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Exposing — and Resisting — Sunoco Logistics’ Fracked Gas Exports

July 17, 2014
A worker builds part of the Mariner 1 pipeline.

A worker builds part of the Mariner East pipeline, which is at the heart of a controversy over Sunoco’s attempt to use eminent domain and skirt local zoning laws. Photo: Julia Wilkinson / Delaware County Daily Times

Of all the biggest environmental news stories breaking right now, the Al Jazeera coverage of the Mariner East pipelines — the ones Sunoco Logistics is aggressively trying to ram through Pennsylvania to export fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale to Europe and Asia — is the biggest breakthrough.

You can cut straight to the story, “The gas company that says it can take your back yard,” here. Now. And read it straight through, while thinking about what you can do to stop the Mariner East pipeline(s). Or check out this overview and excerpts first.

The reporter, Evan C. Hill, covers in considerable detail the manipulative way Sunoco Logistics has bullied Pennsylvanians trying to hold onto their land. Some of those who began resisting Sunoco Logistics’ Mariner East Pipeline early on, are still resisting. Some gave way in the face of Sunoco’s enticements, pressure, threats and persistence.

But more are joining in the resistance, from grassroots organizers to high-powered lawyers, every day.

The story is well written. It’s complete, from the bigger picture of pipelines overall to Sunoco Logistics and Range Resources’ export plan, right down to the particular pump station in Chester County which is, so far, generating the most resistance. The author has done his homework.

SUNOCO LOGISTICS: “The gas company that says it can take your back yard”

Here’s the opener:

NORTH STRABANE, Pa. — For more than a decade, the country around Ronald and Sallie Cox’s home, 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, has been an unchanging landscape of rolling green foothills. Sitting atop a modest promontory, their property is ringed on three sides by a border of woodland, and to the east, the ground slopes down into a neighbor’s horse paddocks.

The Coxes built their home in 2001, and they’ve paid to maintain their enviable slice of exurban Pennsylvania. When Ronald, a financial adviser at Prudential, grew fed up with the way his wraparound backyard deck shifted every time he sat down for an evening drink, he spent around $30,000 to rip it out and replace it. You could probably land a plane on the new one, he jokes.

“This is my house, it’s my safe zone; nobody’s going to bother me,” he says. “It was worth it for the peace of mind.”

But in late 2012, someone bothered the Coxes. A representative of oil and gas transporter Sunoco Logistics Partners — a “landsman” sent by the company to scout and buy access to their property — came to their front door and told them that Sunoco was going to dig a pipeline under their woods.

“And I went: ‘No you’re not,’” Cox says.

Here’s its political middle, with a fantastic quote from PA state senator Andy Dinniman (emphasis added):

But the Sunoco controversy comes as statewide attitudes seem to be shifting against Corbett: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down Act 13’s local zoning controls in December, and the governor now faces bipartisan calls to close a massive budget deficit in part by extracting more from gas producers through a new, higher tax on the value of their gas.

Perhaps more importantly, Sunoco’s gambit for public utility status and the ensuing legal battle, which is likely to play out for months and could involve the state’s appellate courts, may determine whether other private energy companies pursue a similar strategy in the future, potentially accelerating the development that has already altered the physical and economic landscape of the country’s gas-rich states.

“If Sunoco wins its case, we’ll have even less ability for questions involving [pipe]lines within the state,” says Andy Dinniman, a three-time Democratic state senator whose district is laced with pipelines and who has pushed for more oversight and transparency in the industry. “What it’s really going to turn out to be is the political muscle and political contribution muscle of the Marcellus Shale industry versus a larger and larger citizen protest, and I just hope the citizens win.”

And here is, not its end, but the core of what it exposes:  While Sunoco Logistics has tried to shift strategy in order to appear “as if” they are transporting fracked gas from the shalefields of western Pennsylvania for “public benefit,” the wolf is still in sheep’s clothing. It’s exports, all the way:

In the months after the Mariner East project began, both Sunoco and Range Resources, a Texas-based drilling company that has agreed to provide 40,000 barrels of gas per day to Sunoco, said they expected to ship at least half of their wet gas to hungry markets in Europe. Range signed a 15-year contract with INEOS, a Swiss petrochemical producer, for its ethane.

But after the wave of resistance this spring, Sunoco appeared to shift its strategy. The company dropped its legal team, from the Harrisburg-based firm McNees Wallace & Nurick, and hired new attorneys from Philadelphia-based Blank Rome.

The new lawyers filed an amended petition in May, pointedly stating that Sunoco now intended to ship at least 5,000 barrels of propane per day — roughly 7 percent of the project’s capacity — to a destination in Pennsylvania before it reaches the Marcus Hook refinery and export terminal.

The change in plans was aimed at meeting “heightened demand…that arose from severe supply shortages” over the past winter, Sunoco wrote.

But lawyers and other Sunoco critics have dismissed the promise as a meaningless gimmick, not least because they doubt that the Mariner pipelines could siphon propane out of the liquid gas mix that early in the process, before reaching the terminal.

It also seems likely that export remains on Sunoco’s mind.

During a conference call with financial analysts in early May to discuss Sunoco Logistics Partners’ first-quarter performance, CEO Michael Hennigan said that a new plan by a competitor to build an ethane plant in Texas “shows that ethane is gonna export from the Gulf Coast” and reinforces “the thesis that we’ve been saying, [which] is that the barrels that are up in the Marcellus and Utica [shales] should really get to the European and Asian markets at the closest possible port.” Sunoco’s plan to pipe wet gas to its facility at Marcus Hook was a competitive way to do so, he said.

So don’t rest easy without reading all of this incredibly important expose about Sunoco Logistics, pipelines, everything you ever wanted to know about “wet gas,” the dangers of ethane and propane pipeline explosions, and the growing resistance — read it at the source. The Gas Company that Says it Can Take Your Back Yard.

Whatever you do, don’t let Sunoco Logistics actually take your back yard. Because everyone’s back yard is connected. And because this is what an exploding natural gas liquids pipeline actually looks like:

Huge fire from Aug. 12, 2013 pipeline explosion in Erie, Ill. could be seen from miles away  WHBF-TV

2 Comments
  1. July 17, 2014 12:00 pm

    Great article by Evan Hill. The issue seems like more than a “political football” though, even if Sunoco tries to field it like one. I think it’s emblematic of the larger environmental human rights struggle playing out across US shale fields. The dangers are so obvious, so antithetical to our state constitution, their only hope is to ram their export project through before the public has a chance to see it for what it is: privatized profit from socialized risks.

  2. Iris Marie Bloom permalink
    July 23, 2014 12:59 pm

    You’re completely right that this is a larger struggle than Hill’s article indicates. You’ve nailed it in this pithy comment, Liz. The human rights aspect, the environmental aspect, the many forms of damage to communties inflicted by shale gas extraction, processing and transportation; the public health harms, the climate harms are not adequately represented in Hill’s article. He also left out major recent NGL pipeline explosions. NGL pipelines have explode in Illinois, in Texas, and in Louisiana, in a tragic incident that kille a tugboat captain. )Being new to this topic, Hill mentioned the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion as a good example of how damaging such explosions can be, but he was inaccurate in referring to the San Bruno explosion as the most recent.)
    But Hill’s work is still a great sign of growing national coverage of the resistance to the Sunoco Logistics NGL pipelines. It’s up to us to make sure the dangers, the damaging cumulative impacts — including especially climate impacts — are better understood, and to stop the Mariner East pipeline in order to save lives. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about: not just saving a few backyards, but saving lives.

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