It's not every day that Pennsylvania state regulators describe the environmental violations of an iconic Big Energy brand as "egregious," but when you look at the problems caused by the work of Sunoco Logistics and its contractors to construct a massive $2.5 billion shale pipeline through the highly populated heart of Chester and Delaware Counties, you will quickly understand why.
Since Wolf administration bureaucrats approved the Mariner East 2 pipeline early last year, neighbors have complained of dozens of spills and construction work that polluted some wells with cloudy water. What's worse, when the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered Sunoco to stop using horizontal directional drills in some sensitive areas, its crews were caught last month near Harrisburg ignoring the order and doing it anyway.
When Gov. Wolf ordered a sweeping — but temporary — shutdown on the pipeline construction right after New Year's Day, some elected officials and critics of Sunoco Logistics' practices hailed the Democratic governor's move as a bold step and a big win for the environment.
But upon further review, it's not clear whether Pennsylvania's latest pipeline ploy changes much of anything. To some activists, the much-ballyhooed move looks more like a sweetheart deal than a real crackdown, bolstering their complaints that when it comes to regulating politically wired Big Oil and Gas, "the most liberal governor in America" has too often proved to be a Wolf in sheep's clothing.
For one thing, the temporary halt came right at the start of a record cold snap and a winter season when little or no pipeline digging would be likely even in the best of circumstances. Meanwhile, as StateImpact PA recently reported, crews are still out there working on the pipeline on other tasks like welding that — unlike drilling or excavation — aren't regulated by the DEP, which has infuriated neighbors.
What critics also find frustrating is this: Despite Sunoco Logistics's "egregious and willful" violations that included explicitly ignoring DEP warnings, why haven't any fines been meted out for the latest violations that led to the stop-work order? To environmentalists frustrated by the state's handling of the pipeline — intended to transport natural gas from the energy-rich Marcellus Shale region to a Marcus Hook facility where much of it would be shipped to overseas markets — that is the equivalent of Sherlock Holmes' notorious "dog that did not bark."
"It looks like it was just for show," said Eric Friedman of the Middletown Coalition for Community Safety, a Delco-based group that has been fighting the project and sent a letter to Wolf criticizing his moves as too tepid. The group fears that a pipeline accident could devastate nearby schools, nursing homes, or residences with little or no time for a safe evacuation. His concerns that the Sunoco move is just a temporary speed bump for a project that has angered large swaths of Southeastern Pennsylvania have been echoed by environmentalists and other pipeline opponents.
"The ultimate role of the DEP is to protect public health and the environment, not to facilitate the building of pollution sources," said Joseph Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council — even if the governor believes the project is a boon to economic development, as Wolf and his top aides have said previously about the Mariner East 2 pipeline. Both the initial approval for the pipeline and the growing complaints about the construction violations have already prompted a mini-revolution in the western suburbs, where at least two township boards flipped in November's election to candidates opposing the Sunoco Logistics project.
"A permit suspension is the most impactful enforcement action available to the Department, and it is done in extremely rare circumstances," said Wolf's chief spokesman, J.J. Abbott, arguing that while it seems impossible to please everyone on the contentious issue, the administration took the toughest stance it could legally take. Officials said any fines for Sunoco Logistics, which are being looked at, would by law have to come in a separate action.
The spokesman for Sunoco Logistics, Jeff Shields, also aimed to shoot down some of the second-guessing, insisting that the shutdown has indeed idled many of some 2,500 people he said had been working on the project. Added Shields: "We live and work here and have been part of the fabric of Delaware and Chester counties for more than a century, and the safety of our neighbors and our workers will always come first."
But the long odds of stopping the pipeline, or drastically altering the route, is causing growing frustration in the proposed backyard of the pipeline. In many ways, the seeming inevitability of Mariner East 2 — at a time of swelling concern about fossil fuels and climate change — seems a confirmation of how little has changed since the 19th-century days of John D. Rockefeller dirty deals and Thomas Nast cartoons of portly corrupt and contented legislators: Pennsylvania is still in the back pocket of Big Oil and Gas.
Wolf was supposed to be a breath of fresh air and, indeed, he arrived in Harrisburg three years ago this month with a hard-core environmentalist as his DEP commissioner and some reversals of his GOP predecessor on issues like drilling in state parks and forests. It didn't last. After a year of political gridlock and the failure of a severance tax on oil and gas production, that first DEP commissioner, John Quigley, was ousted, a massive fine for a fracking polluter was wiped off the books, and the Democratic administration took a less confrontational tack. Critics say Wolf's open support for the Sunoco project may have tipped the scales toward its approval.
Although it's worth noting that oil and gas executives and lawyers and lobbyists with ties to the industry reportedly gave $1.5 million to Wolf's 2014 campaign, the more likely explanation for any pro-fracking shift in the governor's office is the endless — and mostly unsuccessful — quest to find some common ground with GOP legislative leaders whose campaigns have been fueled by energy contributions for much of this decade.
Now, Wolf is launching his 2018 reelection year by doing the only thing he can do from a badly broken Harrisburg — make bold executive pronouncements, such as his declaration of a statewide opioid emergency. The pipeline move, which made for a dramatic headline, is a pronouncement likely to deliver less real impact than promised.
The most virulent opponents, like the Middletown coalition, want a longer stop that would allow for a comprehensive risk analysis of the pipeline — a study that critics are convinced would show the project is unsafe at any configuration. "How many elementary schools are you willing to lose in a 30-year period?" asked Friedman, whose group has questioned Sunoco's safety record and called attention to recent pipeline disasters. "I'm not willing to lose any."
Administration officials said Wolf would support such a study — but that's the purview of the Public Utility Commission, not the governor or DEP. They argued that Wolf has patiently listened to the concerns of residents and that he's pursuing a "balanced" energy approach that taps the Marcellus Shale but that also included working with GOP lawmakers to expand programs for solar power.
True, that's an improvement over the pro-fracking zealots who dominated Harrisburg in the early 2010s, but at a moment when important chunks of the planet are on fire or under water, a "balanced" approach to energy makes as much sense as a "balanced" approach to journalism in an increasingly authoritarian D.C. You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows — just turn your TV to stories like the California wildfires and the mudslides that inevitably followed.