Pennsylvania Pipelines map by FracTracker Alliance

Pennsylvania Pipelines and Pollution Events

When people think about oil and gas extraction in Pennsylvania, they think about the tens of thousands of oil and gas wells in the state. It makes sense, because that’s where the process starts. However, while oil and other liquids can be shipped in tanker trucks, all of the producing gas wells in the state – whether they are small conventional wells or the giants of the Marcellus and Utica – must be connected by a network of pipelines.

Moving hydrocarbons from the well to processing facilities to power plants and residential customers all occurs within this giant midstream system, and the cumulative impact that pipelines have on the state is formidable. Let’s take a closer look at where the oil and gas pipelines are located in PA, their safety records, and major data gaps. Additionally, we’ve made available a detailed, interactive map of Pennsylvania pipelines and other important features such as water crossings.

Pipeline routes are everywhere in Pennsylvania

According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), there were 92,407 miles of pipelines carrying natural gas and liquid petroleum products in Pennsylvania in 2017. That distance is equivalent to 151 round trips between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or more than three trips around the globe at the equator. This figure includes 78,022 miles of distribution lines (which takes gas from public utilities to consumers), 10,168 miles of transmission lines (which move gas between various processing facilities), 3,111 miles of petroleum liquid routes, and 1,105 miles of natural gas gathering lines (which take the gas from wells to midstream processing facilities).

Of note – The last category’s estimate is almost certainly a drastic underestimation. As of June 7th, there were 3,781 unconventional well pads in Pennsylvania, according the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and all of the pads need to be connected to gathering lines. A 2014 report by the Nature Conservancy estimates that 19 acres of land are cleared for each well pad, which would work out to 3.1 miles of gathering lines for a typical 50-foot right-of-way. Multiplied out, 3,781 wells pads would require a total of 11,721 miles of gathering lines – well over PHMSA’s estimate of a 1,105 miles (See Table 1 for estimate comparisons).

Table 1. Varying estimates of gathering lines in Pennsylvania.*


Unconventional Well Pads

Average Gathering Line Length (Miles) Statewide Total Estimated Miles
Nature Conservancy 3,781 3.1 11,721
Bradford County 3,781 3.5 13,234
PHMSA  3,781  0.3 1,105

*Estimates based on Nature Conservancy and Bradford County data are based on calculating the average length of segments, then multiplying by the number of well pads in the state to find the statewide total. The PHMSA estimate was calculated in reverse, by dividing the purported total of gathering lines by the number of well pads to find the average mileage.

Early map of gathering lines in Bradford County, PA by FracTracker (Pennsylvania Pipelines)

Figure 1: Location of gathering lines (2014) and oil and gas wells (2018) in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. Note the pockets of newer wells that are not connected to the older gathering line network.

In 2014, the FracTracker Alliance digitized a published map of gathering lines in Bradford County, allowing us to analyze the data spatially (Figure 2). These efforts yield similar results, with gathering lines averaging 3.5 miles in length. Not counting segments of transmission lines included in the data, such as Stagecoach, Sunoco, and Kinder Morgan’s Tennessee Gas Pipeline, there were 1,003 miles of gas gathering lines just in Bradford County in 2014.

Almost all of this data is based only on unconventional oil and gas activity, and therefore ignores the more than 96,000 conventional oil and gas (O&G) wells active in the state. We do not have a reasonable estimate on the average length of gathering line segments are for this network. It is reasonable to assume that they tend to be shorter, as conventional wells are often closer together than unconventional well pads, but they must still network across vast portions of the state.

Table 2. Estimated length of gathering lines for conventional wells in Pennsylvania by variable average lengths

Average Length (Miles) Conventional Wells Total Miles
0.5 96,143 48,072
1.0 96,143 96,143
1.5 96,143 144,215
2.0 96,143 192,286
2.5 96,143 240,358
3.0 96,143 288,429

If the average gathering line for conventional wells in Pennsylvania is at least 1 mile in length, then the total mileage of gathering lines would exceed all other types of gas and petroleum pipelines in the state. Conversely, for the PHMSA figure of 1,105 miles to be accurate, the average gathering line for all conventional wells and unconventional well pads in Pennsylvania would be 0.011 miles, or only about 58 feet long.

Pipelines are dangerous

As pipelines impact residents in many ways, there are numerous reason why communities should try to understand their impacts – including basic planning, property rights, sediment runoff into streams, to name a few. Perhaps the most significant reason, however, is the potential for harmful incidents to occur, which are more common than anyone would like to think (See Table 3). Some of these incidents are quite serious, too.

Table 3. Nationwide pipeline incidents statistics from PHMSA from January 1, 2010 through July 13, 2018

Report Events Fatalities Injuries Explosions Evacuees Total Damages
Gas Distribution 909 92 432 220 16,949 $348,511,528
Gas Transmission / Gathering 1,031 23 94 49 8,557 $1,085,396,867
Hazardous Liquids 3,368 10 24 14 2,467 $2,531,839,207
Grand Total 5,308 125 550 283 27,973 $3,965,747,602

As of the July 13, 2018 download date, the PHMSA report covers 3,116 days.

Incidents Per Day

This means that nationally per day there are 1.7 pipeline incidents, almost 9 people evacuated, and $1,272,704 in damages, including the loss of released hydrocarbons.

On average, there is a fatality every 25 days, an injury every six days, and an explosion every 11 days. The location of those explosions obviously has a lot to do with the casualty count and aggregate property damage.

How do Pennsylvania pipelines hold up? As one might expect from a state with so many pipelines, Pennsylvania’s share of these incidents are significant (See Table 4).

Table 4. Pennsylvania pipeline incidents statistics from PHMSA from January 1, 2010 through July 13, 2018

Report Events Fatalities Injuries Explosions Evacuees Total Damages
Gas Distribution 29 8 19 12 778 $6,769,061
Gas Transmission / Gathering 30 0 2 2 292 $51,048,027
Hazardous Liquids 49 0 0 1 48 $9,115,036
Grand Total 108 8 21 15 1,118 $66,932,124

Within Pennsylvania, an incident is reported to PHMSA every 29 days, an injury or fatality can be expected every 107 days, and the daily average of property damage is $21,480.

The issue with under-reported gathering lines notwithstanding, PHMSA lists Pennsylvania with 92,407 miles of combined gas and hazardous liquid pipelines, which is roughly 3.3% of the nationwide total, and there is no reason to believe that PHMSA’s issue with accounting for gathering lines is unique to the Keystone State.

Just 2% of the total number of incidents are in Pennsylvania. In terms of impacts, however, the state has seen more than its fair share – with 6.4% of fatalities, 3.8% of injuries, 5.3% of explosions, and 3.9% of evacuations. Property damage in Pennsylvania accounts for just 1.7% of the national total, making it the only category examined above for which its share of impacts is less than expected, based on total pipeline miles.

Pipeline location data not widely available

Pipeline data is published from a variety of public agencies, although almost none of it is really accessible or accurate.

For example the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) publishes a number of energy-related datasets. While they do not publish gas pipelines, they do have a 2012 dataset of natural gas liquid routes, which is a significant portion of the hazardous liquid inventory. From an analytical point of view, however, this dataset is essentially worthless. Many of these pipelines are so generalized that they don’t make a single bend for multiple counties, and the actual location of the routes can be miles from where the data are represented. Communities cannot use this as a tool to better understand how pipelines interact with places that are important to them, like schools, hospitals, and residential neighborhoods. The dataset is also incomplete – the original Mariner East natural gas pipeline, which has been around for decades, isn’t even included in the dataset.

Screenshot from PHMSA's public pipeline viewer

Figure 2: This text appears to viewers of PHMSA’s public pipeline viewer.

Another data source is PHMSA’s National Pipeline Mapping System Public Viewer. While this source is rich in content, it has several intentional limitations that thwart the ability of the public to accurately analyze the pipeline network and understand potential impacts:

  1. Data can only be accessed one county at a time, which is impractical for long interstate transmission routes,
  2. Data can not be be downloaded, and
  3. The on-screen representation of the routes disappears when users zoom in too far.

Within Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) maintains the Pennsylvania Pipeline Portal, which contains a lot of information about various recent pipeline projects. However, with the sole exception of the Mariner East II project, the agency does not provide any geospatial data for the routes. The reason for this is explained on the Mariner East II page:

These shapefiles are the GIS data layers associated with the permits that have been submitted for the proposed pipeline project. These shapefiles are not required as part of a permit application and are not commonly submitted but were provided to the Department by Sunoco Pipeline, L.P.

The files were accepted by the Department to aid in the review of the application material given the large scale of the project. The shapefiles ease the review by displaying some information contained in the hardcopy of the plans and application in a different format.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) does make oil and gas infrastructure data available, including pipelines, where it occurs on state forest land.

Pennsylvania Pipelines Map

Considering the risks posed by pipelines, their proliferation in Pennsylvania, and this critical juncture in their development with an implicit opportunity to document impacts, FracTracker believes it is important now to develop an accurate interactive statewide map of these projects, fortify it with essential data layers, and facilitate citizen reporting of the problems that are occurring.

Other than the Mariner East II route and the state forest data available from DCNR, all of the pipeline routes on our Pennsylvania Pipeline Map, below, have been painstakingly digitized – either from paper maps, PDFs, or other digital media – to make geospatial data that can analyzed by interacting with other datasets. These layers are only as good as their sources, and may not be exact in some cases, but they are orders of magnitude better than data produced by public agencies such as DHS.

Figure 3: FracTracker’s Pennsylvania Pipeline Map. View fulll screen to explore map further, view water crossings, and other details not visible at the statewide map view.

Data Layers on Pennsylvania Pipelines Map

  • Incidents

    PHMSA incidents (7-13-2018). Pipeline incidents that were reported to the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. These reports contain significant information about the incidents, including location coordinates, and are shown on the map with white circles.

    Note that a few of the location coordinates appear to be erroneous, as two reports appear outside of the state boundary.

  • Spills

    Mariner East II – Inadvertent Returns (6-1-2018). This data layer shows inadvertent returns – or spills – related to the construction of the Mariner East II pipeline. This is a combination of two reports, including one where the spills that impacted waterways, and those categorized as upland spills. These are represented on the map by orange dots that vary in size depending on the amount of fluid that spilled. Some of the locations were provided as latitude / longitude coordinates, while others are estimates based on the description. In a few cases, the latitude value was adjusted to intersect the pipeline route. In each case, the adjusted location was in the correct county and municipality.

  • Water Crossings

    Known Stream & Wetland Crossings (2018). This shows the locations where the known pipeline routes intersect with streams and other wetlands on the National Wetland Inventory. These are organized by our four pipeline layers that follow, including FracTracker Vetted Pipelines (1,397 crossings), DCNR Pipelines (184 crossings), PHMSA Gas Pipelines (6,767 crossings), and Bradford County Gathering Lines (867 crossings). These crossings are shown as diamonds that match the colors of the four listed pipeline layers.

  • Vetted Pipelines

    FracTracker Vetted Pipelines (2018). This pipeline layer is an aggregation of pipeline routes that have been digitized in recent years. Much of this digitization was performed by the FracTracker Alliance, and it is an available layer on our mobile app. These are largely newer projects, and contain some routes, such as the Falcon Ethane Pipeline System, that have not been built yet. In some cases, multiple versions of the pipeline routes are printed, and we may not have the final version of the route in all circumstances. FracTracker Vetted Pipelines are represented with a red line.

  • DCNR Pipelines

    DCNR Pipelines (2018). This includes pipeline routes on state forest lands, and is shown as green lines on the map.

  • PHMSA Pipelines

    PHMSA Gas Pipelines (2018). This includes data digitized from the PHMSA Public Pipeline Viewer. This source contains gas and liquid pipelines, but only gas pipelines are included in this analysis. These routes are shown in a bright purplish pink color.

  • Bradford Lines

    Bradford County Gathering Lines (2014). This layer was digitized by the FracTracker Alliance after Bradford County published a printed map of gathering lines within the county in 2014. It is the only county in Pennsylvania that we have gathering line data for, and it is shown on the map as a yellow line.

  • Nearby Waterways

    Streams & Wetlands with 1/2 Mile of Pipelines (2018). This clipped layer of the National Wetlands Inventory is provided for visual reference of the wetlands near known pipeline routes. Due to the large amount of data, this layer is only visible when users zoom in to a scale of 1:500,000, or about the size of a large county.

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

This article is the first in a two-part series on Pennsylvania pipelines. Stay tuned!

Population density map of ME2 pipeline (aka Dragonpipe)

Population density maps: Lessons on where NOT to put a pipeline

By George Alexander, Guest Author

Census maps tell the story

FracTracker Alliance recently created a set of maps showing population variation along the route of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline, which I refer to as the “Dragonpipe.” FracTracker’s maps dramatically reveal a route that runs through many centers of dense population, and seems to avoid relatively nearby areas with far lower population density. The maps are based on US Census 2010 block-level data.

The take-away lesson from these maps is this: Sunoco has put the Dragonpipe in a very bad location.

As an example, here is a map of the pipeline route as it passes through Berks, Chester, and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania:

Figure 1. Population density in southeastern Pennsylvania. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance. Location annotations added by G. Alexander.

Figure 1. Population density in southeastern Pennsylvania. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance. Location annotations added by G. Alexander.

The dark brown areas in the map above denote the most densely populated locations, displayed as the number of people per square mile. The lighter the color, the lower the population density. The black line is the pipeline route.

In the upper left-hand part of the map, note that the route passes through the suburbs of Reading, in Berks County. Further south in the same map, notice how it passes directly through population centers in Chester and Delaware counties.

Let’s examine this pattern more closely.

Why was this route chosen in the first place?

For Sunoco’s convenience

In many areas, from a standpoint of impacts on local communities, the pipeline route is actually the worst possible track that Sunoco could have chosen; it puts more people at risk than any other path, given the same starting- and endpoints. Why in the world did they choose this route?

The answer is this: for Sunoco’s corporate convenience. The Dragonpipe, for most of its length, runs side-by-side Mariner East 1 (ME1), an existing 80+ year-old pipeline designed to carry gasoline and heating oil to customers in the central and western parts of Pennsylvania. From this standpoint, the location of the old pipeline makes sense; it had to be sited near populated areas. That’s where the customers for gasoline and heating oil were located back in the 1930s.

However, the flip-side of Sunoco’s corporate convenience may also mean unnecessary risks to tens of thousands of Pennsylvania residents. 

The old pipeline connected the centers of population in the 1930s, areas that are now much more populous when they were nearly ninety years ago. In the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, the character of the area has also changed dramatically. When the original pipeline was built, the landscape along ME1’s route through Delaware and Chester counties was predominantly farmland. Today, that area has changed to densely-settled suburbs, with homes, schools, businesses, hospitals, and shopping centers directly adjacent to the pipeline’s right-of-way.

The Exton area provides a prime example of how this transition to suburbia has set the stage for potential disaster along the pipeline route. The following image shows a detailed view of the population density near Exton. As you can see, the pipeline route sticks to high-density areas (shown in dark brown) the entire way, even though lower-density options (shown in orange and yellow) exist nearby.

Figure 2. Population density in Exton area. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance. Location annotations added by G. Alexander.

Figure 2. Population density in Exton area. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance. Location annotations added by G. Alexander.

Sunoco — like any corporation — has a moral obligation to conduct its business in a safe manner. This includes choosing a safe route for a pipeline that has inherent dangers and risks. However, Sunoco apparently did not choose to do so. Moreover, by law, Sunoco has an obligation to make human safety paramount. In the settlement Sunoco reached last August with Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Mountain Watershed Association, Sunoco agreed to consider alternative routing for the pipeline in this area. Then, despite their promises, Sunoco simply bypassed that part of the agreement. Rather than explore alternatives to the proposed route, Sunoco dismissed the alternatives as “not practicable” because they did not involve the right-of-way that was already in use for Mariner East 1.

Sunoco seemed to have made their sole priority in considering a pipeline route whether the company has an existing pipeline there already. A better route would reduce by hundreds the number of people who could be killed or injured if there were a leak and explosion.

Pipelines leak

Pipelines can and do leak. Mariner East 1, in its short career as a pipeline carrying NGLs, has already leaked several times. It is just good luck that the leaks were stopped before any product ignited. (See most recent report of ME1 and ME2 issues.) The Atex pipeline, a pipeline of similar size and content that runs down to the Gulf Coast, ruptured and exploded near Follansbee, WV, in just its second year of operation. And there’s no reason to believe such an incident would never happen with the Dragonpipe.

Sunoco has an obligation to do what it can to minimize the injuries, death, and destruction caused by an event like the Follansbee explosion. The Follansbee incident occurred in a forested area. The explosion destroyed several acres of trees, but no-one was killed. The result would have been far different if had the explosion been in a densely populated area.

Just as the maps above show how the Philadelphia suburbs and those of Reading are threatened, other FracTracker maps show the threats to suburbs of Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, below. Click to expand.

A call for change

Indeed, across the state, the Dragonpipe route gets dangerously and notably close to population centers. Such a path may be a convenient and financially beneficial option for Sunoco, but it is an unacceptable risk for Pennsylvania’s citizens to bear.

About the Author: George Alexander publishes the Dragonpipe Diary (, covering all aspects the Mariner East pipeline project, including technology, risks, legal issues, economics, and the people and groups involved. He recently retired from a career in journalism and marketing.

An earlier version of this essay was published in Mr. Alexander’s blog, Dragonpipe Diary, on June 29, 2018.