves the bottom line of the natural gas industry. This is evidenced by the proposed pipeline built-out, state support, and state suppression of public backlash. However, continued challenges to public health and environment will only serve to increase the resilience and strength of community opposition.