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What You Won't Hear During the Aug. 17 Public Hearing on Pipelines in Pennsylvania

by John Ukenye, Policy Analyst

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ Environmental Resources & Energy Committee has announced a “Public Hearing on Environmental and Economic Benefits of Pipelines” scheduled for August 17, 2021. However, even the quickest of research would show that Pennsylvania’s pipelines have not been environmentally friendly, economically sustainable, safe, or at all “beneficial” to the average citizen.

Nearly two years ago to the day of this writing, PennFuture’s blog highlighted “The Problem with Pipelines,” which listed what amounted to nearly 100 violations placed by the PA Department of Environmental Protection and over $13 million in fines on the Mariner East II pipeline. This aforementioned pipeline was constructed by Texas-based Energy Transfer, the group behind the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline. Since the writing of that blog post, the violations have now reached 121 and exceeded $15 million in total fines due to its continued leaks of drilling mud, disturbance to local water wells, pollution of water bodies, and the creation of sinkholes. 

Mariner East II represents a fraction of the 81,213 miles of pipelines in Pennsylvania, which includes gas distribution mains (48,139 miles), natural gas distribution services (28,933 miles), natural gas gathering lines (799 miles), natural gas transmission lines (1,275 miles) and hazardous liquids (2,067 miles). This does not include the tens of thousands of miles of unmapped natural gas gathering lines vulnerable to being hit by construction equipment. 

Environmentally Unfriendly

Pipeline leaks and explosions are common in Pennsylvania, leading to harmful effects on the environment.

Between March 16 (the start of the first COVID-19 lockdown in PA) and September 2020, the Mariner East II pipeline alone was responsible for 36 spills, releasing over 10,000 gallons of drilling fluid—most of which poured into Marsh Creek Lake in Marsh Creek State Park. This adds to the total 344,590 – 405,990 known gallons spilled into the environment since the beginning of the pipeline’s construction in 2017. 

In 2016, a natural gas pipeline in Westmoreland County exploded and injured one person while destroying 40 acres of farmland and causing property damage.

In 2018, the then-brand new Revolution pipeline exploded in Beaver County, causing property and natural resource damage, and has so far resulted in fines and penalties of over $30 million by DEP.

Last year, Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a grand jury report on the entire fracked gas industry in Pennsylvania. This report showed the harmful effects of the toxic waste produced by the industry, including the harmful effects of the drilling process which resulted in physical illnesses on nearby residents and water contamination in the form of black sludge clogging well-water pumps that cost homeowners thousands of dollars to fix.

Recently, the Agronomic Crops Network at Ohio State University released a study showing that nearby crop yields decreased once pipelines were installed. Specifically, “corn grain yields decreased an average of 23.8%, silage corn decreased an average of 28.8%, and soybean yield decreased an average of 7.4% over the pipeline compared with adjacent areas.” Pennsylvania State University released a similar report in 2015.

And this is just a sample of some of the most destructive catastrophes caused by pipeline construction and operation; it doesn’t include the thousands of stream crossings, miles of forest clearcutting, and smaller but no less harmful spills across the Commonwealth.  

Economically Unsustainable

Pipeline mileage in Pennsylvania is set to quadruple between 2015 and 2030, despite the known continued harmful effects on people and the environment and signs of a slowing down and possible decrease in consumption through 2050.

Greener, more environmentally friendly energy alternatives are already proving to not only be both cost effective for producers and consumers, but also offer higher-paying wages for those in the green energy job sector.

More on the former point, U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) data predicted solar and wind energy would dominate America’s new energy generation in 2020. EIA also projected natural gas generation to only grow 1.3% in 2020 – the slowest rate since 2017 – while non-hydropower renewable energy generation will grow 15% in 2020, the fastest rate in four years. Early, actual 2020 reports are beginning to show that solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources “beat earlier estimates and all previous records despite the economic slowdown that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic...exceeding expansion in 2019 by close to 50 percent.”

Over the last decade, wind energy prices have fallen 70% and solar photovoltaics have fallen 89% on average, according to a 2019 report. Utility-scale renewable energy prices are now significantly below those for coal and gas generation. Experts and analysts have claimed that, with wind, solar, and storage prices falling at such a fast rate, the United States can reach 90% clean electricity by 2035 without raising customer costs at all from today’s levels, and actually decreasing wholesale power costs 10%. In other words, renewable energy sources are now cheaper than the average cost to operate coal, the average cost to build new natural gas sites, and can be great for the consumer’s bottom line.

On the latter point, compared with jobs in the coal, natural gas and petroleum industries, jobs in solar and wind pay about 50 cents more, and this industry is only at the beginning of its ascendancy. Specifically, wind and solar electricians -- HVAC technicians, mechanics, welders and assemblers -- get paid $2.50 more than their counterparts in the coal and gas industry. Clean energy jobs are more likely to be union jobs than jobs across the economy as a whole – 9 percent versus 6 percent – which correlates to higher pay and better benefits. 

As America faces an economy post-COVID 19, the green energy sector presents an avenue to create jobs on a massive, interstate scale that includes a diverse workforce of people with varying levels of education and skillset. Such a new economy cannot be realized without proper investment, and Pennsylvania, facing the brunt of the dying fossil fuel industry, is the perfect place to rise to the moment and invest.

Unbeneficial to the Public 

In addition to being bad for the environment and being economically unsustainable, these pipelines are not beneficial to the general public.

One analysis showed that as many as 345,000 people live close enough to the Mariner East pipeline system alone to be affected by a leak or serious explosion. Pipelines are consistently built and expanded in areas where poorer individuals live, including poorer whites, but especially Black, and other minority communities. 

Instead of celebrating pipelines and pretending that they do not lead to catastrophic harm to people and the environment, we should be examining how to phase them out and phase Pennsylvania into the newer, greener economy emerging nationally and worldwide. At the very least, we must be discussing ways to secure populations living near these pipelines a level of compensation for when disaster strikes due to these pipelines.

Unlike what is necessary to own a home or a vehicle, operators of pipelines carrying gasoline, natural gas, natural gas liquids and other hazardous and explosive substances are not required by law to have insurance or a financial assurance plan. One policy analysis postures that pipeline insurance would 1) ensure that financial resources exist to compensate injured parties; and 2) grant injured third parties access to remuneration without having to resort to costly litigation. Such insurance is not unusual, as similar environmental programs require insurance-type coverage for surface coal mine operators, coal refuse disposal areas, and oil and gas well drilling wastewater treatment facilities, just to name a few. This coverage is especially important as Mariner East II and other pipelines have a long and constantly growing track record of explosions and leaks.

The perceived, fabricated, economic “benefits” of pipelines cannot be mentioned without also highlighting pipelines’ proclivity to wreak havoc and destruction on our communities, as well as our shared environment and natural resources. It is clear that pipelines are unfriendly to the lands of Pennsylvania we call home, unsustainable economically as the world chases greener alternatives -- a new economy that Pennsylvania could take the lead in with proper investment, and harmful to the citizens of the Commonwealth in a multifaceted amount of ways. Simply highlighting these false “benefits” is disingenuous and clearly in the pursuit of a self-serving agenda. 

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