Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Pennsylvania regulators seek more say on shale pipelines

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Since development of natural gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale formation could potentially last 50 years, state regulators are seeking authority to make sure the underground pipelines carrying the natural gas are well maintained and safe.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission regulates the safety of natural gas pipelines in the state. The agency is pushing for state legislation to extend this authority over nonutility pipelines that will eventually be built throughout the Marcellus Shale, underlying a large part of Northeast and Western Pennsylvania.
While a federal pipeline safety agency was formed in the 1960s after some deadly pipeline explosions, states may also have some say in regulating the interstate lines in addition to lines existing solely within the state.
For example, state law requires that individuals or contractors notify a "one-call" center three days before excavation work to determine if natural gas pipelines are nearby. The center then notifies utilities of the pending work so they can mark the pipeline route.
Pipelines in Pennsylvania are typically made of cast iron or steel. They are subject to the freeze-and-thaw cycle of Pennsylvania winters. "We are seeing a lot of corrosion, breaking and cracking," said PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.
PUC Chairman James Cawley outlined the agency's goals last month before the House Consumer Affairs Committee. The agency is seeking authority to inspect pipelines owned by commercial natural gas producers that are outside its traditional jurisdiction over public utilities. The agency also wants to increase fines for pipeline safety violations. Enabling legislation has yet to be introduced.
Currently, the PUC's gas safety division inspects and investigates complaints concerning the utility-owned natural gas distribution lines that connect to homes and businesses. The division carried out more than 600 inspections and issued 70 safety violations in fiscal 2007-08.

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