destroyed home following pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA

Unnatural Disasters

Guest blog by Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group

Roughly half of the homes in America use gas for providing heat, hot water or powering appliances. If you use gas in your home, you know that leaks are bad – they waste money, they pollute the air, and, if exposed to a spark, they could spell disaster.

Our homes, however, are only the end point of a vast production and transportation system that brings gas through a network of pipelines all the way from the wellhead to our kitchens. There are opportunities for wasteful and often dangerous leaks all along the way – leaks that threaten the public’s health and safety and contribute to climate change.

How frequent are gas leaks?

Between January 2010 and November 2018, there were a reported 1,888 incidents that involved a serious injury, fatality or major financial loss related to gas leaks in the production, transmission and distribution system, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. These incidents caused 86 deaths, 487 injuries and over $1 billion in costs.

When gas lines leak, rupture, or are otherwise damaged, the gas released can explode, sometimes right in our own backyards. Roughly one in seven of the incidents referenced above – 260 in total – involved an explosion.

In September 2018, for example, a series of explosions in three Massachusetts communities caused one death, numerous injuries and the destruction of as many as 80 homes. And there are many more stories like it from communities across the U.S. From the 2010 pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people and destroyed almost 40 homes to the 2014 disaster in New York City that destroyed two five-story buildings and killed eight people, these events serve as a powerful reminder of the danger posed by gas.

The financial and environmental costs

Gas leaks are also a sheer waste of resources. While some gas is released deliberately in the gas production process, large amounts are released unintentionally due to malfunctioning equipment, corrosion and natural causes like flooding. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 123,692 million cubic feet of gas were lost in 2017 alone, enough to power over 1 million homes for an entire year. That amount is likely an underestimate. On top of the major leaks reported to the government agency in charge of pipeline safety, many of our cities’ aging gas systems are riddled with smaller leaks, making it tricky to quantify just how much gas is lost from leaks in our nation’s gas system.

Leaks also threaten the stability of our climate because they release large amounts of methane, the main component of gas and a potent greenhouse gas. Gas is not the “cleaner” alternative to coal that the industry often makes it out to be. The amount of methane released during production and distribution is enough to reduce or even negate its greenhouse gas advantage over coal. The total estimated methane emissions from U.S. gas systems have roughly the same global warming impact over a 20-year period as all the carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. coal plants in 2015 – and methane emissions are likely higher than this amount, which is self-reported by the industry.

In most states, there is no strong incentive for gas companies to reduce the amount of leaked gas because they can still charge customers for it through “purchased gas adjustment clauses.” These costs to consumers are far from trivial. Between 2001 and 2011, Americans paid at least $20 billion for gas that never made it to their homes.

These and other dangers of gas leaks are described in a recent fact sheet by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group. At a time when climate change is focusing attention on our energy system, it is critical that communities understand the full range of problems with gas – including the ever-present risk of leaks in the extensive network of infrastructure that brings gas from the well to our homes.

The alternative

We should not be using a fuel that endangers the public’s safety and threatens the stability of our climate. Luckily, we don’t have to. Switching to electric home heating and hot water systems and appliances powered by renewable energy would allow us to move toward eliminating carbon emissions from homes. Electric heat pumps are twice as efficient as gas systems in providing heat and hot water, making them a viable and commonsense replacement. Similarly, as the cost of wind and solar keep falling, they will continue to undercut gas prices in many regions.

It’s time to move beyond gas and create a cleaner, safer energy system.

By Meryl Compton, policy associate with Frontier Group, a non-profit think tank part of The Public Interest Network. She is based in Denver, Colorado.

Feature image at top of page shows San Bruno, California, following the 2010 pipeline explosion

Re: Falcon ethane pipeline project

Falcon Pipeline Moves Forward Despite Unresolved Concerns

Pittsburgh, PA – Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced their decision to issue a permit for the construction of Shell’s Falcon ethane pipeline project in southwest PA. FracTracker Alliance is extremely disappointed that DEP is allowing this project to proceed despite heavy opposition from the public and unaddressed concerns for the safety and well-being of nearby residents and the surrounding environment.

The past year has seen countless issues from the construction of new pipelines in the Commonwealth – from hundreds of “inadvertent returns,” (spills of bentonite drilling mud) along the path of the Mariner East II project to the catastrophic explosion of the week-old Revolution Pipeline in Beaver County. These reoccurring and serious incidents make it clear that oil and gas midstream companies are rushing to put infrastructure in place, and DEP and other regulatory agencies have been failing in their mission to adequately supervise the process.

According to data from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, there were 108 pipeline incidents in Pennsylvania between January 2010 and mid-July 2018, resulting in 8 fatalities, 15 injuries, requiring over 1,100 people to be evacuated from their homes, and causing more than $66 million in property damage. This track record, which does not include the Revolution Pipeline explosion in September of 2018, is frankly unacceptable.

Certainly, the Commonwealth has invested heavily in the Shell Ethane Cracker facility, offering steep tax subsidies and even paying the global petrochemical giant $2.10 for every barrel of ethane it consumes from Pennsylvania wells, equivalent to $1.6 billion over the next 25 years. It appears to FracTracker that these business arrangements have made the continued extraction and exploitation of hydrocarbons the priority for DEP, not protecting the environment and health and safety of Pennsylvanians, as the mission of the Department suggests is their focus. DEP’s decision also traces an unfortunate pattern of opaqueness and poor timing by announcing unpopular decisions right before the holidays.

Fundamentally, oil and gas companies like Shell exist to make profits, and will therefore make decisions to maximize earnings and limit their costs, if left to their own devices. This approach is often directly at odds with public safety, so Pennsylvania entrusts DEP to oversee the operations. FracTracker feels that with their decision to move forward with the project on December 20, 2018, DEP brushed over dozens of substantial concerns regarding the Falcon ethane pipeline project, and therefore failed in this mission. We remain unconvinced that the “appropriate construction techniques and special conditions” required by DEP will adequately protect the environment and health and safety of residents along the Falcon pipeline route.

Dec. 21st Update: After this article was written, FracTracker learned that Ohio’s EPA issued an air quality permit for the cracker plant in Belmont County, Ohio on December 21st. The short public comment period and the rush to issue permits again illustrates that significant public health and environmental concerns are given minimal importance versus corporate wishes and political expediency. The regulatory paradigm is broken. The public has been ill served by the agencies entrusted to safeguard their interests. A collective regional voice should be raised in protest.

About FracTracker Alliance

Started in 2010 as a southwestern Pennsylvania area website, FracTracker Alliance is now a national organization with regional offices across the United States in Pennsylvania, Washington DC, New York, Ohio, and California. The organization’s mission is to study, map, and communicate the risks of oil and gas development to protect our planet and support the renewable energy transformation. Its goal is to support advocacy groups at the local, regional and national level, informing their actions to positively shape our nation’s energy future.

Learn more about FracTracker’s coverage of the Falcon ethane pipeline project by exploring the posts below:

Map of pipeline incidents across the US

Pipeline Incidents Continue to Impact Residents

Pipelines play a major role in the oil and gas extraction industry, allowing for the transport of hydrocarbons from well sites to a variety of infrastructure, including processing plants, petrochemical facilities, power generation plants, and ultimately consumers. There are more than 2.7 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines in the United States, or more than 11 times the distance from Earth to the moon.

With all of this infrastructure in place, pipelines are inevitably routed close to homes, schools, and other culturally or ecologically important locations. But how safe are pipelines, really? While they are typically buried underground and out of sight, many residents are concerned about the constant passage of volatile materials through these pipes in close proximity to these areas, with persistent but often unstated possibility that something might go wrong some day.

Safety talking points

In an attempt to assuage these fears, industry representatives and regulators tend to throw around variants of the word “safe” quite a bit:

Pipelines are the safest and most reliable means of transporting the nation’s energy products.
— Keith Coyle, Marcellus Shale Coalition

Although pipelines exist in all fifty states, most of us are unaware that this vast network even exists. This is due to the strong safety record of pipelines and the fact that most of them are located underground. Installing pipelines underground protects them from damage and helps protect our communities as well.
— Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

Pipelines are an extremely safe way to transport energy across the country.
Pipeline 101

Knowing how important pipelines are to everyday living is a big reason why we as pipeline operators strive to keep them safe. Pipelines themselves are one of the safest ways to transport energy with a barrel of crude oil or petroleum product reaching its destination safely by pipeline 99.999% of the time.
American Petroleum Institute

But are pipelines really safe?

Given these talking points, the general public can be excused for being under the impression that pipelines are no big deal. However, PHMSA keeps records on pipeline incidents in the US, and the cumulative impact of these events is staggering. These incidents are broken into three separate reports:

  1. Gas Distribution (lines that take gas to residents and other consumers),
  2. Gas Transmission & Gathering (collectively bringing gas from well sites to processing facilities and distant markets), and
  3. Hazardous Liquids (including crude oil, refined petroleum products, and natural gas liquids).

Below in Table 1 is a summary of pipeline incident data from 2010 through mid-November of this year. Of note: Some details from recent events are still pending, and are therefore not yet reflected in these reports.

Table 1: Summary of pipeline incidents from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018

Report Incidents Injuries Fatalities Evacuees Fires Explosions Damages ($)
Gas Distribution 934 473 92 18,467 576 226 381,705,567
Gas Transmission & Gathering 1,069 99 24 8,614 121 51 1,107,988,837
Hazardous Liquids 3,509 24 10 2,471 111 14 2,606,014,109
Totals 5,512 596 126 29,552 808 291 4,095,708,513

Based on this data, on average each day in the US 1.7 pipeline incidents are reported (a number in line with our previous analyses), requiring 9 people to be evacuated, and causing almost $1.3 million in property damage. A pipeline catches fire every 4 days and results in an explosion every 11 days. These incidents result in an injury every 5 days, on average, and a fatality every 26 days.

Data shortcomings

While the PHMSA datasets are extremely thorough, they do have some limitations. Unfortunately, in some cases, these limitations tend to minimize our understanding of the true impacts. A notable recent example is a series of explosions and fires on September 13, 2018 in the towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts. Cumulatively, these incidents resulted in the death of a young man and the injuries to 25 other people. There were 60-80 structure fires, according to early reports, as gas distribution lines became over-pressurized.

The preliminary PHMSA report lists all of these Massachusetts fires as a single event, so it is counted as one fire and one explosion in Table 1. As of the November 14 download of the data, property damage has not been calculated, and is listed as $0. The number of evacuees in the report also stands at zero. This serves as a reminder that analysis of the oil and gas industry can only be as good as the available data, and relying on operators to accurately self-report the full extent of the impacts is a somewhat dubious practice.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

This map shows pipeline incidents in the US from 1/1/2010 through 11/14/2018. Source: PHMSA. One record without coordinates was discarded, and 10 records had missing decimal points or negative (-) signs added to the longitude values. A few obvious errors remain, such as a 2012 incident near Winnipeg that should be in Texas, but we are not in a position to guess at the correct latitude and longitude values for each of the 5,512 incidents.

Another recent incident occurred in Center Township, a small community in Beaver County, Pennsylvania near Aliquippa on September 10, 2018. According to the PHMSA Gas Transmission & Gathering report, this incident on the brand new Revolution gathering line caused over $7 million in damage, destroying a house and multiple vehicles, and required 49 people to evacuate. The incident was indicated as a fire, but not an explosion. However, reporting by local media station WPXI quoted this description from a neighbor:

A major explosion, I thought it was a plane crash honestly. My wife and I jumped out of bed and it was just like a light. It looked like daylight. It was a ball of flame like I’ve never seen before.

From the standpoint of the data, this error is not particularly egregious. On the other hand, it does serve to falsely represent the overall safety of the system, at least if we consider explosions to be more hazardous than fires.

Big picture findings

Comparing the three reports against one another, we can see that the majority of incidents (64%) and damages (also 64%) are caused by hazardous liquids pipelines, even though the liquids account for less than 8% of the total mileage of the network. In all of the other categories, however, gas distribution lines account for more than half of the cumulative damage, including injuries (79%), deaths (73%), evacuees (62%), fires (71%), and explosions (78%). This is perhaps due to the vast network (more than 2.2 million miles) of gas distribution mains and service lines, as well as their nature of taking these hazardous products directly into populated areas. Comparatively, transmission and hazardous liquids lines ostensibly attempt to avoid those locations.

Is the age of the pipeline a factor in incidents?

Among the available attributes in the incident datasets is a field indicating the year the pipeline was installed. While this data point is not always completed, there is enough of a sample size to look for trends in the data. We determined the age of the pipe by subtracting the year the pipe was installed from the year of the incident, eliminating nonsensical values that were created when the pipeline age was not provided. In the following section, we will look at two tables for each of the three reports. The first table shows the cause of the failure compared to the average age, and the second breaks down results by the content that the pipe was carrying. We’ll also include a histogram of the pipe age, so we can get a sense of how representative the average age actually is within the sample.

A. Gas distribution

Each table shows some fluctuation in the average age of pipeline incidents depending on other variables, although the variation in the product contained in the pipe (Table 3) are minor, and may be due to relatively small sample sizes in some of the categories. When examining the nature of the failure in relation to the age of the pipe (Table 2), it does make sense that incidents involving corrosion would be more likely to afflict older pipelines, (although again, the number of incidents in this category is relatively small). On average, distribution pipeline incidents occur on pipes that are 33 years old.

When we look at the histogram (Figure 1) for the overall distribution of the age of the pipeline, we see that those in the first bin, representing routes under 10 years of age, are actually the most frequent. In fact, the overall trend, excepting those in the 40 t0 50 year old bin, is that the older the pipeline, the fewer the number of incidents. This may reflect the massive scale of pipeline construction in recent decades, or perhaps pipeline safety protocol has regressed over time.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 1. Age of pipeline histogram for gas distribution line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

B. Gas Transmission & Gathering

Transmission & Gathering line incidents occur on pipelines routes that are, on average, five years older than their distribution counterparts. Corrosion, natural force damage, and material failures on pipes and welds occur on pipelines with an average age above the overall mean, while excavation and “other outside force” incidents tend to occur on newer pipes (Table 4). The latter category would include things like being struck by vehicles, damaged in wildfires, or vandalism. The contents of the pipe does not seem to have any significant correlation with the age of the pipe when we take sample size into consideration (Table 5).

The histogram (Figure 2) for the age of pipes on transmission & gathering line incidents below shows a more normal distribution, with the noticeable exception of the first bin (0 to 10 years old) ranking second in frequency to the fifth bin (40 to 50 years old).

It is worth mentioning that, “PHMSA estimates that only about 5% of gas gathering pipelines are currently subject to PHMSA pipeline safety regulations.” My correspondence with the agency verified that the remainder is not factored into their pipeline mileage or incident reports in any fashion. Therefore, we should not consider the PHMSA data to completely represent the extent of the gathering line network or incidents that occur on those routes.

Pipeline incidents chart

Figure 2. Age of pipeline histogram for transmission & gathering line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.

C. Hazardous Liquids

The average incident on hazardous liquid lines occurs on pipelines that are 27 years old, which is 6 years younger than for distribution incidents, and 11 years younger than their transmission & gathering counterparts. This appears to be heavily skewed by the equipment failure and incorrect operation categories, both of which occur on pipes averaging 15 years old, and both with substantial numbers of incidents. On the other hand, excavation damage, corrosion, and material/weld failures tend to occur on pipes that are at least 40 years old (Table 6).

In terms of content, pipelines carrying carbon dioxide happen on pipes that average just 11 years old, although there are not enough of these incidents to account for the overall departure from the other two datasets (Table 7).

The overall shape of the histogram (Figure 3) is similar to that of transmission & gathering line incidents, except that the first bin (0 to 10 years old) is by far the most frequent, with more than 3 and a half times as many incidents as the next closest bin (4o to 50 years old). Operators of new hazardous liquid routes are failing at an alarming rate. In descending order, these incidents are blamed on equipment failure (61%), incorrect operation (21%), and corrosion (7%), followed by smaller amounts in other categories. The data indicate that pipelines installed in previous decades were not subject to this degree of failure.

Pipeline incidents charting

Figure 3. Age of pipeline histogram for hazardous liquid line incidents between 1/1/2010 and 11/14/2018. Incidents where the age of the pipe is unknown are excluded.


When evaluating quotes, like those listed above, that portray pipelines as a safe way of transporting hydrocarbons, it’s worth taking a closer look at what they are saying.

Are pipelines the safest way of transporting our nation’s energy products? This presupposes that our energy must be met with liquid or gaseous fossil fuels. Certainly, crude shipments by rail and other modes of transport are also concerning, but movements of solar panels and wind turbines are far less risky.

Does the industry have the “strong safety record” that PHMSA proclaims? Here, we have to grapple with the fact that the word “safety” is inherently subjective, and the agency’s own data could certainly argue that the industry is falling short of reasonable safety benchmarks.

And what about the claim that barrels of oil or petroleum products reach their destination “99.999% of the time? First, it’s worth noting that this claim excludes gas pipelines, which account for 92% of the pipelines, even before considering that PHMSA only has records on about 5% of gas gathering lines in their pipeline mileage calculations. But more to the point, while a 99.999% success rate sounds fantastic, in this context, it isn’t good enough, as this means that one barrel in every 100,000 will spill.

For example, the Dakota Access Pipeline has a daily capacity of 470,000 barrels per day (bpd). In an average year, we can expect 1,715 barrels (72,030 gallons) to fail to reach its destination, and indeed, there are numerous spills reported in the course of routine operation on the route. The 590,000 bpd Keystone pipeline leaked 9,700 barrels (407,400 gallons) late last year in South Dakota, or what we might expect from four and a half years of normal operation, given the o.001% failure rate. In all, PHMSA’s hazardous liquid report lists 712,763 barrels (29.9 million gallons) were unintentionally released, while an additional 328,074 barrels (13.8 million gallons) were intentionally released in this time period. Of this, 284,887 barrels (12 million gallons) were recovered, meaning 755,950 barrels (31.7 million gallons) were not.

Beyond that, we must wonder whether the recent spate of pipeline incidents in new routes is a trend that can be corrected. Between the three reports, 1,283 out of the 3,853 (32%) incidents occurred in pipelines that were 10 years old or younger (where the year the pipeline’s age is known). A large number of these incidents are unforced errors, due to poor quality equipment or operator error.

One wonders why regulators are allowing such shoddy workmanship to repeatedly occur on their watch.

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

Clearing land for shale gas pipeline in PA

Rapid Pipeline Development Affecting Pennsylvanians

In recent years, Pennsylvanians have had to endure numerous massive pipeline projects in the Commonwealth. Some of these, such as the Mariner East 2, the Revolution, and the Atlantic Sunrise, have been beset with continuous problems. In fact, both the Mariner East 2 and the Revolution projects had their operations suspended in 2018. The operators have struggled to grapple with a variety of issues – ranging from sinkholes near houses, erosion and sediment issues, hundreds of bentonite spills into the waters and upland areas of Pennsylvania, and more.

Part of the reason for the recent spate of incidents is the fact that so many pipelines are being built right now. These lines are traversing through undermined areas and land known to have underground karst formations, which are prone to subsidence and sinkholes. With more than 90,000 miles of pipelines and 84,000 miles of streams in Pennsylvania, substantial erosion and runoff issues are unfortunately quite common.

Map of pipeline routes in southwestern PA, various pipeline incidents, and karst formations:

Click here to learn more about recent pipeline incidents in Pennsylvania, along with how users of the FracTracker App have helped to chronicle problems associated with them.

Residents keeping track

Many residents have been trying to document issues in their region of Pennsylvania for a long time. Any pipeline incident should be reported to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), but in some instances, people want other residents to know and see what is going on, and submission to DEP does not allow for that. FracTracker’s Mobile App allow users to submit a detailed report, including photographs, which are shared with the public. App users have submitted more than 50 photographs of pipelines in Pennsylvania, including these images below.

The FracTracker Mobile App uses crowd-sourced data to document and map a notoriously nontransparent industry. App users can also report violations, spills, or whatever they find striking. For example, the first image shows construction of the Mariner East 2 in extreme proximity to high density housing. While regulators did approve this construction, and it is therefore not a violation, the app user wanted others to see the impact to nearby residents. Other photos do show incidents, such as the second photo on the second row, showing the sinkhole that appeared along the Mariner East 1 during the construction of the nearby Mariner East 2 pipeline.

Please note that app submissions are not currently shared with DEP, so if you happen to submit an incident on our app that you think they should know about, please contact their office, as well. The FracTracker Mobile App provides latitude and longitude coordinates to make it easier for regulators to find the issue in question.

Why have there been so many problems with pipelines in recent years? 

Drillers in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and other unconventional formations predicted that they would find a lot of natural gas, and they have been right about that. However, the large resulting supply of natural gas from this industrial-scaled drilling is more than the region can use. As a result, gas prices remain low, making drilling unprofitable in many cases, or keep profit margins very low in others.

The industry’s solution to this has been two-pronged. First, there is a massive effort underway to export the gas to other markets. Although there are already more than 2.5 million miles of natural gas pipelines in the United States, or more than 10 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon, it was apparently an insufficient network to achieve the desired outcome in commodity prices.  The long list of recent and proposed pipeline projects, complete with information about their status, can be downloaded from the Energy Information Administration (Excel format).

The industry’s other grand effort is to create demand for natural gas liquids (NGLs, mostly ethane, propane, and butane) that accompanies the methane produced in the southwestern portion of the state. The centerpiece of this plan is the construction of multiple ethane crackers, such as the one currently being built in Beaver County by Royal Dutch Shell, for the creation of a new plastics industry in northern Appalachia. These sites will be massive consumers of NGLs which will have to be piped in through pressurized hazardous liquid routes, and would presumably serve to lock in production of unconventional gas in the region for decades to come.

Are regulators doing enough to help prevent these pipeline development problems?

In 2010, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) led the formation of an advisory group called Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance (PIPA), comprised mostly of industry and various state and local officials. Appendix D of their report includes a long list of activities that should not occur in pipeline rights-of-way, from all-terrain vehicle use to orchards to water wells. These activities could impact the structural integrity of the pipeline or impede the operator’s ability to promptly respond to an incident and excavate the pipe.

However, we find this list to be decidedly one-directional. While the document states that these activities should be restricted in the vicinity of pipelines, it does not infer that pipelines shouldn’t be constructed where the activities already occur:

This table should not be interpreted as guidance for the construction of new pipelines amongst existing land uses as they may require different considerations or limitations. Managing land use activities is a challenge for all stakeholders. Land use activities can contribute to the occurrence of a transmission pipeline incident and expose those working or living near a transmission pipeline to harm should an incident occur.

Pipeline being constructed near a home

While we understand the need to be flexible, and we certainly agree that every measure should be taken by those engaging in the dozens of use types listed in the PIPA report, it equally makes sense for the midstream industry to take its own advice, and refrain from building pipelines where these other land uses are already in place, as well. If a carport is disallowed because, “Access for transmission pipeline maintenance, inspection, and repair activities preclude this use,” then what possible excuse can there be to building pipelines adjacent to homes?

What distance is far enough away to escape catastrophic failure in the event of a pipeline fire or blast?

This chart shows varying hazard distances from natural gas pipelines, based on the pipe’s diameter and pressure. Source:  Mark J. Stephens, A Model for Sizing High Consequence Areas Associated with Natural Gas Pipelines

It turns out that it depends pretty dramatically on the diameter and pressure of the pipe, as well as the nature of the hydrocarbon being transported. A 2000 report estimates that it could be as little as a 150-foot radius for low-pressure 6-inch pipes carrying methane, whereas a 42-inch pipe at 1,400 pounds per square inch (psi) could be a threat to structures more than 1,000 feet away on either side of the pipeline. There is no way that the general public, or even local officials, could know the hazard zone for something so variable.

While contacting Pennsylvania One Call before any excavation is required, many people may not consider a large portion of the other use cases outlined in the PIPA document to be a risk, and therefore may not know to contact One Call. To that end, we think that hazard placards would be useful, not just at the placement of the pipeline itself, but along its calculated hazard zone, so that residents are aware of the underlying risks.

Valve spacing

If there is an incident, it is obviously critical for operators to be able to respond as quickly as possible. In most cases, a part of this process will be shutting off the flow at the nearest upstream valve, thereby stopping the flow of the hydrocarbons to the atmosphere in the case of a leak, and cutting the source of fuel in the event of a fire. Speed is only one factor in ameliorating the problem, however, with the spacing between shutoff valves being another important component.

Comprehensive datasets on pipeline valves are difficult to come by, but in FracTracker’s deep dive into the Falcon ethane pipeline project, which is proposed to supply the Shell ethane cracker facility under construction Beaver County, we see that there are 18 shutoff valves planned for the 97.5 mile route, or one per every 5.4 miles of pipe. We also know that the Falcon will operate at a maximum pressure of 1,440 psi, and has pipe diameters ranging from 10 to 16 inches. The amount of ethane that could escape is considerable, even if Shell were able to shut the flow off at the valve instantly. It stands to reason that more shutoff valves would serve to lessen the impact of releases or the severity of fires and explosions, by reducing the flow of fuel to impacted area.


Groups promoting the oil and gas industry like to speak of natural gas development as clean and safe, but unless we are comparing the industry to something else that is dirtier or more dangerous, these words are really just used to provoke an emotional response.  Even governmental agencies like PHMSA are using the rhetoric.

PHMSA’s mission is to protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials that are essential to our daily lives.

If the safe transportation of hazardous materials sounds oxymoronic, it should.  Oil and gas, and related processed hydrocarbons, are inherently dangerous and polluting.

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

Impacts of pipeline incidents in Pennsylvania from January 1, 2010 through July 13, 2018.  National totals for the same time include 5,308 incidents resulting  125 fatalities, 550 injuries, 283 explosions, and nearly $4 billion in property damage.

Current investments in large-scale transmission pipelines and those facilitating massive petrochemical facilities like ethane crackers are designed to lock Pennsylvania into decades of exposure to this hazardous industry, which will not only adversely the environment and the people who live here, but keep us stuck on old technology.  Innovations in renewable energy such as solar and wind will continue, and Pennsylvania’s impressive research and manufacturing capacity could make us well positioned to be a leader of that energy transformation.  But Pennsylvania needs to make that decision, and cease being champions of an industry that is hurting us.

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology

This is the second article in a two-part series. Explore the first article: PA Pipelines and Pollution Events.

Virtual Pipelines - Potential Routes to Cayuga

Virtual pipelines: Convenient for Industry, a Burden on Communities

As the natural gas industry faces harsher and more widespread critiques from environmentalists and citizens, pipeline projects are facing delays, fines, and defeat. Aside from the questionable economics behind transporting gas and oil by pipeline, there are broad economic risks associated with pipeline accidents. With an increasing list of pipeline-related accidents in the public eye, including the two this past summer in Texas and Kansas, blasts this fall in Beaver County, PA, and in Boston, MA, scrutiny of new pipeline projects is on the uptick.

That being said, what is the alternative?

Virtual Pipelines?

Virtual Pipeline - Oil and gas truck

Loaded CNG transport vehicle

Industry, not deterred by resistance from regulators and environmentalists, has developed a new work-around method to get their product to market. Rather than build pipelines across rugged, remote, or highly-populated terrain, a new “solution” called “virtual pipelines” has come on the scene, with roots in New England in 2011.

The term “virtual pipeline,” itself, is so new that it is trademarked by Xpress Natural Gas (XNG), Boston, MA. XNG and other virtual pipeline companies use specially-designed tanker trucks to move compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) via our public roads and highways. CNG in this system is under very high pressure — up to 3,600 psi when tank trailers are full. Rail and barge shipments are also considered part of the system, and trailers are designed to be easily loaded onto train cars or boats.

For the gas industry, virtual pipelines can be used in locales where gas is only needed for a limited time period, the pipeline network is not developed, or opposition by landowners is too contentious to make eminent domain an option, among other issues. These virtual pipeline trucks are identifiable by the hazard .1 placard they carry: 1971, indicative of flammable, compressed natural gas or methane.

Restricted only by permissible weight limits on roads (up to 80,000 pounds or more), 5-axle trucks may make in excess of 100 round trips a day from the fueling location to their destination — sometimes hundreds of miles away. These trucks, which may travel alone or in caravans, are identifiable by the hazard class 2.1 placard they carry: 1971, indicative of flammable, compressed natural gas or methane. Manufacturers of these virtual pipeline rigs tout the safety considerations that go into their engineered design. These considerations include special pressure monitoring for the dozens of tanks and super-strength materials to protect against ruptures.

Specialized equipment has been created to load compressed gas tanks into the trailers that will carry them to their destinations. Here’s a promotional video from Quantum:

Loading CNG into specialized trailers for transport

Impacts on Communities

Following New York State’s rejection of the Constitution Pipeline in 2016 based on water quality concerns, industry has been looking for ways to move natural gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus gas fields to the Iroquois Pipeline. The current strategy is to load the gas in canisters from a special compressor facility, and re-inject the gas to a pipeline at the journey’s endpoint. The extent to which virtual pipelines may be utilized in New York State and New England is not well known, but the natural gas industry does speak in sanguine terms about this strategy as a solution to many of its transportation issues.

Citizen blogger/activist Bill Huston has compiled a list accidents that have occurred with CNG transport trucks along the virtual pipeline that runs from a “mother station” at Forest Lake, PA to Manheim, NY, near the Iroquois pipeline. While there have been no explosions or loss of life as a result of these accidents, there are a number of reported incidents of trucks tipping or rolling over, sliding off the road, or spontaneously venting.

To move CNG from “Point A” to “Point B,” truck traffic through populated areas is unavoidable. In central New York, public outcry about virtual pipelines is rising, due in large part to the safety issues associated with increased truck traffic on state highways. In rural New York, state highways run through towns, villages, and cities. They are not separated from population centers in the way that interstate highways typically are. Traffic from CNG transport trucks clogs roadways, in some cases burdening the pass-through communities with 100 or more tractor trailers a day. Routes pass directly in front of schools and health care facilities.

In short, virtual pipelines present a public safety hazard that has yet to be addressed.

Virtual Pipelines and the Cayuga Power Plant 

In Lansing, NY, there is an inefficient and economically-beleaguered power plant, currently run on coal, that the power utility would prefer to see shut down. The Cayuga Power Plant was cited in 2016 for exceeding mercury emissions by nearly 2000%. Its inherently inefficient design makes it a significant greenhouse gas contributor. Years ago, it provided considerable tax benefits to its host community of Lansing, and as such has some lingering support. After both a devastating fire in one stack and mechanical failure in another, the plant has been barely running for the past 3 or 4 years. It is currently used as a “peaker plant“, operating only during periods of excessive demand on the electric grid, during summer months.

New York State’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has stated that all coal-power plants will be shut down by 2020.

Cayuga Power Plant in Lansing, NY.

Nonetheless, the plant owners are pushing to re-power the Cayuga Power Plant with natural gas. Currently, however, there is no pipeline to deliver the gas to the plant.  Without support by the public nor the Public Service Commission for the construction of a supply pipeline, Cayuga Power Plant has revealed they plan to receive gas deliveries via truck.

Scenario Maps

FracTracker has modeled the five most likely scenarios that would take compressed natural gas from a loading station in northern Pennsylvania to the Cayuga Power Plant in Lansing. All of the scenarios bring the trucks through populated communities, in dangerous proximity to high-risk facilities where both human safety and evacuations are problematic. The routes also pass through intersections and road stretches that have some of the highest accident rates in the area.

Route 1: This route passes within a half mile of homes of 36,669 people in the Villages of Lansing, Candor, Spencer, Owego; Towns of Ithaca, Lansing, Newfield, Danby, Candor, Spencer, Tioga, Owego, Vestal; and the City of Ithaca. Within the half-mile evacuation zone of this route, should there be an accident, are:

  • 17 health care facilities
  • 20 day care centers
  • 4 private school
  • 21 public schools

Click on the tabs in the box above to explore the five potential truck routes with maps.

Interactive Map

For a full interactive map of the potential routes for CNG delivery to the Cayuga Power Plant, and the schools, health care facilities, etc. within a half-mile evacuation zone of the routes, view the interactive map below.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

A Call for Alternative Energy

Despite the apparent convenience that virtual pipelines present for the fossil fuel industry, they are not the solution the future energy supply needs. Yes, they present an alternative to pipeline transportation — but they also play a disastrous role in continuing our descent into climate chaos caused by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Methane leakage is an unavoidable component of the entire life cycle of natural gas usage — from “cradle to grave” — or more precisely, from the moment a well is drilled to when the gas is combusted by its end-user. And methane, as a greenhouse gas, is up to 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report (see summary here) is unflinching in its clarion call for immediate, and extreme, cut-backs in greenhouse gas production. If we choose not to heed this call, much of humanity’s future survival is called into question.

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

More of the details about the Cayuga Power Plant will be explained in the upcoming weeks in a related guest blog by environmental activist and organizer, Irene Weiser, of Tompkins County, NY.



A map of deficiencies along the Falcon Pipeline Route

The Falcon Pipeline: Technical Deficiencies

Part of the Falcon Public EIA Project

In August 2016, Shell announced plans for the “Falcon Ethane Pipeline System,” a 97-mile pipeline network intended to feed Shell’s ethane cracker facility in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. In response to available data, FracTracker launched the Falcon Public EIA Project in January of 2018 to unearth the environmental and public health impacts of the proposed pipeline. As part of that project, today we explore Shell’s Chapter 105 application and the deficiencies the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) cited after reviewing Shell’s application.

Just a heads up… there are a lot.

Shell originally submitted a Chapter 105 application to the DEP to receive a permit for water obstruction and encroachment. The DEP began reviewing the application in January of 2018. On June 1st, they sent Shell technical deficiency letters listing several issues with the application. Shell responded to these deficiencies on August 1st.

Now, it’s up to the DEP to decide if Shell’s response is adequate, and if the department should go ahead and approve the application or require more work from Shell. Explore the technical deficiencies below for more information.

Technical Deficiencies

Below is a map that highlights several of the deficiencies the DEP found with Shell’s application and a brief explanation of each one. Expand the map full-screen to explore more layers – Some layers only become visible when you zoom in due to the level of detail they display.

View Map Full Screen | How Our Maps Work

Next, we’ll walk you through the technical deficiencies, which we have broken down into the following categories:

  1. Wetlands, rivers, streams
  2. Stormwater control
  3. Public health and safety (drinking water & trails)
  4. Conservation areas
  5. Alternative routes
  6. Geological concerns (including mining issues)
  7. Documentation issues

A = Allegheny County, B = Beaver County, W = Washington County. The numbers reference the number listed in the deficiencies letter.

1. Wetlands, Rivers, & Streams

Water withdrawal from rivers and discharge

  • B2 A2 W2 The project will discharge waste water from an industrial activity to a dry swale, surface water, ground water, or an existing sanitary sewer system or separate storm water system. The DEP requested that Shell identify and describe this discharge, as the DEP’s Clean Water Program must authorize discharges. Shell stated that water will be discharged from hydrostatic testing, (which ensures a pipeline can withstand high pressure by pumping water through it to test for leaks), and a PAG-10 permit (needed for hydrostatic test water discharge) was submitted to the DEP July 27, 2018 with the locations of discharge. Drawings of the discharges are in Attachment O. (The locations of the discharges were not included in Shell’s public response to this deficiency.)
  • B33 A31 W31 Shell will be withdrawing water for hydrostatic testing. The DEP asked Shell to explain the intake and discharge methods so the DEP can decide if these should be included as impacts. The DEP also asked Shell to provide the location of intake and discharge. The DEP’s Clean Water Program must authorize discharges. In response, Shell stated that water will be withdrawn from Raccoon Creek and the Ohio River in West Virginia. The specific locations are listed in the PAG-10 permit, submitted to the DEP in July. Drawings of the discharges are included in Attachment O.

Wetlands and Streams

  • B5 A3 W4 The DEP asked Shell to identify the presence of wetlands within the project area that are identified by the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) data system, and provide data on how they may be impacted by the proposed pipeline.  Shell identified one NWI wetland in Beaver County, but did not delineate or provide information on it, due to safety concerns (it’s on a steep cliff). This wetland will be crossed via HDD (horizontal directional drill). In Allegheny County, there is an NWI wetland that Shell also did not provide data on. This wetland was not initially evident, and when staff returned to survey it, the property owner did not let them access the site because they did not want a pipeline on their property. According to Shell, this NWI wetland is not within the “Project’s Limit of Disturbance.” In Washington County, Shell stated that “all of the NWI-mapped wetlands that were determined not to be wetlands have been accounted for in Washington County. These NWI wetlands were all located in an area that had been previously strip-mined and due to mining activities, those wetlands are no longer there. Data were taken for these areas and included… separately as Attachment D.” Also in Washington County is an NWI wetland located above the Panhandle Trail, which Shell determined to be outside of the study area and therefore did not collect data on it. This wetland is not on the map, but Shell did provide this image of it.
  • B6 A4 W5 The DEP requested that Shell match off-line wetland data with sampling point locations from study area maps. In response, Shell placed offline data sheets in the order that they are in Table 3 in the Wetlands Delineation Report and in Table 4 in the Watercourse Delineation Report.
  • B7 A5 W6 Shell needed to discuss the types and conditions of riverine resources that the project impacts. Specifically, how the conditions of these resources relate to their hydrological functions, biogeochemical functions, and habitat attributes. These are discussed under question 7 for Beaver County, question 5 for Allegheny County, and question 6 for Washington County.
  • B8 A6 W7 Shell needed to discuss the types and conditions of wetlands that the project impacts. Specifically, how the conditions of these wetlands contribute to their hydrological functions, biogeochemical functions, and habitat attributes. Shell also needed to discuss impacts to wetlands that will be temporarily impacted, as it previously only discussed wetlands facing permanent impacts. These are discussed under question 8 for Beaver County, question 6 for Allegheny County, and question 7 for Washington County.
  • B9 A7 W8 The DEP asked Shell to evaluate the impact of open cut installation on wetlands with perched water tables and/or confining layers. Perched water tables have an impermeable confining layer (such as clay) between them and the main water table below. If open cut methods are used, the confining layer is destroyed and this water table will be lost. In Beaver County, Shell identified one wetland (W-PA-170222-MRK-002) will be open cut. If it is perched, Shell states it will replace the confining layer “along the same horizon during pipeline backfilling, and then [compact the layer] so that hydrology may be maintained.” Shell will also put trench plugs “on either side of the wetland on the ROW to prevent water from migrating out on the sides.” In Allegheny County, there are three wetlands potentially on perched water tables that will be open cut: W-PA-160401-MRK-006, W-PA-161220-MRK-001, and W-PA-161220-MRK-002.In Washington County, there are three wetlands potentially on perched water tables that will be open cut: W-PA-160407-JLK-002, W-PA-151203-MRK-005, and W-PA-151203-MRK-006.
  • A11 The DEP asked Shell to evaluate if any wetlands can be classified as “exceptional value” due to their proximity to nesting areas of the northern harrier (a threatened species in Pennsylvania). Wetlands are exceptional value if they serve as habitat for threatened or endangered species, or if they are hydrologically connected to or located within 0.5 miles of wetlands that maintain habitat for the species in the wetland. Shell determined that there are six wetlands that could be nesting areas for northern harriers, and therefore are exceptional value (W-PA-170207-MRK-002, W-PA-161205-WRA-001, W-PA-170207-MRK-003, W-PA-170207-MRK-001, W-PA-170113-MRK-008, W-PA-170113-MRK-001). Three of these wetlands are within the project’s LOD (W-PA-170207-MRK-002, W-PA-161205-WRA-001, W-PA-170207-MRK-003).
  • B13 A10 W11 The DEP asked Shell to evaluate whether the proposed Falcon Pipeline will impact wetlands that are of “exceptional value” based on their proximity to public water systems. Wetlands can be considered “exceptional value” if they are located along public or private drinking water supplies (surface or ground water), and help maintain the quality or quantity of the supply. Shell stated that the (potentially man made) ponds near public water supply A could be considered exceptional value, however, they are located outside of the project’s study area and were not delineated, therefore Shell does not have information on them or their impact to this well. There were no other wetlands Shell considered to be exceptional value based on their proximity to public water systems.
  • B21 There were two protected plant species- harbinger of spring (PA threatened) and purple rocket (PA endangered)- located within the Raccoon Creek floodplain. The DEP asked Shell to evaluate whether there are wetlands in the project area that should be considered “exceptional value” due to their proximity to these species. Wetlands are considered “exceptional value” if they serve as habitat for a threatened or endangered plant or animal species. They are also exceptional value if they are hydrologically connected to or located within 0.5 miles of wetlands that maintain the habitat of the species. There are six wetlands near populations of these plant populations: W-PA-151014-MRK-001, W-PA-151013-MRK-002, -003, and -004, W-PA-170407-JLK-001, W-PA151013-MRK-001. However, Shell stated that the harbinger of spring is not dependent on wetland habitat for survival and the species is considered an upland plant species (because it is not listed on Eastern Mountains and Piedmont List or on the National Wetland Plant List).  Purple rocket is listed as a “Facultative Wetland Plant” (FACW) on both lists. However, Shell stated that, “although it is a FACW, this plant is not one that occurs in wetlands,” and the population of purple rocket was found in an upland, disturbed area. Therefore, Shell determined that none of these wetlands are considered exceptional value.
  • B23 A21 W21 Shell needs to assess cumulative impacts to wetlands from the proposed pipeline and other existing projects and potential future projects. These are discussed in the Cumulative Impact Assessment document, Sections 4.1 and 4.2, and Tables B1 and B2.
  • B24 A22 W22 Shell needed to provide an explanation of how it will restore wetlands and streams disturbed during construction. The explanation needed to include information on seed mixes, shrubs, and trees that will restore stream banks and riparian areas.
  • B26 A24 W24 Shell needed to provide a table that lists, describes, and quantifies permanent impacts to wetlands and watercourses. Shell stated that there are no permanent fills associated with the project, but there will be permanent conversion impacts to the following wetlands. They total 10,862 ft2 or 0.25 acres in Beaver County, 5,166 ft2 (0.12 acres) in Allegheny County, and 4971 ft2 (0.11 acres) in Washington County. (W-PA-151013-JLK-005, W-PA-161202-MRK-001, W-PA-160404-MRK-001, W-PA-160412-CBA-004, W-PA-160412-CBA-001, W-PA-161205-WRA-003, W-PA-160401-MRK-005, W-PA-170213-JLK-003, W-PA-160406-MRK-001, W-PA-170413-RCL-005, W-PA-170214-CBA-005.)
  • B27 A25 W25 Shell needed to provide more information on the Neshannock Creek Restoration site, including a master restoration plan for the entire site. This mitigation is required to offset conversion impacts to wetlands along the pipeline route. The plan for the site is documented here.
  • B28 A26 W26 Shell needed to provide the location and resource crossing number for the HDDs in PA. They are listed in these tables:

Allegheny County:Table of Resources Falcon Pipeline Crosses by HDD in Allegheny County

Washington County:

Beaver County:

Table of water resources the Falcon pipeline crosses by HDD

2. Stormwater control

  • B3 A1 W1 Shell indicated that the project was in a floodplain project by the Commonwealth, a political subdivision of the commonwealth or a public utility. The DEP asked for an identification of this floodplain project, to which Shell responded that it misunderstood the question and the pipeline will not go through a floodplain project by one of these entities, but rather a floodway. The pipeline will pass many floodways, which are listed in Table 1 in separate documents for Beaver County, Allegheny County, and Washington County.
  • W3 The DEP requested that Shell provide an analysis of impact to Act 167 plans. Act 167 requires counties to create stormwater management plans and municipalities to adopt ordinances to regulate development in accordance with these plans. The pipeline route occurs in areas with Act 167 plans in Chartiers Township, Mount Pleasant Township, and Robinson Township.

3. Public health and safety

  • B1 The proposed pipeline does not meet the provisions of a zoning ordinance or have zoning approval in a particular area. Specifically, in Independence Township, the pipeline is within setback distances of places of congregation and/or of residences. One example is the Beaver County Conservation District, considered a place of congregation. Shell responded to this deficiency, saying it is working with Independence Township to obtain necessary approvals, and the township will “officially remove the pipeline ordinance from their records and no variances or permits will be required.”
  • B10 A8 W9 The DEP requested that Shell evaluate and discuss how the pipeline may impact public water systems that are within 1 mile of the pipeline route. Shell located 12 sites within a mile, most of which are ground water wells. One site is the Ambridge Water Authority, which provides drinking water for an estimated 30,000 people. Shell stated that impacts “might include an Inadvertent Return (IR) causing a bentonite slurry mix to enter the supply, which might contaminate the supply for any wells that are located near an HDD site or construction equipment.” Shell stated that all wells are a minimum of 1000 feet outside construction zones and built in thick bedrock which will minimize threat on contamination. The sites within 1 mile include:
    • Youthtowne Barn
    • Beaver County Conservation District
    • Independence Elementary School
    • Independence Volunteer Fire Department
    • McConnell’s Farm and Market, Inc
    • Ambridge Water Authority- Independence Township
    • Ambridge Water Authority- Raccoon Township
    • Hookstown Free Methodist Church
    • Hookstown Fair
    • Hookstown Grange
    • South Side Memorial Post 952
    • Jack’s Diner
    • NOVA Chemical, Inc
  • B11 A9 W10 The DEP asked Shell to discuss efforts to avoid/minimize impacts to the above public water systems, and suggested that efforts “might include, but are not limited to, considering alternative locations, routings or design for the proposed pipeline; providing provisions for shut-off in the event of break or rupture; etc.” Shell stated that the route avoids direct impacts to groundwater wells and surface water intake. Shell will provide water buffalos if wells are contaminated, and drill new wells if necessary. There are mainline valves approximately 7 to 7.5 miles apart that can automatically shut off the flow of ethane. There will also be staff living within the project area that can quickly respond to issues.
  • B12 The pipeline crosses headwaters of the Ambridge Reservoir and the Reservoir’s raw water service pipeline, which supplies water to 30,000 residents. The DEP noted significant public concern regarding this crossing, and asked Shell to evaluate and discuss the pipeline’s potential to affect the Reservoir and public water supply service. The DEP also asked Shell to elaborate on efforts to avoid/minimize impacts, and what measures will be implemented to mitigate any unavoidable impacts. In response, Shell stated the pipeline will cross the raw water line via an HDD  31 feet below the line. Shell explained that the water service line is made of pre-stressed concrete, which cannot be retrofitted in the field if a break occurs. It can take six weeks for pipe joints to be made and delivered from Ohio if there is a rupture. Shell stated it will supply extra pipe joints so the Ambridge Water Authority can have pieces on deck in case of a break. Shell also outlined the protective coatings and design of the HDD portion of the pipeline that will cross the water line, and said valves that can shut off the pipeline are located 2.4 miles from one side of the water line and 3.5 on the other.
  • A17 W17 The DEP asked Shell to consider the proposed pipeline’s effect on the Montour Trail, a multi-use, recreational trail, and to consider re-routes that would avoid impacts to the Trail. Shell determined that routing around the trail is not feasible. Shell will use conventional bore or HDD methods. If the trail needs to be temporarily closed during construction, operation, or maintenance, Shell will notify the trail owner and provide alternate temporary access for trail users. Shell will also cross the Panhandle Trail by HDD. The entrance and exit sights of the bore will not be on the trail’s property. Shell has “unlimited ingress and egress over Owners property” for inspections, repair and maintenance of the pipeline, and in case of emergency situations.
  • B29 A27 W27 Shell needed to revise the “Shell Pipeline HDD Procedure” to include HDD site feasibility analysis, inadvertent return risk assessment, water supply protection, agency contact information, etc. Shell’s response is included in the document, Inadvertent Returns from HDD: Assessment, Preparedness, Prevention and Response Plan.
  • B30 A28 W28 Shell needed to include a preboring geologic evaluation to determine if drinking water supplies will be impacted around boring locations. Shell also needed to discuss how it will verify that drinking water sources and aquifers are protected and what measures will be taken in the event that they are impacted. Shell’s response is included as Appendix C to this document.

4. Conservation

  • B19 A18 W18 19A 19W – There are many areas important for the region’s biodiversity and natural heritage that the proposed pipeline passes near or through. The DEP asked Shell to evaluate impacts to these areas. Information on them is available from the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program. They include:
    • Ambridge Reservoir Valleys Natural Heritage Area
    • Lower Raccoon Creek Natural Heritage Area
    • Raccoon Creek Valley and Wildflower Reserve Natural Heritage Area
    • Raccoon Creek Floodplain Biologically Diverse Area
    • Raccoon Creek Landscape Conservation Area
    • Clinton Wetlands Biologically Diverse Area
    • Raccoon Creek Landscape Conservation Area
    • Raccoon Creek Valley & State Park Important Bird Area – Regarding the Important Bird Area, Shell stated that 23 miles of the pipeline is located within this area. Shell has not been able to get in contact with the National Audobon SW PA office. Shell added that the only waterbody large enough in the project area to support the documented waterfowl is the open water at Beaver County Conservation District. Shell stated that “an outlet has been installed at the far end of the lake to restore it to more of a wetland and less of a lake, as it was originally designed.Raccoon Creek Valley is also a passageway for migratory birds, which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Shell stated that less than 2% of this Important Bird Area will be permanently impacted by pipeline construction and installation.

5. Alternative locations

  • B17 A15 W15 The DEP asked Shell to revise its current alternatives and provide a more detailed “analysis of the alternative locations and routes that were considered to avoid or minimize adverse environmental impacts.” The alternatives are discussed in Section 9 of Shell’s Comprehensive Environmental Assessment.
  • B18 16A 16W According to the DEP, “18.5 of the 45 miles (41%) of the proposed pipeline are parallel to or adjacent to existing right-of-ways (ROWs).” The DEP asked Shell to see if there are additional opportunities to build the pipeline within existing ROWs, with the hope of reducing environmental impacts. In response, Shell discussed the additional ROWs that were considered (along Mariner West) but ultimately rejected. Shell discusses these routes more in Section 9.1 of the Comprehensive Environmental Assessment.
  • B32 A30 W30 The DEP asked Shell to discuss the feasibility of several changes to the proposed pipeline’s route, including avoiding impacts to wetlands, relocating resource crossings, moving valve sites outside of wetlands, moving HDD locations, and evaluating the impact to a coal refuse pile (the pipeline crosses underneath at least one pile via HDD). These reroutes are discussed under question 32 for Beaver County, question 30 for Allegheny County, and question 30 for Washington County.

6. Geological concerns

  • B14 12A 12W The pipeline is located in previously coal mined areas. The DEP asked Shell to provide a map of the pipeline that showed these mining areas, and GIS shape files with this information. Shell’s response is included in the HDD Subsurface Investigation Reports, which includes the following table of the extent of mined areas along the pipeline route:
  • B15 A13 W13 The pipeline is located in coal mined areas, which could be susceptible to subsidence and/or mine water discharge. The DEP requested that Shell revise drawings to show the limits of previously mined areas, depth of cover over the mine workings in areas the proposed pipeline crosses through, and the distance between mine workings and the proposed pipeline. Furthermore, the DEP asked Shell to “evaluate and discuss the potential for a subsidence event compromising the utility line, and the potential to create a mine water discharge.” Shell discusses this in Appendix B of this this document and in the Mining Summary Report. Shell also identifies the following areas as being at risk for coal mine discharge: HOU MM 1.2, HOU MM 8.9 (proposed HDD), HOU MM 12.1, HOU MM 12.95, HOU MM 13.1, HOU MM 13.6, HOU MM 17.4, and HOU MM 17.65 (proposed HDD).
  • B16 A14 14W The DEP requested that Shell include areas where the pipeline will cross active mining permit boundaries. There is one active mining permit boundary that intersects the proposed pipeline, the Rosebud Mine in Beaver County.
  • B31 A29 W29 Shell needed to evaluate the potential for the project to encounter areas underlain by carbonate bedrock and landslide prone areas. Carbonate bedrock is indicative of a karst landscape, meaning an area likely to have underground sinkholes and caves. The DEP also asked Shell to discuss precautionary methods taken during construction in these areas. Shell’s response is included in the Carbonate Rock Analysis and Slope Stability and Investigation Report. The Carbonate Rock Analysis report shows that carbonate bedrock was encountered in 20 out of 40 of the borings taken during the analysis.

7. Documentation

  • B4 The PA DEP asked Shell to describe the structures and activities that occur within junction sites. Shell responded that there will be a Junction Custody Transfer Meter Station at the site, and provided maps of the site.
  • B22 20A 20w The DEP requested that Shell revise their Comprehensive Environmental Assessment to include alternatives, impacts, and mitigation items that were previously included in other sections of their environmental assessment.
  • B25 A23 W23 The DEP asked Shell to provide a copy of the Mitigation Bank Credit Availability Letter from First Pennsylvania Resource, LLC. In response, Shell stated the Letter is no longer needed because “the permanent stream and wetland fills have been removed from this project.”
  • B34 A32 W32 The DEP asked Shell to include a copy of the Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency Plan.
  • B35 A33 W33 Shell needs to include all of the above modifications to the application in the Chapter 103 permit application.


As evidenced by the list above, the proposed Falcon Pipeline poses a variety of threats to Pennsylvania’s natural resources, wildlife, and public health – but this deficiencies list is likely not complete. The pipeline also passes through West Virginia and Ohio, and if completed, will likely attract more pipelines to the area. As it feeds Shell’s ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, it is a major step towards the region becoming a hub for plastic manufacturing. Therefore, the public response to the above deficiencies and the decision the DEP makes regarding them will have major implications for the Ohio River Valley’s future.

Of note: The DEP’s letters and Shell’s response to them are available to the public in separate documents for  Allegheny, Beaver, and Washington Counties. 

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist

Shell Pipeline - Not Quite the Good Neighbor

Heavy Rains and Risks to Pipelines

For many cities in the Eastern U.S., flash flood warnings and road closings characterized the summer of 2018. Now, hurricane season is upon us.

It’s been the wettest summer to date for Williamsport PA, Luray VA, and Baltimore MD. Several places set records for the wettest “year-through-August,” including Harrisburg PA and Wilmington NC. Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh are just two of many cities to reach their average yearly total rainfall with a third of the year left.

With the record-breaking rains come record-breaking floods, signaling devastation for local officials, residents, and… pipeline operators.

In June, construction on the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia was suspended after heavy rainfall made it difficult for construction crews to control erosion. A landslide caused an explosion on the Leach Xpress Pipeline in West Virginia. The pipeline was built on a steep slope, and the weather made for challenging conditions to remediate the blast.

Then came the explosion of the Revolution Pipeline in Beaver County just this week on September 10th. Fire from the blast destroyed a house, a barn, two garages, several vehicles, six high tension electric towers, and shut down a section of a highway. Thankfully, residents were able evacuate their homes in time and no injuries were reported.

While the explosion is still under investigation, the cause of the explosion is believed to be a landslide, which occurred following days of heavy rain.

Burned hillside near Ivy Lane after the Revolution Pipeline Exploded

The burnt hillside near the site of the Revolution Pipeline explosion. Photo courtesy of Darrell Sapp, Post Gazette

How rain affects pipelines

Heavy rain can cause the ground to shift and swell, triggering devastating landslides, damaging pipelines, and creating leaks. Flooding can also make it difficult for crews to locate sites of leaks and repair pipelines.

Storms cause problems during pipeline construction, as well. Work areas and trenches can alter the flow of floodwaters and spill water onto farmland or backyards. At drilling sites, rain water can carry spills of bentonite, a drilling mud, into waterways.

Still, pipeline operators continue to plan and build along steep slopes, landslide prone areas, and through floodways and waterways. For instance, the route of Shell’s proposed Falcon Pipeline, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, passes through many areas that are crucial for managing heavy rains.

Risks along the Falcon route

As highlighted by a recent Environmental Health News piece to which we contributed, Falcon’s route passes through 25 landslide prone areas, a few of which are in residential neighborhoods. In fact, one landslide-prone portion of the pipeline is just 345 feet from a home.

In Beaver County alone, the pipeline route passes through 21,910 square feet of streams, 455,519 square feet of floodway, and 60,398 square feet of wetland:

A map of landslide prone areas along the Falcon Pipeline route

Map of the Falcon Pipeline’s route through Beaver County, with locations Shell has identified as prone to landslides. 

Preventing disasters

What can be done to prevent pipeline leaks, explosions, and spills?

Along the Texas Gulf Coast, robust plans are in the works to protect oil and gas infrastructure. In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey suspended a large portion of oil and gas operations in Texas. Now, the state has a $12 billion publicly-funded plan to build a barrier along the coast. The 60-mile-long structure would consist of seawalls, earthen barriers, floating gates, and steel levees. It will protect homes and ecosystems, as well as one of the world’s largest sites of petrochemical activity.

In July, the state fast-tracked $3.9 billion for three storm barriers around oil facilities. The industry is also moving inland to the Ohio River Valley, where it intends to build a petrochemical hub away from hurricane risk.

Herein lies the irony of the situation: The oil and gas industry is seeking refuge from the problems it is worsening.

Weather events are intensified by rising ocean and atmospheric temperatures. Scientists have reached a consensus on what’s causing these rises: increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses (such as carbon dioxide and methane), released by burning fossil fuels. Protecting oil and gas infrastructure will allow the industry to continue polluting, thereby amplifying the problem.

In the short term, I suggest better protection of floodplains and waterways to keep residents and the environment safe. Accounting for frequent, heavy rains will help pipeline operators develop better erosion and sediment control plans. More protections for landslide prone areas near homes could save human and animal lives.

However, continuing to spend time, resources, and money to protect infrastructure from problems that the fossil fuel industry is exacerbating isn’t logical. Renewable energy will slow the effects of climate change that intensify weather events. Resources such as solar and wind also come with significantly less risk of explosion. Let’s be logical, now.

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach & Communications Specialist

The proposed route for the Delmarva Pipeline. Map courtesy of FracTracker Alliance.

The Proposed Delmarva Pipeline: Environmental or economic justice concern?

A new plan is in the works to construct a natural gas pipeline that would run approximately 190 miles through Maryland. Lawmakers said in January they are anxious to see the Delmarva Pipeline built, but still want to exercise caution.

Starting in Cecil County, MD, and terminating in Accomack County, VA, the proposed Delmarva Pipeline is nearly the length of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. North Carolina-based Spectrum Energy wants to piggyback on this infrastructure and build a gas-powered power plant near Denton, MD, according to a report by WBOC 16 News. The combined price tag on the two projects is $1.25 billion, and is funded entirely by private interests based in Baltimore. The target start-up date for the two projects is 2021.

Local Support

Company officials promise the pipeline would bring down energy costs and bring jobs to the area. According to a 2016 Towson University study, the project would create about 100 jobs in Wicomico and Somerset Counties by 2026. In addition, the proposed power plant in Denton, MD would result in 350 construction jobs and 25-30 permanent jobs.

According to lawmaker Carl Anderton:

…it’s great. You know, anytime we can multiply our infrastructure for energy production, it’s something you really want.

Anderton, who claims to also support solar power and offshore wind, is skeptical about the sustainability of renewable energy to stand on its own if “the sun goes down or the wind’s not blowing.”

However, Senator Stephen Hershey emphasized the need to balance infrastructure build-out with costs to the environment. Said Hershey:

We have to make sure we’re taking all the possible steps to protect that.

Similarly, Democratic Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes indicated the need to keep the well-being and concerns of citizens “at the forefront.”

Grassroots Opposition

The pipeline project has encountered considerable opposition from the grassroots group “No! Eastern Shore Pipeline.” The group has cited concerns about how all fossil fuels add to global warming, and asserted natural gas is not a cleaner alternative to propane or oil.

In fact, current research indicates that as a driver of climate change, methane (natural gas) is up to 100 times more powerful at trapping heat than is CO2 (See also “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking,” p. 21, “Natural gas is a threat to the climate”).

Jake Burdett, a supporter of No! Eastern Shore Pipeline, wants a complete transition to renewable fuels in Maryland by 2035, and argues that in the near-term, climate change impacts will be devastating and not reversible for residents of the Chesapeake Bay area, “the third most at-risk area in the entire country for sea level rise.”

In addition to driving climate change, hydraulic fracturing and the construction of the pipeline along the rural and historic Eastern Shore poses serious threats of fouling ground and surface water through sediment run-off and leaks. The possibility of pipeline explosions also puts nearby communities at risk.

Assessing Risks

H4 Capital Partners, the company contracted to build the pipeline, registered as a corporation in May of 2017, and this may be the first pipeline project it has undertaken. H4’s public relations spokesperson Jerry Sanders claimed that the environmental risks posed by the pipeline — which will drill under rivers and wetlands — will be nothing like those encountered by pipelines such as the Keystone XL. Said Sanders, “It is a gas, not a liquid…[so] you don’t have leak-type issues.”

The actual record about pipeline leaks and explosions suggests otherwise, notably summarized here by FracTracker Alliance in 2016, for combined oil and natural gas projects. That research indicates that since 2010, there have been 4,215 pipeline incidents resulting in 100 reported fatalities, 470 injuries, and property damage exceeding $3.4 billion. Additional records of natural gas transmission and distribution pipeline accidents, and hazardous liquid pipeline accidents collected by PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) have been summarized by the Pipeline Safety Trust.

It is unclear whether Maryland’s Department of the Environment (MDE) has completed an analysis of threats to wetlands and other water bodies, or is relying on industry and perhaps residents to do that work for them. Said MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson, “MDE would encourage the project proponents to come in early and often for discussions of routes so that we can… avoid and minimize impacts to these important natural resources.”

Delmarva Pipeline Map

Therefore, in the map below, we have done an analysis of the Delmarva Pipeline route – which we estimated from documents – and calculated the number of times the proposed pipeline crosses wetlands and streams along its route from northern Maryland to its terminus in Accomack County, VA.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Delmarva Pipeline: Wetland and Stream Crossings

In all, there were 172 stream crossings and 579 traverses of wetlands mapped by the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wetland Inventory. Be sure to zoom in on the map above to view the detail. These wetland and stream crossings included:

in Virginia:

  • 88 forested wetlands
  • 13 emergent wetlands
  • 27 riverine wetlands
  • 9 ponds

And in Maryland:

  • 276 forested wetlands
  • 90 riverine wetlands
  • 35 emergent wetlands
  • 13 estuarine wetlands
  • 11 ponds
  • 5 lakes

Rather than focusing on threats to these natural resources or environmental justice issues associated with the nearly 200-mile pipeline, industry is utilizing a different tactic, preferring to view the project as an “economic justice issue [that] would allow the area to have access to low-cost fuels.”

For the Eastern Shore residents of Maryland and Virginia, it remains to be seen whether potential lower energy costs justify the risks of contaminated waterways, property damage, and a shifting shoreline associated with climate change driven by use of fossil fuels.

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

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.