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Audience Learns Importance of Legislative Oversight on Gas Pipelines

A number of the 140+ people who attended Penn State's Gas Pipeline Forum last week were surprised to learn that both gathering pipelines and transmission pipelines for the natural gas industry—shortly to be ubiquitous in Wyoming County—-are largely unregulated. The purpose of the forum was informational but audience members may have gotten more than they had expected from the lively and well-paced presentation.

There are four classes of areas through which pipelines can run according to the Federal Pipeline Safety Code, which has jurisdiction over non public utilities like the gas drilling industry. This applies to pipelines that collect natural gas from drill sites and that transport collected gas within the state and throughout the country. With few exceptions, the class through which proposed pipelines will run in Wyoming County is Class One, defined as fewer than ten homes within 220 yards on either side of the pipeline in a sliding mile.

A "sliding mile" is the distance of one mile at any given point at any given time and is defined as a mile through which the gas is moving. Class One is unregulated, meaning exactly what it sounds like: no state or federal or local laws apply, no authority has jurisdiction and no one can levy or enforce safety or any other measures.

"Class One is where we live," Mehoopany resident landowner Emily Krafjack explained to her audience. "It's where we raise our families, where we work and where we pay taxes."

The other three classes of area through which pipelines may run are regulated, but these areas contain a denser clustering of homes and in Class Four, contain multi-story buildings. In addition to a lack of regulatory oversight for Class One, Krafjack pointed out that there are at the present time no setbacks required for pipelines from homes, play areas or property lines. And, she said, contrary to what some may think, pipelines will not run along roadways and through the center of towns, but rather be sited through fields and backyards. The impact of living in a Class One area can become quite personal.

Collection or gathering lines contain gas at a relatively low pressure, but the transportation lines typically run natural gas at a highly pressurized level, anywhere from two to four thousand pounds per square inch (PSI). Such high pressures pose a greater risk of catastrophe if something malfunctions.

Fortunately, PA Senator Lisa Baker is sponsoring Senate Bill 325, which Krafjack said is currently being amended to include Class One areas. "This is a good opportunity," she said of the gas drilling industry's arrival in our area. "But it has to be managed safely. I'm pro safety and pro community. I want to maintain the agricultural and rural integrity of our region. The gas drilling industry has to respect our community and we need our legislators to put pipeline safety laws in place."

Krafjack urged people to contact their legislators and let them know how important pipeline safety legislation is to them. She said a similar bill, House Bill 344, does not take Class One into consideration and therefore is inadequate. "The industry will come out against every improvement DEP is attempting to make," she warned, forecasting that even if bills like Sen. Baker's are passed, and DEP is given oversight and enforcement powers, the gas drilling industry will likely try to stymie regulations, which slow down their operations or cause it to be more expensive to them. Krafjack said that DEP solicits public input on regulatory processes and that if residents do not do their part they will let DEP and themselves down.

"We have a voice: it has to be heard," she urged. "And it should be a continuing conversation." "Pennsylvania has the largest reserve of natural gas in the world," stated PA PUC Gas Safety Inspector Mike Chilak. He said people living in the Marcellus Shale drilling area should brace themselves for the industry's incursion to the rural area, which will last for a very long time.

According to Chilak, natural gas from Pennsylvania will not only power local areas, but be shipped to towns, cities and industries all over the country. And, he said, northeastern PA is the "sweet spot" where there are large reserves of gas to be drilled. These facts prompted Penn State's Cooperative Extension to organize the forum: now that the gas wells are being drilled, the gas which is obtained from them has to be compressed and transported. Until and unless the gas drilling industry is considered a public utility it is, at the moment, only regulated by the FPSC and another acronym, PHMSA, which stands for Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

It is PHMSA in particular which has established the system for classifying areas though which pipelines pass, and which therefore puts Wyoming County and much of the surrounding area squarely in "Class One," meaning no regulations.

Sen. Baker's Bill with its important amendments could change that and impose some regulations even in Class One areas as well as Class Two, Three and Four. But as it stands, the power to regulate and ensure the safety of pipelines in this region rests with the residents. Area landowners will soon be, if they have not already been, approached about signing pipeline agreements.

The forum aimed at giving area residents some idea about the impact such agreements could have and tools by which residents could maximize safety and minimize risk.

Dave Messersmith of Penn State opened the forum by giving an overview of the gas drilling industry in Wyoming County and neighboring regions. He agreed with Chilak that the area would soon be home to pipelines moving gas through the state and beyond. Messersmith then acquainted the audience with the typical process once a pipeline agreement has been signed. The agreements form a continual Right of Way for the pipeline and will usually include several agreements from a number of landowners. Once the ROWs and Agreements are all obtained, the gas transportation company will survey the properties and plan the route of the pipeline. Next, any permits necessary will be secured; Messersmith explained that DEP currently has the power to make gas pipelines route themselves away from wetlands and similar areas. Next, the ROWs will be cleared: this may mean cutting down trees and brush and Messersmith advised owners who ink agreements for land, which is forested may want to be certain that they retain the rights to sell the harvested timber.

After this, topsoil will be removed and a trench dug for the pipeline. Then the "stringing" of the pipeline will begin. The type of pipe used was not really discussed at last week's forum. However, Chilak did mention that bare steel and cast iron pipes cause most of the problems even though they are used in only about a quarter of the pipelines laid in the state. Industry-wide, the majority of pipe now being laid is epoxy-coated steel, which is less problematical. Gathering lines will be 24 inches in diameter; transmission lines will be 30 inches in diameter and these will run at high pressure. The pipe is contoured and welded together and then laid in the trench. Then it is buried and the site is restored; restoration levels can vary depending on the agreement, but DEP will inspect for things like erosion control.

Messersmith explained that landowners need to make sure that any pipeline traversing their property is buried below the tillage level of any agricultural field whether it is in use or fallow at the time of the pipeline's installation. Additionally, he advised landowners who have pipelines going through agricultural fields to value and insure the crop in case it is damaged or the yield reduced because of pipeline activity or malfunction. Even pipelines through pastures need to be deep enough so that fences and walls can be rebuilt without affecting it.

"Remember, that ROW is permanent, so the agreement has to acknowledge that," he said. He urged landowners to specify the width of the easement they are granting, to define liability, and define and specify restoration of the area. He also said they should limit the diameter of the pipeline they will allow in the easement, define the substances which will run in it and the pressure under which they run, limit and define access to the pipeline and include abandonment procedures for such time as the line is no longer productive and in use.

Once the pipeline is in, Messersmith said, there will be continuing activity along it as small internal mechanisms to clean, maintain and inspect the pipeline, called "pigs," are launched from time to time. Also, visual inspections of the pipeline from the ground are required periodically. There may be water lines temporarily running within the ROW as well. There will be above ground valves and there may be compressor stations and drying/metering stations at several points along the pipeline. These look a lot like trailers, but can be constructed to mimic more compatible structures like barns.

Messersmith said that landowners can rule any or all of these out of their agreements if they don't want them on their property. If a landowner does not mind having these stations and other attendant equipment or temporary water lines on their property, he urged that separate agreements be negotiated for them over and above the pipeline agreement and that any special construction designs be addressed there. He cautioned that compressor stations run 24 hours a day seven days a week at about 10000 horsepower, so noise is an issue. Messersmith urged municipalities to be sure their Emergency Responders were trained in gas pipeline concerns and safety. He also said that municipal planners should be prepared for the arrival of hotels, restaurants, roadways and truck traffic all of which are part and parcel of the gas drilling industry.

He outlined several major impacts that pipelines can have to an area which would be of concern to individual landowners, including habitat fragmentation, invasive weeds, viewshed impact, effect on property values, lowering of air quality and potential safety risks. Messersmith advised savvy landowners considering pipeline agreements to seek ways to reduce these impacts. He suggested siting pipeline agreements near ROWs that already exist and using existing boundaries like forest edges and property lines. "Landowners should work with gas pipeline operators to plan areas for pipeline development," he said.

Attorney Steve Saunders spoke briefly about exclusivity in gas leases and explained how this might keep landowners from signing a pipeline agreement. He also said that there might be ways to work an agreement out even if an exclusivity clause is in place. Saunders explained the typical payment structure for pipeline agreements, and addressed the issue of Eminent Domain.

"That is only applicable to a public utility," he reminded the audience. The gas drilling industry is at present not a public utility and therefore the companies can not invoke eminent domain to gain access to land they want to run a pipeline through. Saunders did caution however that a case with a company called Laser N.E. could impact this.

Laser N.E. wants to build gathering and transportation facilities in PA, and wants to be considered a public utility for these projects. If they are given public utility status, then eminent domain could become a factor in negotiations. Although this might be alarming, Saunders reminded people that becoming a public utility would also mean that Laser N.E.'s rates would be subject to oversight and regulation and they may not wish this. He said the current settlement in the case demanded that eminent domain be invoked only after all other efforts have been exhausted and that the PUC will be notified before eminent domain is invoked.

There are also other considerations on the table, which Saunders said he was not privy to. In December of last year an Administrative Law Judge decided that Laser N.E. would not have public utility status because it is a private for profit entity. However, Saunders said Laser is appealing the ruling.

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