The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

January 27, 2014

Shale pipelines growing, but oversight is not

Getting Utica shale gas to processing plants and people’s houses has created a growing web of pipelines across eastern Ohio.

Placed end to end, these pipelines, called “gathering lines,” would extend more than 470 miles - enough to cross the state at its widest point. Twice.

While construction was going on in 2012, Ohio legislators enacted a law that bars state utility officials from overseeing where the natural-gas pipelines can go.

Rich Sahli, a Columbus lawyer who has represented Ohio residents in pipeline cases, said the law ensured that the pipelines could be built without any government review of their environmental impact.

“One of the great difficulties with pipeline siting is, the company tries to get to the cheapest land possible,” Sahli said. “Oftentimes, that’s the most environmentally important property because it involves wetlands and headland streams.”

The law specifically excludes natural-gas processing plants, compressor stations and gathering lines from the oversight of the Ohio Power Siting Board, a branch of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

For other types of pipelines, the board has the authority to deny routes if there is a risk to nearby houses, farms or the environment. This applies to pipelines that are at least 9?inches in diameter and contain pressures of at least 125?pounds per square inch.

Statistics from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration illustrate that there are risks with pipelines. The agency’s review of incident reports for all Ohio pipeline systems shows 137 cases of pipeline damage or failures of one kind or another from 2003 through 2012, the latest full year for which statistics are available.

Across that decade, those incidents resulted in seven fatalities, property damage of more than $69 million, and spills of both hazardous and non-hazardous materials totaling 9,577 barrels (402,234 gallons). While the most incidents during that period occurred in 2006, with 21, the 10 incidents in 2012 were the costliest, at a total of almost $24.6 million.

The agency statistics show no incidents for the 1,167 miles of gas-gathering pipelines in place during that decade.

Ohio’s law applies only to pipelines built in the state. New pipelines that cross state lines or link to interstate systems are under the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“It takes about eight months to process (a state pipeline review) from beginning to end,” said Matt Butler, a Power Siting Board spokesman.

The law change came as the oil and gas industry was gearing up to build a network of gas-distribution pipelines across eastern Ohio. Since the 2012 law was enacted, companies have reported 183 gathering-pipeline projects to the PUCO.

Thousands of miles of small-diameter pipelines already line the region, sending natural gas from conventional wells to gas companies. These lines never fell under any government jurisdiction because they didn’t meet the minimum requirements for pipe size and pressure.

If a pipeline goes through a wetland or cuts across a stream, a company needs a permit from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and must agree to limit and repair environmental damage. Companies that drill tunnels beneath streams and wetlands don’t have to apply for those permits, said Erin Strouse, an Ohio EPA spokeswoman.

Shale wells produce gas in such large quantities that an entirely new system of larger-diameter pipelines is required. Though considerably bigger than the small-diameter pipelines, the 8-inch-diameter pipes the industry uses would not have triggered mandatory state reviews.

However, Tom Stewart, vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said the exemptions in the 2012 law were necessary to keep state officials from expanding their authority.

He said state officials were contemplating overseeing plants, compressors and gathering lines from shale wells, but the Power Siting Board oversight should be limited only to pipelines that supply utility gas to customers.

“They aren’t designed to serve the public,” Stewart said of the exempted gathering pipelines. “ All (gas) transmission is between private parties. The public doesn’t have skin in the game, because they don’t have access to service from those lines.”

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