Plans for a pipeline network to export petrochemical ingredients from fracked gas wells in Pennsylvania hit a major roadblock, as state environmental regulators announced Friday that they were suspending all permit reviews for pipeline builder Energy Transfer until further notice.
“There has been a failure by Energy Transfer and its subsidiaries to respect our laws and our communities,” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, who has supported fracking in the state, said in a statement when the suspension was announced. “This is not how we strive to do business in Pennsylvania, and it will not be tolerated.”
Energy Transfer has been building a network of pipelines in Pennsylvania that are designed to carry not only natural gas (primarily methane) from fracked Marcellus shale wells, but also the natural gas liquids (NGLs) that many shale wells produce as by-products. Those NGLs, which include ethane, butane, and propane, are prized by petrochemical companies and can be turned into plastics and a wide array of synthetic products.
But the company – also at the center of Dakota Access, Bayou Bridge, and Rover pipeline controversies – racked up a troubling track record of law-breaking in Pennsylvania, causing sinkholes, water contamination, and an early-morning pipeline explosion. It separately remains under a criminal investigation by the Chester County district attorney.
— Patrick McDonnell (@SecMcDonnell) February 8, 2019
Friday’s order leaves one Energy Transfer (ET) NGL pipeline, a re-designed Mariner East 2, still flowing. Energy Transfer’s Mariner East 2X and Revolution pipelines have permits pending – and the company will not be able to obtain those permits until the company complies with state orders related to the Revolution pipeline.
“Multiple inspections by [Department of Environmental Protection] staff, most recently in January 2019, found that ET had not fulfilled the terms of the order and was not progressing toward compliance,” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell said Friday, February 8.
“Dangerous and unstable hill-slope terrain”
That pipeline, the Revolution pipeline, had been in use only seven days when heavy rains caused a landslide on a steep slope about 25 miles outside Pittsburgh. Revolution’s subsequent leak caused a column of fire 150 feet high, destroyed a home, a barn, and multiple cars, and caused residents of over two dozen houses to be evacuated.
The pipeline was designed to carry so-called “wet” or liquids-rich gas from Marcellus shale wells to a plant where liquids could be separated and then shipped on the Mariner East pipeline system.
Energy Transfer has been caught violating either state environmental laws or its pipeline permits over 80 times, Pennsylvania regulators said, and the company’s fines for violations have totaled $12.6 million.
Roughly a month before Revolution exploded, Energy Transfer was fined for “a series of erosion events” about a mile from the blast site, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in January. That stretch of pipeline crosses several steep slopes, and a field survey of a nearby wetland shows Energy Transfer labeled it as a “slip landslide area” and “dangerous and unstable hillslope terrain,” the Post-Gazette found.
Since September, Energy Transfer has been unable to stabilize the land near the blast-site. The company brought in heavy machinery – but had to abandon it on-site after state regulators found the ground was so unstable it was unsafe to operate the machines.
— WHYY News (@WHYYNews) February 8, 2019
The slopes remained partially barren of vegetation after the blast – which leaves the risk of future landslides elevated. Energy Transfer has tried to re-seed the slopes by spraying seed from helicopters, but so far, efforts have proved unsuccessful.
The company failed to report landslides following the blast, allowed construction activities in unpermitted areas, and even ran the pipeline’s path through old reclaimed mines, leading to acid mine drainage, according to violations issued by the state.
Energy Transfer’s subsidiary “failed to comply with the Oct. 29, 2018, order issued following the explosion along the Revolution pipeline on Sept. 10, 2018,” DEP Secretary McDonnell said, announcing the permit review suspension. “This hold will continue until the operator corrects their violations to our satisfaction.”
All told, 27 pending permits for Energy Transfer pipeline projects are under review – and those reviews are all on hold, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
“We have communicated to the DEP and to the governor’s office that we are committed to bringing this project into full compliance with all environmental permits and applicable regulations,” Energy Transfer spokesperson Lisa Dillinger told the Chester County, Pennsylvania Daily Local News. “This action does not affect the operation of any of our in-service pipelines or any areas of construction where permits have already been issued. We look forward to continuing to work with the DEP throughout this process.”