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Governor Wolf met by Mariner East Opponents

Gov. Tom Wolf has made Pennsylvania’s energy industry a key focus of his administration. However, while some plans proposed by the governor have been met with praise, others have caused contention.

Wolf campaigned on several environmental and energy issues in both of his runs for office. He promised to harness the natural gas and oil industry in the state, and ensure that Pennsylvania’s public lands would be protected. He has delivered on parts of these promises, like his 2015 moratorium on leasing public lands to oil and gas drillers. Other promises, like the elimination of the Act 13 impact fees and replacement with a severance tax, have not been fulfilled.

The contention is not limited to policy matters, but also on his inaction on certain issues in the state which some believe sends mixed messages to those who support his environmental and energy conscientiousness. Sunoco’s Mariner East pipelines are an example.

Last week, Wolf met with citizens in eastern Pennsylvania who are deeply concerned with Sunoco’s operations, the potential for catastrophic disaster that the pipelines could cause, and existing groundwater issues.

When met with demands to halt construction and operation of the Mariner East lines, Wolf rejected them, and assured that “alternatives (in lieu of shutting down the pipelines) are even worse”. While it is within the governor’s power to stop the pipelines from operating or being constructed, it is not his job to oversee the projects and ensure regulatory compliance.

All pipelines are generally regulated by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), but state agencies act as “agents” that conduct inspections. Within the state, that task is a joint effort between the state’s Public Utility Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection. As Sunoco is, and has long been, considered a public utility, the actual transmission and distribution lines are overseen by the PUC, while the permits required for construction of a pipeline are issued by the DEP. For this reason, citizens are often confused as to the appropriate body to voice their concerns to, with many going directly to the governor.

The PUC is undertaking a review of its pipeline safety regulations, and said the time has come for changes. It is looking at more regulations in the areas of safety, emergency reporting and horizontal directional drilling, among others. These efforts may prevent many of the problems arose with Mariner East.

For more on pipelines, read our explainer here!

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