Small companies push back against One Call expansion

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Last fall, the chairman of the Consumer Affairs Committee in the Pennsylvania House put off making the substantial amendments to the state’s One Call safe digging law that were endorsed by the Senate until he could hear all parties debate the changes.

On June 5, for nearly three hours, he got his wish.

The hearing at the Capitol on the state Underground Utility Line Protection Law made clear that the terms of the debate have not shifted much in a year: Utilities, excavators and Marcellus Shale pipeline companies support the updates, but small operators of conventional oil and gas wells and pipelines oppose losing their exemption in the law.

The proposals contained in a pair of bills moving through the House and Senate would upgrade the law to transfer enforcement and oversight authority to the state Public Utility Commission; create a damage prevention committee modeled on other states that have reduced accidental underground line hits; and make the law apply to rural gas-gathering pipelines that do not currently have to be registered with the Pennsylvania One Call System or marked before excavations.

Traditional oil and gas operators that have relatively short, narrow and low-pressure lines say the cost of complying would put them out of business without significantly enhancing public safety.

They are seeking to maintain the exemption for what they said is a discrete subset of the roughly 100,000 miles of rural natural gas gathering and production pipelines that currently do not have to be registered or marked.

Pipelines that carry any gas from unconventional shales such as the Marcellus and Utica should have to comply, no matter how rural, they said.

Wally Phillips, treasurer of the Pennsylvania Grade Crude Oil Coalition, said in about 40 years in the industry, he has had just one accidental strike of one of his pipelines, and it occurred near a spot where the pipeline was labeled.

“We don’t have staff, we don’t have money, we don’t have the resources to send,” he said.

But John Coleman Jr., a member of the state Public Utility Commission, said parsing the diameters and pressures in the sea of rural pipelines to decide which should comply would be too cumbersome.

“We believe that the exemption needs to be eliminated,” Coleman said.

Representatives of West Mifflin-based Pennsylvania One Call System pointed out that after a 1980s amendment to the law exempted lines 3 inches or smaller in diameter, they saw companies lay multiple 3-inch pipelines side by side in the same trench to avoid having to comply with requirements for larger lines.

Representatives of natural gas utilities and larger oil and gas companies also do not back the exemptions sought by their industry’s smaller kin.

They are frustrated by the persistence of accidental hits to their pipelines and how often their crews uncover unmarked lines when they put in new ones.

“The product that we are charged with monitoring can explode. It’s just that simple and that serious,” Peter Trufahnestock testified for Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, the Canonsburg-based natural gas utility. “And that’s why we believe so strongly in passing a bill without exemptions.”

Michael Gavin, vice president of production operations for Downtown-based EQT Corp., said the company’s contractors uncover unmarked gas lines 50 times a year or more. Some of the company’s own pipelines were built in the early 1900s, but EQT has used technology to locate the lines, map them and register them with the One Call system, even where the current law does not require it.

Lawmakers face a deadline to act on the changes. The Underground Utility Line Protection Law expires at the end of 2017.


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