Legislators Eye Pipeline Safety Issue

Article excerpt

PHILADELPHIA -- Pipeline safety and regulation will be the top priority for Republican legislators in Harrisburg as they push for new shale drilling laws this fall, two party leaders said on Thursday.

The issue is "ripe for resolution" because bills putting the state Public Utility Commission in charge of safety oversight have passed the House and Senate, said Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, the majority leader.

Leaders have started working to reconcile the bills in order to get something to Gov. Tom Corbett after they return from summer recess, Pileggi said during a panel discussion at the Shale Gas Insight conference.

"The pipeline issue is a big one that needs to be addressed," said fellow panelist and House Republican Caucus Chairman Sandra Major of Susquehanna County. House leaders will follow a similar legislative game plan, she added.

The problem is that thousands of miles of gathering lines are being laid all across the state to connect new shale gas wells to the existing pipeline network, but it isn't clear who has jurisdiction to inspect them. After several deadly gas pipeline explosions rocked the nation and eastern Pennsylvania, the governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission in July recommended that the PUC receive oversight powers for intrastate gathering lines.

"There needs to be a bill on the governor's desk. It's a moral imperative," commission Chairman Robert Powelson said he told the governor. "It's the thing that keeps me up at night."

The commission needs another 10 to 15 inspectors -- at least doubling its staff -- to do the work, he added. Startup costs range from $1.5 million to $2 million, but if the legislature approves, the state will get reimbursed for training and hiring by federal regulators, Powelson said. The PUC can charge fees to pipeline companies to cover future costs, he added.

Both bills would give the commission the right to inspect the lines and fine safety violators on behalf of federal regulators. They would also empower the commission to hire inspectors.

Critics of PUC involvement have said it could open the door to give eminent domain rights to pipeline companies or to subject them to rate regulation. During interviews earlier in the day, executives at two of the top pipeline companies, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Cos. …