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Federal, State Gas Industry Enforcement Affected by COVID-19 Pandemic

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, federal and Pennsylvania regulatory agencies have closed offices and are scaling back enforcement of some environmental and safety rules regarding the gas industry.

Most agencies have staff working from home, which is reducing the number of in-person inspections. Some agencies are staying or delaying certain deadlines. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses in Pennsylvania to close March 19.

While all natural resource activity, including oil and gas extraction and coal mining, is considered essential, construction was, for the most part, shut down. There appears to be some question over whether that includes gas transmission pipelines.

Energy Transfer, the company building the Mariner East 2 pipeline for Sunoco, announced it would shut down most work in Pennsylvania to comply with the governor’s order but would seek a waiver to continue work that will impact safety or the environment. However, the Pittsburgh Business Times reported that work on the Falcon ethane pipeline through parts of Washington, Allegheny, and Beaver counties is allowed to continue. The pipeline will supply the ethane needed for the cracker plant now being built in Beaver County. Most construction work on the plant itself, which employs about 6,500 workers, has been shut down.

The Mariner East 2 is a liquid natural gas pipeline being built from Ohio across Pennsylvania to a terminal in the eastern part of the state that has been the subject of environmental violations, shutdowns, and investigations.

The state Public Utility Commission (PUC) announced March 20 it would modify regulatory and statutory deadlines and procedural rules on filings. The PUC oversees transmission pipeline construction for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

PHMSA also announced that it is granting requests to scale back enforcement of certain environmental and safety rules. In a March 19 memo, PMSHA said it and its state partners “will continue to execute their safety oversight mission during the COVID-19 outbreak and intend to prioritize safety-sensitive inspections and investigations.”

The memo suggested that states identify priority and time-sensitive inspections and investigations that should not be delayed and said urged them to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control to minimize exposure to the virus.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, which has permitting and enforcement responsibility for gas operators, also closed all of its offices following the governor’s order. Staff is working remotely. “To limit exposure to and spread of the virus, DEP is currently prioritizing field inspections that are critical to public health and safety. DEP will continue to respond in the field to environmental emergencies that present an immediate threat to public health and safety,” its website states.

“All permittees and operators are expected to meet all terms and conditions of their environmental permits, including conditions applicable to the cessation of operations. DEP is committed to its mission of protecting public health and the environment and as such will continue to monitor these permitted facilities that have temporarily ceased operations.

“Entities operating under a DEP permit that have ceased or suspended operations or construction, please refer to your permit terms and conditions, as they contain regulatory obligations and details regarding cessation or temporary stoppage of work,” the website continues.

"DEP continues to review permit/approval applications and respond to questions for regulated activities, including oil and gas activities, through telework," DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said in an email Friday. "To limit exposure to and spread of the virus, DEP is currently prioritizing field inspections of critical infrastructure and inspections that are critical to public health and safety utilizing social distancing and other protective measures. DEP will continue to receive, review, and respond to public complaints and will prioritize complaint inspections on a case-by-case basis considering potential public health and safety impacts. The department’s oversight of compliance-related submissions will continue as well, including submitted reports and data. We cannot provide exact numbers of field staff as the number changes from day to day."

It is not known when the outbreak may end and restrictions imposed by the governor and the federal government will be lifted.

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