In PA, Oil Pollutes More Than Just Water

The Mariner East 2 pipeline in Pennsylvania has already leaked multiple times during its construction. Despite the enormous risk it poses to surrounding communities, including water, agriculture, and native land, state and federal authorities have not stopped its construction. The pipeline is designed to serve as an extension to the original Mariner East pipeline, and would cut right through our own Delaware County. The environmental risks of the pipeline have been ignored, largely thanks to contributions from Energy Transfer Partners (of whom Sunoco, the owner of the pipeline, is a subsidiary). The donations that Pennsylvania state politicians and regulators have received from the fossil fuel industry have demonstrated the stranglehold that corporate power has on our government.

Mariner East 2 is a risk to water sources, including wells and aquifers. Construction of the pipeline has allegedly caused E. coli bacteria to leak into a Berks County resident’s water well. 

The estimated pressure of the oil as it travels through the Mariner East pipeline has also been partially fabricated by Sunoco. The calculations for emissions and destructive risk used a PSI that is over 700 units lower than the number used in the most recent documentation from Sunoco. This means that the numbers claimed by Sunoco for risk and emissions vastly underestimate the threat. In regard to danger, the increased pressure means that the pipeline is more likely to fail (potentially explosively) as it ages. The Mariner East 1 pipeline, with a lower pressure than Mariner East 2, already leaked over twenty barrels (over 800 gallons) of ethane and propane in April 2017 — well after completion, demonstrating that the construction process is not the issue, but rather the pipeline design itself. Sunoco paid a fine, but no further action was taken, and the extension to this already volatile pipeline has been receiving all of the permits and approvals it needs to finish construction and become fully operational despite the problems with Mariner 1 East. 

Given these problems, state regulators should be extremely hesitant to approve further construction by Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners, especially without any concrete demonstration that the extension would be any safer. Donations from the industry, however, have compromised the integrity of the regulators. Let’s look first to the office of the governor. A Philadelphia Inquirer piece from earlier this year by reporter Will Bunch revealed a series of communications between an aide in Governor Wolf’s office and the Environmental Protection Agency chief. The communications show that Wolf’s office urged the EPA to delay a report showing that Sunoco’s planning and estimations of pipeline construction and safety were flawed and underestimated risk and impact. The state then approved the permits for the pipeline, and the EPA did not finish its review. 

Governor Wolf has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry, and in this past campaign cycle alone, he took $5,000 directly from Energy Transfer Employee Management Company PAC (the political lobbying wing of ETP), as campaign finance documents from the Pennsylvania Election Commission reveal.

Given that the Governor’s Office is too compromised to intervene, we must turn to the Pennsylvania Utility Commission. The regulatory body responsible for the permitting and regulation of pipeline should, in theory, be safe from any sort of interference, as the commissioners are appointed, not elected. This, however, turns out to be far too optimistic a mindset. While it is true that the commission is not directly influenced by campaign donations, Governor Wolf, who has taken large amounts of money from the fossil fuel industry, was tasked with their appointment. Examining the commissioner’s backgrounds will reveal whether or not the commission is truly independent.

Commissioners have obvious ties to the fossil fuel industry. Commissioner John F. Coleman Jr. has been reappointed to the PUC on three different occasions, by three different governors. According to the Pennsylvania Utility Commission, he previously worked as the CEO of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, which represents several natural gas corporations. He is an investor and corporate Treasurer for SilcoTek Corporation, which makes coatings and provides services to pipeline construction companies, as well as oil refineries. He also worked as the co-chair for the Natural Gas and Expansion Task Force, a wing of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Committee on Gas. It is likely that this background in the industry was viewed as beneficial work experience, but it also poses what many would view as a clear conflict of interest, especially considering he is still financially invested in the natural gas industry. 

Commissioner Andrew G. Place was appointed by Governor Wolf in 2015. He previously worked at the EQT Corporation, a pipeline transport corporation, as the corporate director for energy and environmental policy. It is worth noting that policy related titles are often associated with lobbying and governmental outreach efforts. To further cement this lobbying background, Place also helped establish the Center for Responsible Shale Development, an organization that seeks to provide funding and self-regulation from within the natural gas industry.

Additionally, Commissioner Norman Kennard, an attorney, previously worked at the law firm that is now representing Sunoco in court proceedings against the state, and a previous partner of his at the firm is serving as counsel for Sunoco.

The Public Accountability Initiative has found even further conflicts of interest and that four of the five commissioners have clear ties not only to the fossil fuel industry but also to Energy Transfer Partners or its subsidiary, Sunoco. The ties of the commissioners to the fossil fuel industry make it impossible for a lack of bias in their duty as regulators. The commission cannot regulate the industry that it was once itself a part of, and further, it cannot effectively regulate an industry that it is invested in.

With such deep levels of corruption and corporate influence, it can be easy to feel hopeless, but despair is never the answer, especially in the case of such a tangible threat. Each of these commissioners was approved by the Pennsylvania State Senate, and the members of the legislature are elected and are bound by Pennsylvania’s Campaign Finance laws, weak as they may be. Pennsylvania should revoke permits for the Mariner East 2 pipeline, and halt construction immediately. If you want to help change campaign finance, so that the resistance to this pipeline is not only heard, but also transformed into action as well, then I strongly urge you to join the Pennsylvania chapter of Wolf-PAC, a political organization devoted to getting money out of politics. This is a movement that can win. This is a movement that must win. If we want to stop pipelines like Mariner East and protect people and the environment, not to mention our democracy, then now is the time to step up. If you are interested, you can find more information at: https://wolf-pac.com/states/pa/

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