FILE - Natural gas pipeline

A natural gas pipeline under construction in rural Pennsylvania.

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania’s extensive network of natural gas pipelines will remain necessary for the next 30 years, even as the industry said it shares the growing worldwide concern about fossil fuels’ impact on climate change.

“My advice would be is that we can’t solve a climate crisis by creating an energy crisis,” said Keith Coyle, chairman of the Marcellus Shale Coalition Pipeline Safety Workgroup. “As long as we are relying on fossil fuels to produce power, we need pipelines to deliver them safely.”

Coyle made his comments during a two-hour hearing before the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on Tuesday that investigated the economic benefits of the state’s 1,000-plus miles of gas pipelines. 

“It’s pretty clear we are going to be relying on natural gas and petroleum for some time,” he said. “There is no other way to do this safely and to move product in bulk besides these pipelines.”

Testifiers from across the industry – including the American Petroleum Institute Pennsylvania (API), the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association and the Association of Pipelines, among others – reiterated that natural gas production has not only made Pennsylvania a top energy exporter, but lowered harmful greenhouse gas emissions and decreased the nation’s dependency on foreign oil.

Paul Hartman, a senior policy advisor for API, said fossil fuels will represent up to 70% of the nation’s energy mix for the next 30 years, even as the federal government pursues decarbonization policies on a broader scale.

But those same concerns about the continued use of fossil fuels for the nation’s energy and transportation needs also left lawmakers on the committee questioning why the state should continue investing in natural gas infrastructure at all.

“Things need to change,” said Democratic Chairman Greg Vitali, D-Havertown. “No one is denying the fact that pipelines are needed now – that’s not the issue. But what is clear is that we as a planet need to drastically change our lifestyle to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

The latest U.N. climate report published last week concluded that countries must eliminate carbon emissions over the next 30 years and other harmful air pollutants, like methane, to stave off a catastrophic rise in global temperatures.

The updated assessment reiterated the Earth could warm by more than 2 degrees Celsius before the century’s end if greenhouse gas emissions remain unchanged.

At that rate – far beyond the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal set by 2015 Paris Agreement – rising sea levels will swallow parts of coastal cities and extreme weather, from triple-digit heat waves to wildfires, will become commonplace and "intolerable."

The report also notes that although achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will keep temperature increases in line with the Paris goal, scientists for the first time said reducing “short lived climate forcers,” methane chief among them, goes hand-in-hand with staving off the worst impacts of climate change.

Coyle said one of the “best ways” to reduce methane emissions is to replace older pipelines that “are prone to leak.” He said maintaining the existing network is “part of the solution” in reaching carbon neutrality and counseled against “decisions that are shortsighted.”

The testimony was interrupted at times by climate activists from the Better Path Coalition, who called out references to the U.N. report, compared the committee hearing to “a dog and pony show” and accused Republican Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry Township, of “fearing the voice of Pennsylvanians.”

"Our state government appears to be oblivious to the crisis unfolding around them as they continue to hand out shale gas permits and pat themselves on their backs for moving climate-killing projects forward," said Karen Feridun, cofounder of the coalition. "Chairman Metcalfe’s cries for attention are getting louder and more frequent as they are becoming harder to hear above the din of denial coming from the governor, regulators, agency chiefs, and the legislature. Our government is having the wrong conversation on climate."

Metcalfe had the activists removed from the hearing room one at a time while admonishing the “cancel culture” and “lawless left” he says they represent. 

David Marks, a PIOGA board member and representative of Eastern Energy Field Services, spoke more fondly of the activists and said he recognizes the growing pressure transition into cleaner energy sources – but electricity isn’t the only resource fossil fuels provide.

“You can’t walk out of your house without touching a thousand things made out of natural gas and oil,” he said. "Natural gas and oil is the feedstock for so many things.”

“We’re probably going to stop burning fossil fuels some day and probably because we need to,” he continued. “I don’t know if it’s going to be in our lifetime, but the transition has already started. Until we do that, we are going to need pipelines anyway.”

The tense hearing comes one day after the state Department of Environmental Protection levied an $85,000 fine against Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 pipeline for discharging drilling fluids into wetlands and creeks across the state. 

It’s Sunoco’s second fine this year following a $497,000 penalty in February for violating the Clean Streams Law, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Code and the Dam Safety and Encroachments Act. 

And in August 2020, the DEP assessed a $355,000 fine against the company for violations dating back to 2018 and 2019 that impacted eight counties along the pipeline.

The pipeline was designed to carry 345,000 gallons of natural gas more than 300 miles across Pennsylvania from eastern Ohio to the Marcus Hook refinery in Delaware County. The $5 billion project cuts through 17 counties and more than 1,200 waterways and wetlands and has been under construction since early 2017.

Since that time, the DEP has written more than 120 violations against Sunoco for water pollution and other failures of its construction practices. District attorneys in Delaware and Chester counties ultimately launched criminal investigations into the project that were later bolstered by separate inquiries from state Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the FBI.

The latter is investigating whether Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration overlooked the project’s shortcomings in order to approve construction permits.

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.