Sunoco may be forced to meet with county under initial ruling in Baker’s pipeline safety case

Wilmer Baker’s home in Lower Frankford Township is within the 1,000-foot safety radius of the Mariner East pipeline route. (Photo by Jason Malmont, The Sentinel)

By Zack Hoopes, The Sentinel
Dec 23, 2019 


A ruling issued Wednesday in Wilmer Baker’s case against Sunoco Pipeline gives the Cumberland County resident a partial victory in his effort to get the Mariner East pipeline operator to respond to his safety concerns.

The ruling was issued by Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes, who heard the case on behalf of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, under whose jurisdiction Sunoco falls.

The ruling is an initial decision, and the PUC could modify the advisory order at a subsequent commission meeting pursuant to the evidence and legal statutes Barnes outlined in her ruling.

Barnes sides with Baker when it comes to his claims about Sunoco’s inadequate safety outreach, writing that Baker succeeding in “showing that [Sunoco’s] public awareness outreach in Cumberland County is not meeting regulatory requirements.”

“I consider this a victory that she’s publicly acknowledging there are problems,” Baker told The Sentinel on Friday..

In an email, Lisa Coleman, spokesperson for Sunoco’s parent company, Energy Transfer, said the company is “currently processing the information in the initial decision to determine how it relates to our public awareness programs that are in place, including those in Cumberland County.”

Otherwise, Barnes’ opinion finds that Baker’s claims regarding the origin and quality of the steel used in the Mariner East builds are either unfounded or out of the PUC’s legal jurisdiction.

Barnes’ ruling would require Sunoco meet with the Lower Frankford Township supervisors and the Cumberland County commissioners within 30 days to schedule public awareness and education meetings.

Sunoco’s abrupt cancellation of a Lower Frankford Township meeting last year touched off some public sparring with the county commissioners over Sunoco’s apparent reluctance to conduct any meetings or training beyond what the county described as a “boiler-plate” response.

“It appears Judge Barnes has deliberately and forcefully laid out the case for greater transparency from Sunoco,” Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler said. “I think the judge’s preliminary decision sides with the position taken by the county.”

Under Barnes’ ruling, the pipeline operator would also be required to meet with county public safety officials within 30 days to discuss additional training or communication that the county may desire.

Sunoco will also have to submit to the PUC a written plan to improve certain deficiencies in its public awareness and emergency training programs within 90 days and will need to submit an audit of such programs within six months.


Baker’s complaint before the PUC centers on the Mariner East pipelines, which transport liquefied gas from hydrofracking sites in western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook processing facility in Philadelphia.

Sunoco’s right-of-way now houses three lines: Mariner East I, a line originally built in 1931 and recently repurposed for fracking liquids, as well as the newly built Mariner East II and IIx.

Baker’s home in Lower Frankford Township is within the 1,000-foot safety radius of the pipeline route, as are the homes of several of his friends and neighbors in the area just  northwest of Carlisle. Many of them testified before Barnes in support of Baker’s case.

Baker’s main charge was that Sunoco had sent out safety information to his rural community only intermittently, and left residents, many of whom are physically disabled, with questions as to exactly how they should handle a pipeline leak or possible evacuation.

Barnes agreed, writing that Sunoco’s limited response to Baker as well as the county commissioners “shows a ‘one size fits all’ approach to public awareness rather than an enhanced public outreach program and perhaps a lack of proper record-keeping or internal controls designed to meet regulatory compliance within the company.”

Barnes’ opinion cites regulations from the state code and from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and industry standards from the American Petroleum Institute.

In addition, Baker had sought to require Sunoco to install some type of alarm or early-warning system to detect leaks via pressure drops, or simply by adding an odorant to chemicals traveling in the pipeline so that residents could smell a leak.

As Barnes reiterated in her ruling, there are no hard requirements in current regulations for such provisions, and she ruled in Sunoco’s favor on that matter.

But the PUC is moving through a rulemaking process for pipelines, including matters of public awareness, pressure testing and leak detection, in accordance with its authority to create necessary safety rules.

The PUC’s enforcement division has submitted comment to the rule-making case “requesting odorization or in the alternative enhance[d] leak detection to identify small leaks,” Barnes wrote.

Thus, Barnes said, Baker’s intent may come to fruition, regardless of his own case, via the PUC’s rule-making process, which is a more appropriate avenue.

“Even if there is not a consensus on every regulation, there is at least formalized due process before requirements of an odorant and/or alarm systems are placed upon the operator,” Barnes wrote of the future rule-making.

During the in-person hearing for Baker’s case in July, Barnes had pressed Sunoco consultant John Zurcher over the industry’s ability to self-determine what is and isn’t a reasonable safety precaution, after Zurcher had described leak-detection alarms as “feasible but just not practical.”

Baker’s other assertions in his filings were generally denied in Barnes’ ruling.

This included Baker’s charge that the European-made pipes used in part of the Mariner II and IIx projects, which had been imported by a company subject to steel-dumping penalties by the U.S. Department of Commerce, should be replaced.

“The commission has not authority to direct Sunoco to replace any foreign made steel pipes or fittings with American-made steel,” Barnes wrote.

The PUC’s rule-making case regarding pipeline construction and safety ended its comment period in September and is under review.

Sunoco’s comment on the case makes it clear that the industry does not believe the PUC has the legal authority to further put requirements on the pipeline, potentially setting up a legislative issue in Harrisburg.

The lack of certain provisions in Pennsylvania’s pipeline laws, relative to other utilities, “means the General Assembly did not intend to grant the PUC regulatory authority to dictate installation/construction techniques for pipeline facilities,” Sunoco wrote.

The Cumberland County commissioners, along with several municipal governments in the county, submitted comments to the PUC’s rule-making case encouraging stricter public outreach requirements.

Sunoco lobbied the PUC for the Mariner East builds to be considered public utilities in order to have eminent domain powers; now, Hertzler said, the company seems to not want the responsibility.

“They can’t have it both ways,” Hertzler said. “Now, as a public utility, they have a fundamental responsibility to the public.”


NTSB Pipeline Accident Brief: Natural Gas Explosion at Minnesota Educational Facility

Full Pipeline Accident Brief Report: Natural Gas Explosion at Educational Facility Minneapolis, Minnesota August 2, 2017

Issued by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on December 2, 2019

Executive Summary
​On August 2, 2017, at 10:22 a.m., local time, a building on the north campus of the Minnehaha Academy, a private school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was destroyed by a natural gas explosion. Figure 1 shows an aerial view of the north campus prior to the accident, with a yellow arrow pointing toward the explosion site. Figure 2 is a photograph of the accident site taken after the building explosion, with emergency responders and gas company personnel on scene. At the time of the explosion, two workers were installing piping to support the relocation of gas meters from the basement of the building to the outside. Two new meters mounted on an exterior wall were ready for the piping to be connected. While workers were removing the existing piping, a full-flow natural gas line at pressure was opened. The workers were unable to control the release of the gas; thus, they evacuated the building and warned others to evacuate. The explosion occurred during their evacuation. Two individuals were killed, and nine others were injured.

Probable Cause​
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the natural gas explosion at the Minnehaha Academy occurred when a pipefitting crew disassembled piping upstream of a gas service meter. Contributing to the accident was the lack of detailed documentation that clearly established the scope of work to be performed.


New Jersey DEP rejects PennEast’s permit application, setting back the project again

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has shut the door again on a bid by PennEast Pipeline to obtain crucial permits for its 120-mile interstate project.

In a letter to the company dated Tuesday, the agency deemed the company’s applications deficient, largely based on a federal court’s decision blocking the company’s bid to condemn state-owned lands to build its pipeline (at a projected cost of $1 billion).

The decision marks a new setback in a five-year quest by PennEast to build a gas pipeline from Luzerne County in Pennsylvania, across the Delaware River, to Mercer County, N.J. It aims to bring cheap natural gas to markets in New Jersey and the metropolitan area, but has encountered stiff opposition in both states.

Without the permits, the project is unlikely to be built, at least under its current proposed route, which crosses 49 separate properties owned by the state, most of them permanently preserved for agricultural, recreational or conservation purposes, largely with taxpayer dollars.

“Not necessarily,’’ said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for Rethink Energy NJ, referring to PennEast’s likely appeal of last month’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. “It’s another brick in the wall against this project.’’

PennEast vowed to press forward with the project.

“PennEast is confident the legal actions will be resolved favorably and the long-standing legal precedent under which FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) has operated to bring needed, clean, reliable, and affordable energy to consumers will be upheld,’’ said Pat Kornick, a spokeswoman for the company.

“The recent public statements by natural gas utilities in New Jersey expressing serious concerns about the lack of infrastructure capacity and an inability to reliably serve families and businesses who depend on natural gas service, underscores the need and public benefit of the PennEast pipeline,’’ Kornick said.

But critics of the project question its need, particularly at a time when New Jersey and other states are trying to transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Many environmental groups have urged Gov. Phil Murphy to impose a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects, whether they be new gas pipelines or new gas-fired power plants.

DEP’s rejection occurs at the same time the governor came out on Wednesday night in a call-in radio show on WBGO opposing a big new gas-fired power plant in the Meadowlands. The agency’s actions signal a possible shift in the Murphy administration’s stance on allowing new fossil fuel projects, advocates said.

“Gov. Murphy and the NJ DEP are to be applauded for standing in defense of the rule of law, our environment, and our communities,’’ said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.


Overpressurized Gas Distribution System Caused Explosions, Fires: Columbia Gas of Massachusetts

National Transportation Safety Board News Release September 24, 2019

The National Transportation Safety Board determined Tuesday that Columbia Gas of Massachusetts’ deficiencies in management and oversight led to overpressurization of a natural gas distribution system which resulted in a series of fires and explosions in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts.

The Sept. 13, 2018, accident occurred after high-pressure natural gas was released into a low-pressure gas distribution system in the northeast region of the Merrimack Valley. One person was killed and 22 people, including three firefighters, were transported to area hospitals. The system over-pressure damaged 131 structures, including five homes that were destroyed.Prior to the overpressurization event a Columbia Gas-contracted work crew, which included a Columbia Gas inspector, was performing a Columbia Gas-designed and approved pipe-replacement project at an intersection. The contracted crew was working on a tie-in project that bypassed the existing cast-iron line and directed gas pressure to a new plastic line. The bypassed cast-iron line was still connected to the primary regulator control lines, providing input to the gas pressure regulator used to control system pressure. Once the contractor crews disconnected the cast-iron line, the section containing the control lines began losing pressure. Since the gas regulators did not sense system pressure, they responded by opening fully, allowing high-pressure gas to enter the low-pressure system.

“Catastrophic tragedies like this should never happen,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “When tackling major repair work that has the potential to impact a community, all precautions and planning should be considered and coordinated before, during and after the work has been done.”   

In the investigation discussed Tuesday, the NTSB found Columbia Gas of Massachusetts should have first relocated the control lines to the newly installed plastic main line after the existing cast iron main line was replaced. The NTSB noted, as part of its probable cause, that a low-pressure natural gas distribution system designed and operated without adequate overpressure protection contributed to the accident.As result a of the investigation, the NTSB issued five new safety recommendations with two issued to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, one to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety, and one to NiSource, Inc.  Thirty-one states each received one safety recommendation.  These recommendations address safety issues including adequacy of natural gas regulations, project documentation, project management, risk assessment, emergency response and safety management systems.

The urgent safety recommendations issued earlier in the investigation are available at https://go.usa.gov/xVx73.

An abstract of the final report, which includes the findings, probable cause, and all safety recommendations, is available at https://go.usa.gov/xVdTY.

Links to other publicly released information about this investigation are available at https://go.usa.gov/xVpR5.

Contact: NTSB Media Relations
490 L’Enfant Plaza, SW
Washington, DC 20594
Keith Holloway
(202) 314-6100


Pipeline Rules Adopted Years After Deadly Explosion, Spills

Matthew Brown, Associated Press Updated 1:06 pm PDT, Tuesday, October 1, 2019

San Bruno, California.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — U.S. transportation officials on Tuesday adopted long-delayed measures that are meant to prevent pipeline spills and deadly gas explosions but don’t address recommended steps to lessen accidents once they occur.

The new rules from the Department of Transportation apply to more than 500,000 miles of pipelines that carry natural gas, oil and other hazardous materials throughout the U.S.

In the works for almost a decade, the rules came in response to a massive gas explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people in 2010, and large oil spills into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 and the Yellowstone River in Montana in 2011 and 2015.

The rules require companies to more closely inspect underground pipelines, including in rural areas and after catastrophic weather events. They also require better record-keeping so companies can monitor lines in some cases installed decades ago.

Left unaddressed were longstanding recommendations by safety officials to install valves that automatically shut down pipelines following accidents. Also absent were requirements for more advanced systems to detect pipeline ruptures.

Those issues were being addressed through a separate, ongoing rule-making process.

Industry groups and safety advocates backed the adopted changes. In February, they joined to prod the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to finalize the rule for gas transmission lines after it had been repeatedly delayed.

“It doesn’t seem to us like any of those rules should have taken 10 years to pass … Everybody thinks these are common-sense, small regulations,” said Carl Weimer with the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Washington-based group that formed after a 1999 gasoline pipeline break and explosion killed a teenager and two 10-year-old boys.

While the rules were pending, pipeline companies moved on their own to make safety improvements such as developing guidelines for identifying and repairing cracked lines and responding to pipeline emergencies, according to the Association of Oil Pipelines.

Federal regulators are expected to soon release their proposals for pipeline shut-off valves and rupture detection equipment. A separate proposal due sometime next year would extend safety regulations to so-called gathering pipelines that transport natural gas from drilling locations.

Congress also is considering changes to the government’s pipeline safety rules through legislation that would re-authorize the program for the next four years.

Pennsylvania: Family that Lost Hundreds of Trees to Failed Pipeline Project Settles with Company, Gets Land Back

Photo: Angela Vogel


By Susan Phillips, State Impact Pennsylvania, July 3, 2020

A Northeastern Pennsylvania family who watched as work crews, accompanied by armed federal marshals, destroyed their budding maple tree farm to make way for the failed Constitution Pipeline has settled with the company Williams for an undisclosed amount. A federal court has also vacated the eminent domain taking of about five acres, reversing an order it made more than five years ago.

“We’re really glad that it’s ended,” said Catherine Holleran, co-owner of the 23-acre property that has been in the family for 50 years. “We’ve gotten our land returned to us. That was our main objective right from the first.”

The Constitution Pipeline project would have carried Marcellus Shale gas  from Pennsylvania to New York state. Though the project received federal approval and the necessary permits from Pennsylvania regulators, New York blocked the pipeline by not issuing permits. Williams dropped the project in February.

The Holleran family of New Milford fought a lengthy battle to prevent the company from building the pipeline across their property. But in March 2016, the crews arrived at the 23-acre farm in rural Susquehanna County along with the federal marshalls, who wore bullet proof vests and carried semi-automatic weapons. The crew spent several days clearing about 558 trees, including some that were hundreds of years old.

In a 2018 statement filed with the court, Holleran described how the company left the trees lying on the ground, and did not remove them for a full year after the clear cut. The stumps were left in the ground.

Holleran described the stress weathered by her and her family.

“The entire ordeal has had an enormous emotional toll,” Holleran wrote. “The court proceedings followed by the armed guards on the property created immeasurable stress. …After the trees came down, I experienced a terrible period of despair.”

The Hollerans’ attorney Carolyn Elefant said the Hollerans are happy to have regained ownership of the farm.

“My clients are relieved to move on from the stress and uncertainty of the past few years,” Elefant said. “It was heartbreaking for the family to watch their trees come down, but with full ownership of the property restored and compensation paid, they can reclaim their land and replant their trees.”

Elefant said the family wants to continue to build upon their maple syrup business.

Holleran said she and her family want to work to change the Natural Gas Act, which governs how pipeline companies can seize private property through eminent domain. She said it’s difficult for individual landowners to take on large corporations, especially since the process is so legalistic and technical.

“That can create a lot of hardship for families,” she said. “You have to have a lot of money, and you have to have resources to even go that route, which is why a lot of people don’t.”

Williams could not be reached for comment.

DEVELOPING STORY: Court orders a shut down and removal of oil from the Dakota Access Pipeline

Photo: Amy Sisk/Inside Energy


Order says Dakota Access assumed much of its economic risk knowingly, and the potential harm each day the pipeline operates.

Indian Country Today, July 6, 2020

A federal judge has ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline to shut down and remove all oil within 30 days, a huge win for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and the other plaintiffs.

“Following multiple twists and turns in this long-running litigation, this Court recently found that Defendant U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it granted an easement to Defendant-Intervenor Dakota Access, LLC to construct and operate a segment of that crude-oil pipeline running beneath the lake,” said the opinion from U.S. District Judge James Boasberg.

The pipeline extends more than 1,000 miles from North Dakota to Illinois – but the issue is the portion of the project that is buried under the Missouri River. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe said a leak will contaminate their drinking water and sacred lands.

Late in the Obama administration the Corps of Army Engineers announced it would suspend approval of the project while an Environmental Impact Statement was prepared. “A few months later, however, following the change of administration in January 2017 and a presidential memorandum urging acceleration of the project, the Corps again reconsidered and decided to move forward,” the opinion said. “It granted the sought permit, construction was completed, and oil commenced flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline. “

This the court found was a substantial error and a violation of the National Environmental Environmental Policy Act.

The bottom line: “The Corps had not been able to substantiate its decision to publish” only an Environmental Assessment and not an Environmental Impact Statement.

“Dakota Access’s central and strongest argument … is that shutting down the pipeline would cause it, and the industries that rely on it, significant economic harm, including substantial job losses,” the court said.

The pipeline company said it could lose $643 million in the second half of 2020 and $1.4 billion in 2021 if shut down. The court said: “All of these financial losses would be absorbed by the owners of Dakota Access,” particularly Energy Transfer Partners, the current parent company of DAPL after a merger with Sunoco.”

But Boasberg’s ruling is clear on that point. “Yet, given the seriousness of the Corps’ NEPA error, the impossibility of a simple fix, the fact that Dakota Access did assume much of its economic risk knowingly, and the potential harm each day the pipeline operates, the Court is forced to conclude that the flow of oil must cease.”

This story is developing and will be updated.

Energy Companies Abandon Long-Delayed Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Photo: Steve Helber, AP file photo


By Erin Cox and Gregory S. Schneider, Washington Post, July 5, 2020

The two energy companies behind the controversial 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline on Sunday abandoned their six-year bid to build it, saying the project has become too costly and the regulatory environment too uncertain to justify further investment.

The natural-gas pipeline would have tunneled under the Appalachian Trail on its way from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina, building an energy infrastructure proponents said would attract economic development to the region.

The abrupt abandonment sparked jubilation among environmental and community groups who had fought the pipeline all along its path, which included some of the most scenic and rugged terrain in Virginia. Property rights advocates in the Appalachians joined with an ashram in central Virginia and black Baptists from a rural county to make opposing the pipeline a high-profile political and social justice issue.

“The courageous leadership of impacted community members who refused to bow in the face of overwhelming odds is an inspiration to all Americans,” former vice president Al Gore and the Rev. William Barber, a civil rights leader, said Sunday in a joint statement. They had visited Virginia together to shed light on the pipeline’s impact on rural African American communities.

Virginia-based Dominion Energy and North Carolina-based Duke Energy spent $3.4 billion on the project, fighting regulatory battles that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled favorably for the companies last month.

But company officials said in a statement that other recent federal court rulings linked to the Keystone XL pipeline have heightened the litigation risk, extended the project’s timeline and further ballooned the cost of the project, which had risen from an estimated $5 billion in 2014 to $8 billion today. When announced, the energy companies had hoped to have the pipeline operational by 2018.

“This announcement reflects the increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States,” Dominion chief executive Thomas F. Farrell II and Duke Energy chief executive Lynn J. Good said in a joint statement. “Until these issues are resolved, the ability to satisfy the country’s energy needs will be significantly challenged.”

The decision to cancel the Atlantic Coast Pipeline came the same day Dominion announced it would sell its other natural gas pipelines and storage assets to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy for $10 billion, focusing exclusively on state-regulated natural gas utility markets and some renewable energy projects. The deal is subject to regulatory approval and is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Dominion is arguably the most powerful corporation in Virginia, and its commitment to the pipeline made the company a political target in the past several years after a new generation of Democrats won control of the state legislature. Faced with leaders in the General Assembly who pledged to weaken Dominion’s influence in Richmond, the utility cooperated this year on legislation that requires it to phase out carbon-based energy by 2050.

Just last week, Dominion touted completion of the initial phase of a wind farm project it is developing 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach that is slated to be the biggest in the country.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said Sunday that he had spoken “with Dominion Energy leaders today and told them he supports this decision and the company’s transition to clean energy.”

In West Virginia, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) said in separate statements they were disappointed the companies chose to walk away from a critical infrastructure investment.

“The pipeline would have created good paying construction and manufacturing jobs for hard working West Virginians, reinvested in our energy markets increasing our domestic energy supply, and strengthened national security with reliable energy to key military installations,” said Manchin, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Virginia Chamber of Commerce also lamented losing the potential economic benefits of the pipeline, saying it was projected to support 8,800 jobs and $1.4 billion in economic activity in the state.

“Unfortunately, today’s announcement detrimentally impacts the Commonwealth’s access to affordable, reliable energy. It also demonstrates the significant regulatory burdens businesses must deal with in order to operate,” Virginia Chamber President Barry DuVal said in a statement.

Environmental advocates had stalled the project with court challenges in which judges found that the federal permitting process had been hasty and slipshod. With permits being reevaluated, work on the pipeline in Virginia has been paused for more than a year and a half.

“This is a victory for all the communities that were in the path of this risky and unnecessary project,” the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented conservation groups in many of the court challenges, said in a statement.

“Finally, after causing so much pain and worry for so many, these companies have made a decision that is actually in the interest of their customers and the people their actions affect,” said David Sligh, a former Virginia environmental regulator who is conservation director of the advocacy group Wild Virginia.

Dominion and Duke cited a May 28 ruling by a U.S. District judge in Montana as a death knell to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project.

The ruling threw into question the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting program, known as Nationwide 12, which allowed gas and oil pipelines to traverse wetlands and bodies of water. Energy industry experts said the decision, made in a case brought to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, ultimately endangered as many as 70 other projects across the country.

The legal challenges, Dominion and Duke officials said, made it impossible to reliably calculate whether Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction could continue this year or how far it would be pushed into the horizon.

The cancellation comes despite President Trump’s efforts to bolster oil and gas pipelines across the country by weakening enforcement of some of the country’s landmark environmental laws, including provisions of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Columbia Gas Sentenced in Connection with September 2018 Gas Explosions in Merrimack Valley

Photo: Nina Flores and jliss 1979 via CNN

June 23, 2020

U.S. Department of Justice Press Release

Company to sell its business in Massachusetts and pay $53 million fine, the largest criminal fine ever imposed under the Pipeline Safety Act

BOSTON – Columbia Gas of Massachusetts (CMA) was sentenced today in connection with the gas explosions on Sept. 13, 2018, in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover that killed one individual, injured 22, and damaged homes and businesses.

Bay State Gas Company, d/b/a Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, was ordered by U.S. District Court Chief Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV to pay a criminal fine of $53,030,116 which represents twice the amount of profits that CMA earned between 2015 and 2018 from a pipeline infrastructure program called the Gas System Enhancement Plan (GSEP). In addition to a fine, the Court also sentenced CMA to a three-year period of probation during which CMA’s operations will be subject to a monitor to ensure CMA’s compliance with federal and state safety regulations. The three year period of probation will continue until CMA is sold to a qualified buyer.

In February 2020, the company agreed to plead guilty to violating a minimum safety standard of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act relating to the failure to implement procedures to prevent the over-pressurization of its low-pressure gas distribution system in South Lawrence during a pipe replacement project known as the South Union Project.

“We expect utility companies operating in our communities to do so safely and responsibly,” said United States Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. “Instead Columbia Gas acted with reckless disregard for safety by cutting corners and relying on lax protocols. The result was catastrophic – stealing one life, harming dozens and impacting the home and livelihoods of hundreds more. Today’s sentence serves as little comfort to the victims, but is another step towards terminating Columbia Gas’s business in Massachusetts.”

“Today’s sentencing of Columbia Gas makes clear that those entrusted with the public’s safety have a solemn obligation to make it their highest priority,” said Douglas Shoemaker, Regional Special Agent in Charge, Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General.  “Pipelines are a critical part of our Nation’s infrastructure, and working with our Federal, state and local law enforcement and prosecutorial colleagues, we will continue to protect the safety and integrity of our pipeline transportation system from violations of regulation and law.”

“With today’s sentence, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts has finally been held criminally and financially responsible for their sheer greed and reckless disregard for public safety. That said, we realize that the excruciating pain, suffering, and heartbreaking loss of life the citizens of Merrimack Valley endured is beyond reparation,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Boston Division. “It is the FBI’s hope that the departure of Columbia Gas from Massachusetts will bring the residents of these cities and towns some much-needed peace of mind.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has also entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) with CMA’s parent company, NiSource, Inc. based in Indiana. As part of the DPA, NiSource has agreed to undertake their best reasonable best efforts to sell CMA after which NiSource and CMA would stop all gas pipeline operations in Massachusetts. In exchange for the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s agreement to defer prosecution of NiSource, NiSource has also agreed to forfeit any profit it may earn from the sale of CMA and implement each of the safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). 

During the afternoon of Sept. 13, 2018, the over-pressurization of a low pressure gas distribution system in South Lawrence caused multiple fires and explosions in the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover. As a result, one individual in Lawrence was killed and another severely disabled, 22 people were injured and approximately 131 residential homes and commercial buildings were damaged.

CMA recklessly disregarded a known safety risk related to regulator control lines – sections of pipe connected to regulator stations that helped monitor and control downstream gas pressure. By at least 2015, according to an internal company notice, CMA knew that the failure to properly account for control lines in construction projects could lead to a “catastrophic event,” including fires and explosions. Aging cast iron pipes were being replaced, but the failure to remove or relocate control line pipes that were later abandoned would automatically cause regulator stations to continually increase pressure to the point of dangerous over-pressurization.

The DPA with NiSource acknowledges the fact that NiSource has previously made substantial voluntary restitution payments to the victims of the September 2018 incident, and has agreed to seek to resolve all pending civil claims. Most of the $53 million fine will be directed to the Justice Department’s Crime Victims Fund, which is a major funding source for victim services throughout the United States. 

For more information regarding the case, please visit:  https://www.justice.gov/usao-ma/victim-and-witness-assistance-program/united-states-v-bay-state-gas-company-dba-columbia-gas-massachusetts

U.S. Attorney Lelling, DOT-OIG SAC Shoemaker and FBI Boston SAC Bonavolonta made the announcement today. Critical assistance was provided by the Massachusetts State Police and Lawrence Fire Department. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Neil J. Gallagher, Jr. and Evan Gotlob of Lelling’s Public Corruption and Special Prosecutions Unit prosecuted the case.

Feds Green Light Use of Trains to Transport LNG

Photo: Chart Inc. 2013


June 27, 2020

By Tim Faulkner, ecoRI News

President Trump has followed through on his pledge to allow trains to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG), a decision opposed by environmental groups and 15 states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued the final rule June 19. The regulation takes effect 30 days later.

Prior to the agency’s final decision, objections were raised via online comments from across the country. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the rule was illegal because it lacked required environmental and safety reviews.

“This proposed rule is rushed and ill-advised, and, if finalized, will pose a serious risk to public health and safety — not just in my state but nationwide,” Inslee said.

Others noted the health risks from a leak or fire, especially in densely populated urban areas. They accused PHMSA of rushing approval to benefit the domestic fracking industry.

“We must not be used as guinea pigs by this untested and high-consequence rush to grease the rails for special interests,” wrote Tamar Dick of Bethlehem, Pa.

Dick noted that LNG volume expands significantly when released in the air and is “capable of a far-reaching catastrophe, including a fire too hot to extinguish.”

PHMSA argued in its decision that the rule change was necessary to address regional inadequacies in natural-gas pipeline infrastructure. The federal agency said more natural gas is needed to satisfy growing domestic and international markets.

Train transportation, the agency maintained, is less risky than shipping by highway. LNG is similar to other flammable, cryogenic liquids currently transported by rail. The rule requires the use of an existing class of tank cars, called DOT-113, that is refrigerated and protected with a double-pressure vessel design.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), however, has refuted some of PHMSA’s claims, saying a thorough safety assessment of the DOT-113 tank cars is needed because the colorless, odorless gas is easily ignitable and hard to detect.

“Specifically, an analysis should address fireballs, flash fire, and explosions from ground-level vapor clouds that may expand far beyond the point of release to an ignition source,” according to a letter signed by Robert L. Sumwalt III, chairman of the NTSB.

The NTSB also noted that many more LNG tank cars will be traveling by rail than projected by PHMSA. Without added safety equipment and testing certifications, there isn’t enough data proving LNG can be transported safely, according to the safety board. The NTSB said lower train speed limits should be mandated in high-risk urban areas, special braking is needed, and training required to detect leaks and gas accumulations.

“We believe the risks of catastrophic LNG releases in accidents is too great not to have operational controls in place before large blocks of tank cars and unit trains proliferate,” Sumwalt said.

Sumwalt noted that derailments of DOT-113 tank cars, although rare, can release larger quantities of hazardous material than a truck accident, and that federal regulators have a poor track record of responding to “fiery flammable-liquids accidents.”

The Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association argued that the refrigerated rail cars have been proven safe to transport flammable cryogenic liquids such as ethylene and hydrogen. Increasing transportation options, the trade group argued, would allow natural-gas producers to make more money selling the fossil fuel around the world.

In a 43-page letter sent earlier this year, attorneys general from 15 states called for safety studies and a full environmental impact report. They noted that LNG would travel through densely populated areas in trains of up to 100 tank cars, on the same rail line used by high-speed passenger trains.

The “finding of no significant impact” by PHMSA, according to the letter, is fundamentally flawed and failed to consider the expected greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to the extraction and use of natural gas and the potential harm to public safety and the environment from accidental releases of LNG.

The letter explained that, in the event of a spill, vaporization creates an extremely cold, gaseous vapor cloud that can embrittle steel, cause severe burns, damage infrastructure, and further complicate an emergency response.

The Surfrider Foundation has pointed to a government study that put the hazard range of such a vapor cloud at more than 1.5 miles.

Under the new rule, there are no limits placed on where LNG trains can travel. Instead, the rail companies must evaluate 27 safety and security risk factors when considering potential routes.

The decision doesn’t mention frontline communities or health and environmental justice areas.

The other states objecting are California,Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington. The District of Columbia also opposes the rule.

NTSB Pipeline Preliminary Report: Enbridge Inc. Natural Gas Pipeline Rupture and Fire in Hillsboro, KY on May 4, 2020

Fleming County, Kentucky hillside burnt by gas pipeline rupture and fire on May 4, 2020. Photo: Screencapture Via WLEX


Executive Summary

The information in this report is preliminary and will be either supplemented or corrected during the course of the investigation

On May 4, 2020, at 4:36 p.m. local time, a 30-inch-diameter natural gas transmission pipeline owned and operated by Enbridge Inc. (Enbridge) ruptured near Hillsboro, Kentucky. The resulting fire burned vegetation over 5 acres of heavily forested land. (See figure.) There were no injuries, fatalities, or evacuations. About 148 million cubic feet of natural gas was released during the rupture and resulting emergency response blowdown.[1] A parallel pipeline in the same right-of-way ruptured at a location about 100 miles away in Danville, Kentucky, on August 1, 2019. In that 2019 accident, one person died and five nearby residents were injured when a rupture released natural gas and ignited. Preliminary information indicates the two events are not related. The 2019 accident is also being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).[2]

A member of the public notified Enbridge gas control of the rupture at 4:40 p.m. At the same time, a field technician was notified of the rupture by a friend at 911 dispatch. Gas controllers did not observe any rate-of-change alarms, as Enbridge does not employ the use of rate-of-change alarms on the suction side of their compressor stations.[3] Field personnel isolated the damaged system by closing manual valves at the Owingsville Compressor Station and the Muses Mill Valve Station 44 minutes later.

The rupture occurred at a girth weld and resulted in a crater that was about 20-feet wide.[4] No pipe was ejected by the rupture and no structures were damaged by the ensuing fire. The failed pipeline, Line 10, was a 30-inch-diameter transmission line that transported natural gas between Mississippi and Pennsylvania. At the time of the rupture, Line 10 was flowing north-to-south and was operating at 657 pounds per square inch, gauge (psig), which is within the normal pressure range for this segment during this time of year.[5] At the failure site, Line 10 was the northernmost of three parallel pipelines along the same right-of-way. The failure occurred at milepost 509.9, about 8 miles northeast of the Owingsville Compressor Station. This portion of Line 10 was installed in 1952 and was manufactured by National Tube Works.

In 2018, Enbridge initiated a geohazard management program to identify and assess areas of increased geohazard risk. Geohazard threats encompass a wide variety of geological conditions that can affect the integrity of pipelines, including landslides, sinkholes, frost heave, and earthquakes. On October 9, 2018, the area around the Line 10 rupture was identified as one of these areas of increased geohazard risk. Enbridge planned to remediate the pipelines at that location sometime in 2020 by alleviating strain where necessary and installing strain gauges to further monitor the force on the pipeline.

The NTSB’s investigation into the Hillsboro accident is ongoing and will include a metallurgical examination of the pipe, a geohazard causation assessment, and an evaluation of Enbridge’s supervisory control and data acquisition alarm management and its geohazard management program.[6] The NTSB also plans to examine data gathered from a rupture that occurred under similar circumstances on Enbridge’s Line 10 in Summerfield, Ohio, on January 12, 2019. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), that rupture was caused by “ground movement overstressing a girth weld to failure.”[7] Due to the similarities, the Summerfield rupture may help inform the direction of the NTSB’s Hillsboro investigation. Parties to the investigation include PHMSA and Enbridge.

  1. During a blowdown, the natural gas in the pipeline is vented to the atmosphere in a controlled manner to lower the pressure in the pipeline to atmospheric pressure (zero gauge).
  2. For more information on the August 1, 2019, accident, see National Transportation Safety Board, Enbridge Inc. Natural Gas Pipeline Rupture and Fire, Danville, Kentucky, August 1, 2019 PLD19FR002 (Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board, 2019).
  3. The suction side of a compressor station is the input side. At a compressor station, lower-pressure gas is taken in on the suction side, compressed, and then discharged at a higher pressure on the discharge side.
  4. Girth welds are used to connect two pipes along their circumference.
  5. Line 10 is a bidirectional pipeline with a maximum allowable operating pressure of 936 psig when flowing north to south.
  6. Supervisory control and data acquisition is a system used to control and monitor complex systems, such as natural gas transmission pipelines.
  7. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Enbridge/Texas Eastern Summerfield Natural Gas Release (Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, 2019).

Supreme Court Clears Way for Atlantic Coast Pipeline to Cross Appalachian Trail

Photo: Big Schloss, George Washington National Forest, Virginia. Pat & Chuck Blackley/Alamy Stock Photo

By Lyndsey Gilpin, Grist, June 15, 2020

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline can cross under the Appalachian Trail, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Monday. By a 7 to 2 margin, the court reversed a lower court’s decision and upheld a permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service that the project’s developers could tunnel under a section of the iconic wilderness in Virginia.

The court took the case after Dominion Energy, one of the largest utilities in the South, appealed a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year that said the U.S. Forest Service violated federal law when it approved the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail. The issue, the lower court ruled: It was the National Park Service’s call to approve that request. (Dominion, based in Richmond, Virginia, is the lead developer on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or ACP, project; North Carolina utility Duke Energy, as well as Southern Company, also own shares.)

The case looked at whether the Forest Service had authority under the Mineral Leasing Act to grant rights-of-way within national forest lands traversed by the Appalachian Trail. “A right-of-way between two agencies grants only an easement across the land, not jurisdiction over the land itself,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court’s opinion. So the Forest Service had enough authority over the land to grant the permit. The dissent, by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, argued that the “outcome is inconsistent with the language of three statutes, longstanding agency practice, and common sense.”

According to The Washington Post, the plaintiffs in this case, both Dominion and the Forest Service, had argued that other pipelines cross the Appalachian Trail a total of 34 times. “The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be no different,” Dominion said in a statement after the decision. “To avoid impacts to the Trail, the pipeline will be installed hundreds of feet below the surface and emerge more than a half-mile from each side of the Trail.”

The decision could set an important precedent for public lands, said Greg Buppert, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, which is involved in multiple lawsuits against the pipeline. This particular Appalachian Trail section on federal land, which is remote, rugged, and wild, “deserves the highest protection the law provides,” according to Buppert. But this ruling likely signals to developers of the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline that they could have an easier time crossing under the trail at a separate location in Virginia; attorneys for the nearly-complete project called it a “key missing link,” the Roanoke Times reported.

Though this decision is significant, it doesn’t determine the ultimate fate of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. While the Supreme Court has granted the Forest Service the ability to allow the project to cross the Appalachian Trail, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ striking down of the Forest Service’s permit still stands. Dominion is required to look at other routes that avoid parcels of protected federal land, and the Forest Service is prohibited from approving a route across these lands, if reasonable alternatives exist, according to Buppert.

Dominion still requires eight more permits for the 600-mile pipeline route, including an air pollution permit from Virginia regulators for a controversial compressor station in Union Hill, a historically black community. It also still needs approval to cross the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and a new biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about endangered species that were not taken into consideration in the original environmental impact statement. Several landowners along the route through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina are also still fighting to retain their property from eminent domain claims.

That means five-and-a-half years after the project was proposed, Buppert said, “there’s significant uncertainty about what the ACP route even is right now.”

In addition to crossing protected federal lands, the current route traverses steep mountains and many rural, low-income areas and communities of color, including Union Hill, a town settled by freed slaves after the Civil War. “These risks were known when it was proposed, but developers elected to push it forward anyway, and used political pressure on agencies to move their permits through faster,” Buppert said. “Not surprisingly, those haven’t withstood judicial reviews.”

Dominion spokesperson Samantha Norris did not respond to specific questions about the route, but said in an email the company is “working diligently with the agencies to resolve our pending permits so we can resume construction later this year” and complete it by 2022. “We remain fully committed to the project for the good of our economy and to support the transition to clean energy,” she said. “And we do not anticipate any changes to the route.”

Construction officially halted in December 2018 over the Appalachian Trail permit, with less than 10 percent of the pipeline in the ground. Opponents applauded that development, but continue to report problems with some construction sites. On behalf of 15 environmental and community groups, SELC lawyers filed a motion on June 1 asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to supplement its environmental impact statement from its 2017 approval of the pipeline. The motion states that “substantial erosion, sedimentation, and slope failures have occurred” along the route, and that FERC needs to take climate change and other issues into account in updating its assessment.

The U.S. is in the midst of a historic pipeline boom to create infrastructure for the excess stores of natural gas coming from shale regions in Appalachia and West Texas, and FERC has historically approved nearly every pipeline project that has come across its desk. Despite massive protests breaking out in 2016 to try to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline passing through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, dozens of new pipeline projects across the country are still being proposed, FERC is still approving them, and state lawmakers have passed laws to crack down on anti-pipeline demonstrations.

Opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have been fighting the project for six years and have won several important legal cases recently. A federal appeals court last month rejected the Trump administration’s request to revive the Army Corps of Engineers’ nationwide permit program for new oil and gas pipelines. The ruling prohibits the agency from allowing companies to fast-track projects by obtaining a single permit for all its water crossings, rather than individual permits for each one. The decision could further delay the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which had its nationwide water crossings permit suspended in 2018. The project has over a thousand stream, river, and wetland crossings. In the Calfpasture River watershed in Virginia alone, Buppert said, the current route includes 71.

The community of Union Hill has also successfully challenged part of the project on the grounds that it could cause negative public health impacts. Developers plan to build one of three pipeline compressor stations — which keep natural gas flowing through the pipe — there. In January, a federal court ruled Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board’s review of the station was “arbitrary and capricious.” The judge overturned the permit, saying the “failure to consider the disproportionate impact on those closest to the compressor station resulted in a flawed analysis.” She, along with two of her colleagues, ordered the board to reconsider the case.

Members of the community group Friends of Buckingham County, where Union Hill is located, are concerned residents lack enough information about Dominion’s new air permit application — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — since many lack broadband access. Chad Oba, one of the group’s organizers, said they are focusing on longer-term solutions, too, like making sure the board is well-versed in environmental justice issues. (In addition, they want to keep the board apolitical: In 2018, Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, removed two regulators from the board who were leaning against the permit).

The pandemic has also thrown a wrench in the work of Friends of Nelson County, another Virginia group that opposes the pipeline. About 45 miles of the Appalachian Trail cross through the county; this the contested crossing is on its border in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “The most important thing we do is to inform and educate the public about all dimensions of the pipeline and related matters,” said president Doug Wellman. The organization does a lot of in-person outreach at farmers’ markets and public meetings. Now they’re trying to do it all virtually. Later this year, they plan to launch a major campaign about the major potential dangers of the pipeline, including primers on landowner rights and eminent domain.

Due to the delays in its construction, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s price tag has swelled by at least $3 billion to a total of $8 billion. Since federal regulators allow pipeline companies up to a 14 percent return on investment, payable by its customers, Dominion and Duke, who are the buyers of the natural gas in addition to being the project’s developers, can turn a profit by passing construction costs onto ratepayers in a region where they have monopolies.

These costs “will take decades to recover,” said Ryke Longest, co-director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University. And while they wait to be made whole, utilities like Dominion will eschew investing in other programs like energy efficiency and renewables, even as states in the region, including Virginia and North Carolina, move forward with clean energy and climate change legislation.

“The real problem with the structure of our energy system is that it encourages large-scale construction projects,” Longest said. “It’s not thinking of energy as a public service business, which is what it’s supposed to be.”

Lyndsey Gilpin is Durham, North Carolina-based journalist and the editor of Southerly, an independent, non-profit media organization that covers the intersection of ecology, justice, and culture in the American South.

Special Report: Millions of Abandoned Oil Wells are Leaking Methane, a Climate Menace


By Nichola Groom, Reuters, June 16, 2020

SALYERSVILLE, Kentucky (Reuters) – In May 2012, Hanson and Michael Rowe noticed an overpowering smell, like rotten eggs, seeping from an abandoned gas well on their land in Kentucky. The fumes made the retired couple feel nauseous, dizzy, and short of breath.

Regulators responding to the leak couldn’t find an owner to fix it. J.D. Carty Resources LLC had drilled the well near the Rowes’ home in 2006 – promising the family a 12.5% royalty and free natural gas, which they never got. But Carty went bust in 2008 and sold the site to a company that was later acquired by Blue Energy LLC. Lawyers for both companies deny any responsibility for the leak.

A year later, Kentucky’s Division of Oil and Gas declared the well an environmental emergency and hired Boots & Coots Inc – the Texas contractor that doused oil-well fires after the Gulf War – to plug it. During the 40-day operation, the Rowes retreated to a trailer on their property and lived with no running water to escape the gases and noise. Regulators determined the leak was a toxic blend of hydrogen sulfide, a common drilling byproduct, and the potent greenhouse gas methane. 

“I wouldn’t go through this again for $1 million,” said Hanson Rowe, who with his wife is suing the energy companies for compensation. 

The incident, while extreme, reflects a growing global problem: More than a century of oil and gas drilling has left behind millions of abandoned wells, many of which are leaching pollutants into the air and water. And drilling companies are likely to abandon many more wells due to bankruptcies, as oil prices struggle to recover from historic lows after the coronavirus pandemic crushed global fuel demand, according to bankruptcy lawyers, industry analysts and state regulators.

Leaks from abandoned wells have long been recognized as an environmental problem, a health hazard and a public nuisance. They have been linked to dozens of instances of groundwater contamination by research commissioned by the Groundwater Protection Council, whose members include state ground water agencies. Orphaned wells have been blamed for a slew of public safety incidents over the years, including a methane blowout at the construction site of a waterfront hotel in California last year.

They also pose a serious threat to the climate that researchers and world governments are only starting to understand, according to a Reuters review of government data and interviews with scientists, regulators, and United Nations officials. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year recommended that U.N. member countries start tracking and publishing the amount of methane leaching from their abandoned oil and gas wells after scientists started flagging it as a global warming risk. So far, the United States and Canada are the only nations to do so.

The U.S. figures are sobering: More than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells together emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018, according to the data, which was included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent report on April 14 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That’s the climate-damage equivalent of burning 16.2 million barrels of crude oil, according to an EPA calculation. That’s more than the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer, uses in two days. (For a graphic on the rise in abandoned oil wells, click here )

The actual amount could be as much as three times higher, the EPA says, because of incomplete data. The agency believes most of the methane comes from the more than 2 million abandoned wells it estimates were never properly plugged.

The problem is less severe in Canada, where the bulk of oil production comes from oil sands mining instead of traditional drilling. The government estimated that its 313,000 abandoned wells emitted 10.1 kt of methane in 2018, far less than in the United States.

The global impact is harder to measure. The governments of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China – which round out the top five world oil-and-gas producers – did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment on their abandoned wells and have not published reports on the wells’ methane leakage.

Researchers say it’s impossible to accurately estimate global emissions from leaky abandoned wells without better data. But a rough Reuters calculation, based on the U.S. share of global crude oil and natural gas production, would place the number of abandoned wells around the world at more than 29 million, with emissions of 2.5 million tonnes of methane per year – the climate-damage equivalent of three weeks of U.S. oil consumption.


In a forested area of western New York state in February, a group of state regulators, along with researchers from the State University of New York at Binghamton, trudged through the snow. They stopped at a rotting wooden structure encircling a rusted pipe.

Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) official Charlie Dietrich held a bright orange device over the heap. It emitted a high-pitched signal, and its screen showed a code indicating the presence of ignitable gas. A scent of petroleum wafted through the air.

“There’s some methane coming up out of there,” DEC Mineral Resources Specialist Nathan Graber said.

The abandoned well lies in the forests of Olean, New York, which was an oil boomtown at the turn of the 20th century. The site was one of 72 locations logged by geophysicists Tim de Smet and Alex Nikulin in December, researchers from Binghamton, using a drone equipped with a metal detector, part of a program launched in 2013 to help New York identify and plug abandoned wells.

New York’s DEC has records of 2,200 abandoned wells dating back to the late 1800s. But the state believes the actual number could be much higher, because of incomplete records.

“It’s a lot easier to find stuff when you know where to look,” Nikulin said.

The group is among an array of regulators, activists and federal agencies now seeking out abandoned wells from the U.S. Northeast to California. The heightened interest in the climate threat posed by the wells started with a 2014 study by Princeton graduate student Mary Kang, who was the first to measure methane emissions from old drilling sites in Pennsylvania. She concluded in 2016 that abandoned wells represent 5% to 8% of total human-caused methane emissions in the state.

“It’s not like they leak for one year, and then they stop,” said Kang, now a professor of civil engineering at McGill University in Montreal. “Some of these have been there maybe for 100 years. And they are going to be there for another 100 years.”

Although the Trump administration has downplayed global warming and its link to fossil fuels, the U.S. Energy Department has been financing efforts to improve data on emissions from abandoned wells. Researchers from DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) recently took measurements from more than 200 wells in Kentucky and Oklahoma and are planning field work in Texas. They plan to publish their data by next spring.

NETL researcher Natalie Pekney said the work was crucial to better understanding the climate impact of abandoned wells. Many wells don’t leak much or at all, she said, while others have “huge” methane emissions.

NETL had previously used aerial surveys to locate old wells in Pennsylvania – home to the massive Marcellus gas deposit – so drillers could avoid pushing fluids and gases up through old abandoned well sites deep in the state’s forests. Its researchers found many old wells contained bubbling fluids, an indicator of methane leaks.


Nationwide, the number of documented abandoned wells has jumped by more than 12% since 2008, around the start of the hydraulic fracturing boom, according to the EPA estimates.

Many experts believe the number will keep growing. Oil-and-gas firm bankruptcies in the United States and Canada rose 50% to 42 in 2019, and analysts say the rate is likely to accelerate as the pandemic-related slide in energy prices shakes out producers.

Research firm Rystad Energy estimates that about 73 U.S. drilling companies could go bankrupt this year, with an additional 170 succumbing in 2021, assuming an average oil price of $30 a barrel.

“When prices are this low, it becomes a very serious problem. It becomes a fight over who is going to ultimately have to pay” for cleaning up abandoned wells, said John Penn, a bankruptcy attorney with Perkins Coie LLP in Dallas. “It makes it really bad, and it’s going to get worse.”

A school district in Beverly Hills, California, was saddled with a bill of at least $11 million to plug 19 oil wells on the property of its high school, after a judge in 2017 absolved Venoco LLC – the bankrupt company that had been operating the wells – of any responsibility for clean-up because other creditors took priority. The city of Beverly Hills is contributing another $11 million to the job.

“This is an incredible amount of money” siphoned away from education, said Michael Bregy, superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District.

State and federal regulations normally require drillers to pay an up-front bond to cover future cleanups if they go belly-up. But the rules are a patchwork, with wildly differing requirements, and they seldom leave governments adequately funded. In Pennsylvania, for example, it would take several thousand years to plug its estimated backlog of 200,000 abandoned oil wells at the current rate of spending, according to data from the state regulator.

Oil-industry lobbyists have been fighting state and federal efforts to increase the bonding, arguing it would hurt jobs and economic growth during an already tough time for the industry.

“States and the federal government have many sources of funding available to reclaim and plug abandoned wells,” said Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, the country’s largest oil and gas trade group.

The API spent $1.44 million in the first quarter of 2020 lobbying on Capitol Hill, with oil well bonding legislation one of the target issues, lobbying disclosures show.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that cleaning up and plugging an abandoned well runs from $20,000 to $145,000, putting the price tag for cleaning up all of America’s abandoned wells somewhere between $60 billion to $435 billion.


The pollution threat goes beyond climate change. Leaks from abandoned wells have been found to contaminate groundwater and soil. In extreme cases, gas from abandoned wells has caused explosions.

In Ohio and Texas, state regulators have each found an average of around two groundwater contamination incidents per year related to orphaned wells, according to research by the Groundwater Protection Council published in 2011 and dating to the 1980s.

In April 2017, for example, neighbors of Ohio farmer Stan Brenneman alerted him to the smell of oil coming from a drainage ditch on his 111-acre corn and soybean farm near the town of Elida, Brenneman told Reuters. The ditch drains water from the farm and carries it into rivers, streams and eventually Lake Erie.

Ohio’s Division of Oil & Gas Resources Management excavated 800 feet of the farm’s drainage system to find a well casing – about 130 years old – releasing oil three feet underground. The plugging operation took two months to complete and cost the state $196,915, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources.

More recently, in 2018, the U.S. EPA was alerted to the presence of nearly 50 abandoned oil and gas wells on Navajo Nation lands within the borders of Utah and New Mexico that were bubbling water at the surface. Tests showed the way from some of the wells contained potentially dangerous levels of arsenic, sulfate, benzene and chloride.

The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency said plugging the wells would require “major funds” and that, in the meantime, the public had been warned not to drink the water.

In rare cases, gas from long-abandoned wells can cause dangerous accidents.

In January of last year, a 1930s-era well sent a geyser of gas and dirt 100 feet into the air at the construction site of a Marriott seaside hotel in Marina del Rey, California, an upscale community in the Los Angeles area, according to a state report. The hotel owners did not respond to a request for comment.

“It was horrifying,” said resident Marilyn Wall, who witnessed the explosion from her home across the street. She said she was stunned “by the extent and the length of time that the stuff was shooting out of the earth.”

A worker standing on a construction platform above the plume was sprayed with debris and scrambled to lower himself down with an escape rope, a video of the explosion shows.


For Hanson and Michael Rowe, their troubles did not end the day their abandoned well was plugged. They no longer drink from the water well on their property because it gives them diarrhea, they said. Michael Rowe said she still suffers from headaches and coughing spells.

Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet is still fighting to recoup the $383,340 cost from the now-defunct J.D. Carty and Blue Energy in an ongoing court battle.

An attorney for John Carty, founder of J.D. Carty, said his client had sold what few assets remained in the company and therefore bore no responsibility. A lawyer for Blue Energy said the company denies ever operating the wells on the property and has no responsibility to maintain or plug them.

J.D. Carty was only required to have one $50,000 “blanket bond” to cover all its wells in Kentucky. The amount forfeited to pay for the leaky well on Rowe’s land, determined in part by its depth, was just $2,500 – less than 1% of the cost to fix it.

After the incident, Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill last year that effectively doubled bond requirements for shallow wells to help cope with the state’s 13,000 abandoned wells. Still, state regulators say the list of wells is growing.

Hanson Rowe said he supports fossil fuel development because using natural gas for heat and cooking has improved his quality of life. But the couple say they hope their lawsuit against the companies involved will help change the way the energy industry manages its wells.

“You lost your health, you’ve lost it all,” Hanson Rowe said.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Additional reporting by Ekaterina Golubkova in Moscow, Rania El Gamal in Riyadh; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot

U.S. EPA Moves to Curb State Powers to Deny Permits for Energy Projects


By Valerie Volcovici, Reuters, June 1, 2020

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler signed on Monday a rule limiting state powers to block energy infrastructure projects, setting up a fight with some Democratic governors who say Washington is stripping their ability to protect their states’ interests and combat climate change.

The move comes as the Trump administration grows increasingly frustrated with left-leaning states like California and Washington that it says have misused their authority under the U.S. Clean Water Act to halt fossil fuel projects like pipelines and coal terminals.

Under the rule, first proposed in August, the EPA will alter Section 401 of the federal water law to make it impossible for a state to block a water permit for a project for any reason other than direct pollution into state waters. It will also set a one-year deadline for states to approve projects.

In the past, states have weighed broader factors, such as climate change, to determine quality and have taken years to make decisions on projects.

New Jersey and New York both denied a 401 permit to the Williams Co. $1 billion Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline project, citing both water quality and climate change concerns.

Wheeler said the change would prevent states from holding “our nation’s energy infrastructure projects hostage,” deterring investors.

“You won’t be able to use 401 in the future, citing climate change,” Wheeler said.

Interstate pipelines, coal terminals and other projects cannot proceed without a state agreeing to a water permit or waiving its authority to issue a certification.

Several states, including Washington, have hinted that they would take legal action against the EPA if it moves to curtail state authority under the Clean Water Act.

“The Trump Administration’s proposed rule would usurp state and tribal authority to regulate our waters, in violation of the law,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said after submitting comments in October.

Washington denied a section 401 permit in 2017, effectively blocking the construction of a coal export terminal that would have allowed western U.S. coal to be transported to Asia.

The American Petroleum Institute, which has criticized states like New York for blocking pipeline construction, praised the new rule.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Aurora Ellis

For more on health and environment regulatory roll-backs under the Trump Administration that will directly or indirectly impact the safety of fossil fuel pipeline infrastructure please visit the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program’s Regulatory Rollback Tracker.

Maryland: In Wake of Fatal Explosion, PSC Pushes for Answers on Stalled Equipment Replacement Program

In 2016, the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring, Maryland explosion killed seven people and destroyed two buildings. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/Washington Post)

By Vicki Warren, Maryland Matters, May 28, 2020

Four years after a fatal explosion at a Silver Spring apartment complex, the Maryland Public Service Commission is trying to find a way to remedy the safety concerns surrounding the existence of mercury service regulators routinely found in homes and apartment buildings across the state.

The regulators, installed in buildings constructed before 1960, are used to stabilize gas pressure, but in April 2019, after a lengthy investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board determined it was the failure of a mercury service regulator that led to the explosion at the Flower Branch Apartments.

Seven people died in the accident on Aug. 10, 2016, including two children. Washington Gas, the utility provider responsible for maintaining the equipment continues to deny that the failure of a regulator led to the explosion and faults the NTSB findings.

The fact that the regulator was even inside the apartment building at Flower Branch exposed yet another failure.

Washington Gas had promised to remove and replace all mercury service regulators in its Maryland service area by 2013 and recovered a total of $1.962 million from ratepayers to do just that. The company also promised to report annually on its progress.

Yet during the proposed decade-long replacement period, the company filed only one report, in 2003, claiming 2,744 of the estimated 42,745 mercury regulators had been replaced.

The PSC is in the process of scheduling an evidentiary hearing on the mercury service replacement program. Testimony will be given by expert witnesses, but people and organizations who want to “intervene and participate” in the hearings need to sign up by May 29.

After NTSB released its findings and issued a number of recommendations to prevent future safety issues, the PSC directed Washington Gas officials to show why the company should not be held liable for violating state regulations requiring them to take reasonable care to reduce hazards to the public and furnish equipment that is safe. The PSC also asked the company to explain its failure to replace the regulators, file annual reports, and to show how the company planned to meet the safety recommendations proposed by the NTSB.

Washington Gas is resisting the suggestion that it be fined for failure to provide safe equipment and take reasonable care to protect the public, citing a federal statute that bars the use of any part of an NTSB accident report in an evidentiary hearing or in any action for damages. The company concluded in correspondence with the PSC in March, “In light of clear federal law, the Parties reliance here on the NTSB’s Pipeline Accident Report as a basis for imposition of penalties is misplaced.”

The company also asked the PSC to rescind its order directing Washington Gas to show why it should not be fined for failure to provide safe equipment and protect the public.

A spokesman for the company said Washington Gas “believes it has provided sufficient evidence to the Commission obviating the need for any civil penalties, with the limited exception of penalties associated with the missing annual reports.”

$36,500 vs. $9 million

For that infraction, the company suggested a penalty of $146,000 — $100 a day for the four years Washington Gas benefited from a rate change to replace the regulators.

That amount pales in comparison to the $9 million a year the Maryland Office of the People’s Counsel (OPC) had asked the PSC to fine Washington Gas. The OPC, representing consumers in Maryland in matters relating to utilities, maintained, “the Company’s inability to complete the replacement program on time potentially contributed to the death of seven people.”

The PSC concurred with the assessment by Washington Gas that the NTSB report cannot be used to levy damages and concluded that because Washington Gas has settled all claims with individual families for loss of life or injuries, the commission will not further investigate the cause of the Flower Branch explosion.

Instead, the PSC has decided to hold the hearing to resolve the unanswered questions surrounding the Washington Gas mercury service replacement program and to determine what fines and penalties are appropriate. The hearing will allow parties in the proceeding to have the ability to call expert witnesses, access documents through discovery and cross-examine those testifying.

Office of People’s Counsel Paula Carmody said the agency is looking forward to the proceeding.

“In the past we have not had the benefits of litigation, so the evidentiary hearing will give us new and better tools for accessing the facts surrounding the Washington Gas mercury service replacement program,” she said.

One fact the PSC is hoping to determine is exactly how many mercury service regulators remain inside dwellings across the state. Estimates provided by Washington Gas have varied in the past. Most recently the company stated that 95% of the 42,745 regulators estimated to be inside homes in 2003 have been removed. If that figure is accurate, there would be only 2,037 remaining.

The PSC also wants Washington Gas to describe its plans to complete the replacement program as outlined in 2002 and 2003. In its most recent filing with the commission, the company proposed an accelerated program that would identify all mercury regulators inside multi-family units in a year and have them removed within three years.

The existing regulators in single family homes would be identified within three years and removed in five. It is this process of surveying where regulators remain that Washington Gas has now said will finally answer the question of how many regulators still exist inside dwellings.

The accelerated program outlined by Washington Gas initially had a $32 million price tag, but that could change as Washington Gas cites the fact that a key driver in the cost is finding qualified contractors experienced in the collection and disposal of mercury.

As part of their evidentiary hearing, PSC commissioners want Washington Gas to determine who is going to pay for the replacement program and to answer whether funds from ratepayers collected for the replacement program were used for that purpose. Washington Gas insists the company “will seek cost recovery appropriate for the replacements as a component of its efforts to continue providing safe, reliable natural gas distribution service to its customers” — costs the people’s counsel and the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington insist ratepayers should not have to bear.

To meet one of the NTSB safety recommendations, Washington Gas has said it will also allocate funds to move any replaced regulators to the outside of dwellings.

Prioritizing ‘our more vulnerable communities’

Creating a safer community based on meeting the NTSB recommendation has also been on the minds of legislators representing the Flower Branch community.

State Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery) introduced the Flower Branch Act in this year’s legislative session to require all new gas service regulators be installed outside; that regulators be moved to the outside of a building whenever a gas service regulator or line is replaced in a multi-family building; that gas companies establish and file a plan with the PSC to move all gas service regulators to the exterior of multi-family buildings; and that the PSC will report progress on these moves annually to the General Assembly.

The legislation passed in the House of Delegates, 97-41, but was not taken up in the Senate in the last days of the shortened session. Charkoudian intends to reintroduce the legislation next year.

“It is incumbent on us to both hold Washington Gas accountable, and to establish policies across the state to ensure safety in our system, prioritizing our older housing stock and our more vulnerable communities,” she said.

Washington Gas maintains the company prefers to have regulators outside buildings because it provides crews easier access, but added that in certain instances, it is not possible to install equipment outside and sometimes it is actually safer to install it inside.

The PSC expects the evidentiary hearing to be scheduled shortly after Friday’s deadline for parties to file to participate. It will be open to the public and may take place virtually.

Vicki Warren is a freelance reporter and documentary producer in Silver Spring. She can be reached at vworks20@gmail.com