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Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission plans to expand oversight rules on natural gas pipelines

State regulators are moving toward stricter oversight of natural gas pipelines, though officials say that effort began before the Allentown explosion that killed five people one year yesterday.

“We’ve been really taking a close look, partly because of some of the tragic incidents, but also because of the expansion of Marcellus Shale in the state,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for thePennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

The PUC is currently accepting public comment on a proposal that would require natural gas utilities to annually submit pipeline replacement and performance plans.

If the new rules — proposed on Nov. 10 — take effect, utilities with intrastate operating revenues of more than $40 million would have to file plans this spring or summer with final approval scheduled for late 2012 or early 2013.

The plans basically require utilities to submit replacement time frames for aging pipes as well as updates on damage prevention and corrosion control efforts.

The PUC said it is also enhancing “frost patrol” reviews — winter surveys that gas utilities conduct to assess how safely pipes can endure freezing temperatures — to demand more frequent and detailed updates.

The state said it regularly reviews safety protocols, though it acknowledged the Feb. 9, 2011, explosion added urgency.

The explosion, which leveled an entire block of homes on North 13th Street, is believed to have resulted from a break in a UGI Utilities natural gas main.

The PUC said a surge in natural gas drilling relating to Marcellus Shale as well as a need to bring state standards in better compliance with evolving federal regulations influenced the changes.

Reading-based UGI said it supports the state revisions. The company said it began upgrading procedures before the blast, though it admitted making further improvements, such as conducting more comprehensive leak surveys, after the explosion.

That coincides with the company’s accelerated timeframe for replacing cast-iron pipe with high-density plastic or coated steel, UGI spokesman Joseph Swope said. 

“We have been aggressive,” Swope said. “We have accelerated those plans.”

Other nearby utilities said the explosion prompted a review of safety protocols, though none said they changed policy directly because of the Allentown blast.

PECO Gas spokesman Ben Armstrong said the company, which serves Bucks, Montgomery, and other counties, spends about $80 million a year to maintain its natural gas system.

Armstrong said PECO conducts walking surveys on all transmission pipelines every two months, leak inspections every six months, and annual inspection of valves, among other reviews.

“None of the procedures were revised directly because to the incidents in Allentown or Philadelphia,” Armstrong said, referring to another explosion last year that killed a Philadelphia Gas Works employee. “We have a vigorous maintenance and inspection system in place.”

Elizabethtown Gas, a subsidiary of AGL Resources serving Warren and Hunterdon counties, said system upgrades are ongoing irrespective of the blast.

Spokesman Duane Bourne said Elizabethtown is completing a $108 million improvement plan approved by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities that would replace 70 miles of aging cast-iron pipe across its New Jersey service area. Work began in 2009.

SOURCE: http://www.lehighvalleylive.com/breaking-news/index.ssf/2012/02/pennsylvania_public_utility_co.html