Gas pipelines' routes key to public acceptance
As battles over increased taxes and environmental regulations grow louder between the shale gas industry and Gov. Tom Wolf's administration, the sides seem to have found common ground on a related issue.
If gas companies are to succeed in Pennsylvania and generate the kinds of jobs, revenue and taxes the government wants to take advantage of, thousands of miles of pipelines are required to reduce a glut and connect wells to lucrative markets.
“At the ends of these pipes can be thousands of jobs,” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Quigley, the state's top gas industry regulator, told a Senate panel this month.
Things get sticky along those pipes' proposed routes, though. Between the shale fields producing record amounts of cheap gas and cities hungry to buy it sit forests and streams under state and federal protection, landowners who don't want their backyards dug up, environmental groups looking to block development, fire chiefs worried about explosions, and a web of local, state and federal regulations and permitting processes described as nearly impenetrable.
All can slow a project to a near halt.
To take a stab at addressing those concerns, Wolf is forming a task force, led by Quigley, that will look for ways to get pipes in the ground more quickly while easing community concerns and limiting potential consequences. It has support from industry and environmental advocates.
“This is a good opportunity for everyone,” said Mike Atchie, director of public outreach for Tulsa-based Williams Cos., a national pipeline operator behind several proposed projects in Pennsylvania, including the Atlantic Sunrise project that encountered loud opposition in counties between Harrisburg and Philadelphia.
“Call me an optimist, but realistically I think some agreements can be worked out. There can be some concessions on all sides,” said Michael Helbing, Philadelphia-based staff attorney for the environmental group PennFuture.
The keys to success, say several stakeholders, are better communication, streamlined permitting and coordination among companies to limit their footprint.
“We have to start this dialogue,” Quigley told the Tribune-Review.
Philadelphia-based Sunoco Logistics, which is spending $3 billion in Pennsylvania to convert an older pipeline and build parallel lines to carry natural gas liquids as part of its Mariner East 1 and 2 projects, wants to share lessons it learned with other members of the task force.
The most important lessons? “Communication, communication, communication,” spokesman Jeff Shields said.
“That's to all levels — the landowners to their representatives and local leaders, to the governor's mansion,” he said. “Everyone on all levels needs to understand what we're looking to do overall, and what we're doing next week” on a specific street.
Companies have a better shot of burying pipe without conflict if they reach out personally to township leaders, emergency responders and landowners before holding public hearings on permit applications, several leaders said.
“There's a growing recognition in the industry that it's important to engage with the community early, well before the stakes are driven into the ground to identify corridors,” Quigley said, noting “angst” in regions less familiar with the oil and gas infrastructure that has dotted some Western Pennsylvania countryside for decades.
Sunoco stepped up its schedule of town hall meetings — it held more than two dozen on the Mariner projects — allowed an expert hired by West Goshen officials in Chester County to review its practices and met with more than 800 emergency responders over two years to allay safety fears, Shields said.
Houston-based pipeline builder Kinder Morgan has hosted 60 meetings in four states since announcing in 2014 its Northeast Energy Direct project to upgrade and extend the Tennessee Gas Pipeline between Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
Williams utilized social media over the past year to reach people, and emphasized talking with local leaders first.
“When they start getting the calls on a proposed project, they've already been briefed,” Atchie said.
Open houses won't satisfy all concerns, though. Opposition to pipelines among landowners and environmental groups has slowed projects in Chester and Lancaster counties.
A group of civic and union leaders that formed this month is looking to convince opponents of the projects' benefits.
“We need to emphasize the need to get that natural gas to the market,” said Jeff Kotula, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce and a leader of the new Pennsylvania Energy Infrastructure Alliance.
Williams changed about half of the planned path of Atlantic Sunrise since proposing it, partly because of feedback, Atchie said.
Kinder Morgan in December said it would change stretches of the Northeast Energy Direct route to align them with utility right-of-ways, based on feedback.
Co-locating new pipelines with existing corridors can help expedite approval and construction and is a frequent request from communities.
“If we can form corridors, that minimizes the impact,” Helbing said. Putting more lines in fewer locations reduces the effect of breaking up forests and can mean fewer people have lines running through their properties.
Companies said they sometimes have few existing lines to follow, noting counties in northeastern Pennsylvania have had shale drilling for less than a decade.
“Obviously the answer is, we will do that where we can,” Atchie said.
About 82 percent of the Northeast Energy Direct route follows existing lines.
Quigley said he expects co-location to be a topic of the task force, the members of which have not been named. One option is running pipelines along interstate highway corridors or other state-owned rights-of-way, he said. “We at least think that's a question worth asking,” he said.
Much of Sunoco's Mariner East 2 project parallels the original pipeline that delivered fuel to the West. That has eased community concerns, though landowners are waiting to see how much disruption more construction will cause.
“They're definitely going to be doing some digging,” said Ed Mioduski of Loyalhanna, who expects Sunoco to widen the right-of-way across his property. “Hopefully they'll play square ball with me.”
Beyond the community meetings and mapping of routes, Shields said Sunoco is trying to make people trust that the company will do what it says.
“Not all landowners are going to be happy about the project, but we can be fair with them,” he said.
David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer.