Commission's pipeline ruling expands complaints over safety

By Jacob Bielanski | Jan 26, 2016

HARRISBURG - A Sept. 15 ruling opens the door for private parties to bring complaints against pipeline companies for alleged safety violations in Pennsylvania.

The case stems from a complaint made by Sharon Laffey, a member for the Knox Energy Association Cooperative, in late 2014. According to Laffey’s initial complaints, a gas pipeline owned by Knox connecting to her home was not buried.

She notified Knox, which she alleges said would bury the pipeline in spring of 2014. After the pipeline was not buried, she filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission in December of last year.

Traditionally, pipeline safety complaints are submitted by a team of inspectors within the commission. According to John Povilaitis, an attorney with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney who specializes in energy law, this ruling “has expanded the universe of ‘pipeline inspectors’ in Pennsylvania.”

Povilaitis told the Pennsylvania Record that he was concerned with a “threshold” issue that might stem from the commission’s decision to use federal law in determining a state procedure.

The federal law the commission cited specifically allows pipeline complaints from third parties, provided the appropriate authority has been given at least 60 days notice of the issue prior to the complaints filing

“The federal law they cite as supporting this decision is based on individuals going to federal court,” Povilaitis said. “Obviously the [Commission] is not federal court.”

In addition to legal concerns, Povialitis said he worries that the complaint system could begin receiving formal complaints on issues that relate to normal pipeline function.

“A gas meter to a home makes, occasionally, a hissing noise and some people could think that is indicating a leak,” Povialistis said. “It’s an example of how a non-expert take on a complicated piece of infrastructure could create a misunderstanding.”

Initially, the complaint was rejected by the administrative law judge presiding over the case, since Knox was not officially a public utility. The commission disagreed with the judge, however, finding that 2011 Gas and Hazardous Pipelines Act expanded its authority to certified pipeline operators, whether they were public utilities or not.

Pennsylvania law does not allow bona fide energy cooperatives, like Knox, to be classified as public utilities.

“I think [the commission] took an aggressive approach to this case,” Povialitis said. “It appears it’s willing to err on the side of overreaching.”

Povialitis noted that the state has “thousands of miles” of pipeline currently, with more projects in the works.

Pennsylvania came under national focus in recent years for its utility regulations, after new hydraulic fracturing gas extraction techniques made its Marcellus Shale rock formation a veritable gold mine for the natural gas industry.

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