Garland L. Thompson, Esq.
Journalist and Author, Philadelphia
[Editor’s Note: Garland Thompson looks at the Shapiro campaign for governor of Pennsylvania and finds it is built on shaky ground if the attack on Mariner East is all there is.]
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s strategic plan for the upcoming gubernatorial race came into to sharp focus when, shortly after he filed criminal charges against Sunoco Pipeline L.P., and its parent Energy Transfer Partners over drilling-fluid spills in constructing the Mariner East Pipelines, he finally made it official:
He’s running on a platform designed to appeal to the “Keep It in The Ground” crowd, never mind what Energy Transfer of anyone else says about the impact this massive infrastructure project can mean for economic progress in the Commonwealth.
Now, it falls to unbiased observers to examine the strength of a campaign based on this ploy. For from this vantage, Shapiro’s candidacy suffers weaknesses so far undiscussed by election touts among Southeast Pennsylvania’s media clan, most of whom seem inclined to believe Shapiro leapt into the race with unassailable strengths. But let’s see if it’s truly so:
First, Shapiro convened a Pittsburgh Grand Jury to consider claims the pipeline builders somehow managed to slip past proper scrutiny by the Commonwealth’s regulatory agencies in an irresponsible rush to finish the $3.5-billion project, attacking the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) along the way. Shapiro Subpoenaed DEP files in his attempt to prove the DEP hadn’t done its job, but the agency’s own records tell a different story:
The agency halted construction on Mariner East 2 and Mariner East 2x multiple times, whenever construction activity caused sinkholes to form in the limestone formations along the pipeline right-of-way, or whenever “inadvertent returns” of lubrication fluids from the builders’ horizontal directional drilling efforts reached the surface.
The DEP levied fines of more than $21 million over the cited infractions, and required filling of the sinkholes and sealing of rock cracks that allowed drilling fluids’ escape to the surface. Its officers stoutly defend the stringency of their scrutiny. But Shapiro has gone back over the agency’s enforcement track, filing new charges that “inadvertent returns” of drilling fluids constitutes an “illegal release of industrial waste at 22 sites in 11 different counties across Pennsylvania” without the agency’s knowledge, a claim the agency’s top officials reject.
It thus is clear that Shapiro believes the way to succeed fellow Democrat Tom Wolf into the governor’s chair is to gear up support among pipeline opponents seeking to demonize an initiative Energy Transfer’s Joseph McGinn has called Pennsylvania’s largest-ever infrastructure project.
Neighbors in suburban Chester County and Middletown, Delaware County, have argued that the project posed unsupportable dangers to their health and safety — ignoring findings by specialists hired by both Chester County and Delaware County’s governing Councils that the pipelines are indeed safe — and recently staged a protest demanding the state Public Utility Commission and Department of Environmental Protection rescind the permits to build the pipeline, adding impetus to Shapiro’s attempts to criminalize the project’s execution.
But a curious fact that is clearly inconvenient for Shapiro and his allies arose at the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s “Shale Insight 2021 Conference, held last month in Erie, when Energy Transfer’s Joseph McGinn hosted a “This is a Pipeline” Breakout Session on Mariner East:
It was officers of the Pennsylvania DEP who urged Energy Transfer to use horizontal directional drilling along Mariner East’s 350-mile route across the Commonwealth.
The original liquid-fuels pipeline now repurposed as Mariner East 1 was surely not drilled underground all across the Commonwealth in 1931. That technique was conceived in 1891, but for dentistry, not construction of energy pipes across hundreds of miles of rock and earth. It was simply easier then to dig an open trench for that eight-inch East-to-West gasoline pipe, but the DEP asked Energy Transfer to drill horizontally in the 21st Century, avoiding the disruption and messiness of open-trench installation.
Against that backdrop, it’s difficult to understand the DEP’s fervor in ordering long halts to construction along Mariner East’s 350-mile right-of-way every time a drilling mishap occurred, levying multi-million-dollar fines for each occurrence.
Surely, the Commonwealth’s own geologists knew the route traversed karst, a limestone formation susceptible to sinkhole formation.
Surely, the DEP’s own science team knew in advance that horizontal directional drilling entailed cutting through rock formations likely to contain cracks – or just as likely to become cracked along the way — opening routes for the drilling fluids to find their way to the surface.
And, since Attorney General Shapiro used Grand Jury subpoenas to obtain and go over the DEP’s files, it also is hard to understand his fervor in believing Energy Transfer somehow got DEP officials to overlook the environmental challenges Mariner East Project would encounter completing an infrastructure build rivaling the Pennsylvania Railroad’s famous “Horseshoe Curve” project to permit chuffing trains to drive over Appalachia’s rugged heights in 1854.
Levying 21-plus million dollars’ worth of punitive fines doesn’t look, from this vantage, like dereliction of duty by the state’s environmental watchdogs, after all.
Viewed from this perspective, the prospect of a state prosecutor stepping into the governor’s office with an expressed opposition to the growth of production and use of the natural gas and petrochemical-feedstock riches lying under Appalachia’s rugged heights is very likely to provoke consternation in the 37 Pennsylvania counties where the drilling occurs.
At an earlier Shale Insight Conference in Philadelphia, two urban-district lawmakers – State Sens. Vincent Hughes and Anthony Hardy Williams – stood before the energy pros saying they’d learned how important the jobs produced by shale energy drilling were in rescuing communities from poverty in Appalachia’s rural areas. One of their Republican colleagues had invited them to go see for themselves, and the two city Democrats had come back convinced.
Somehow, Shapiro, another Democrat, thinks the road to the governor’s chair will be paved by opposition to the only industry driving prosperity into those rural Appalachian counties.
Somehow, Shapiro believes his attack on a pipeline project that has brought full employment to hundreds of Blue-Collar crafts workers – Welders, Operating Engineers, Pipefitters and Steamfitters, Teamsters, Laborers, Surveyors, private trucking contractors, et al – will enable his campaign to succeed despite the ire he’s likely to raise among labor unions whose members badly need that pipeline work.
Finally, looked at from a slightly different angle, the question must be raised whether the courts will agree with Shapiro’s attempts to use the criminal process to supersede the regulatory enforcement regime enacted in Pennsylvania’s environmental protection code.
Will the courts blithely overlook the phenomenon of the Commonwealth’s Top Prosecutor excoriating the enforcement efforts of the Commonwealth’s own environmental protection officers — assuming malfeasance without actually bringing charges against the criticized public servants – when the officers themselves honestly believed they were doing carrying out their regulatory duties to the best of their abilities?
Will the voters across Pennsylvania agree that Josh Shapiro should be their next governor, running on a posture of prosecutorial opposition to the industry that has brought thousands of good-paying jobs to workers; multi-million-dollar royalty payouts to landowners; and, yes, tax-revenue growth to counties and local communities across the Commonwealth?
Doesn’t look like such a sure thing from this vantage. But indeed, we all will see how it plays out at the polls when the contest gets serious.
Garland L. Thompson, Esq. is a Contributing Editor at US Black Engineer & Information Technology.
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