Wednesday, February 20, 2019

PUC Seeks To At Least Double Pipeline Safety Inspectors Over Next 5 Years

On February 19, Public Utility Commission Chairman Gladys Brown told the Senate Appropriations Committee at the Commission’s budget hearing it recognizes it does not have enough staff to deal with pipeline safety issues and will be asking to at least double or possibly triple the number of pipeline inspectors over the next 5 years.
Chairman Brown said their FY 2019-20 request includes 4 new pipeline inspection positions and she anticipates asking for 4 more in each of the next 5 years increasing the complement of 15 inspectors (according to written testimony) to about 35 or 40.
A significant amount of the PUC’s day-to-day work involves safety oversight of the distribution and transmission pipelines within the Commonwealth,” said Chairman Brown.
PUC Commissioner John Coleman explained one of the bottlenecks in bringing new inspectors on board are Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration  training and certification requirements.
Commissioner Coleman said it takes about 3 years to train new staff and get enough experience to do their job and there is a lot of competition for trained people from other states, PHMSA and pipeline companies themselves.
The PUC now has oversight over 47,000 miles of natural gas and other hazardous liquid distribution lines and over 1,100 miles of intrastate pipelines.
Chairman Brown also noted the General Assembly directed the PUC to take on new responsibilities for enforcement of PA One Call underground utility damage prevention program, including pipelines.
Several members asked Chairman Brown and the other commissioners at the hearing about issues related to the Mariner East Pipelines.  She and the other commissioners said they were prevented from addressing the issues directly because of the matters relating to the pipelines before the Commission.
Senators Tom Killion (R-Delaware) and Judith Schwank (D-Berks) both expressed frustration at the inability of Energy Transfer/Sunoco (owners of the Mariner East Pipelines) to get communities and schools the information they ask for to deal with emergencies.
Commissioner Coleman said the Commission only has jurisdiction over safety issues at the pipeline itself, but hoped Energy Transfer/Sunoco was listening to this hearing and the real concerns being expressed and would communicate with communities about what’s going on..
Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) and other Senators raised the question of the status of nuclear power plants and consideration of whether to prevent them from closing for reasons related to the environment and their economic impact.
Chairman Brown said as a result of the deregulation law passed in 1996, the PUC does not have jurisdiction over generation since Pennsylvania has a competitive energy market.  She said the Commission would certainly act as an information resource for members of the General Assembly as they consider this issue.
Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh), Minority Chair of the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, expressed doubts about whether renewable energy sources could make up for the loss of nuclear power plants when nuclear accounts for nearly 40 percent of the electricity generated and renewables account for only about 3 percent.
PUC Commissioner Andrew Place said he does not believe Pennsylvania will reach 100 percent renewables in his lifetime, but suggested incremental movement over time will come with the declining cost of renewables.
Commissioner Place added there is “pretty good information” that wind and solar are or will soon be fairly competitive with fossil fuel sources and the only way to drive down the cost curve is to deploy those assets.
Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) said the issue of nuclear power generation is important in maintaining a safe electric grid and also to not increasing the state’s carbon footprint.  He said he felt removing nuclear power would mean a less stable grid and less clean grid and the PUC panel indicated that was a fair statement.
Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), Majority Chair of the Appropriations Committee, said when the General Assembly considered the deregulation law in 1996 it also dealt with the issue of “stranded costs” for facilities, like nuclear plants, that would be more uneconomical in a competitive environment.
He said the law asked ratepayers to pay for those stranded costs as part of the package. In response to a question, Chairman Brown said she believed those costs to be about $11 billion.
Sen. Browne asked if there is any precedent in the country in the context of defining alternative energy sources to include nuclear power. Chairman Brown said she was not aware of any, but mentioned other entities that have done zero carbon emission as the basis.
Click Here for a copy of Chairman Brown’s written testimony.
Copies of written testimony and videos of all Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearings are available at the Budget Hearings Summary webpage.

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