Discussions about the role of energy infrastructure in Pennsylvania are once again at the forefront of the minds of residents across the state as we approach the first anniversary of a tragic natural gas explosion that occurred in West Reading. 

Much of the focus to date has been on pipelines, and concerns about the safety of this important piece of energy infrastructure have started to emerge. As regulators and elected officials at the state and federal level discuss new rules or protocols that may be needed, it is important to ensure we put the issue in proper perspective. 

Pipelines are critical to Pennsylvania’s energy industry – which produced 7.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2022 and contributes $75 billion to Pennsylvania’s total gross domestic product annually. Numerous studies have also found that pipelines are the safest, most cost-effective, and most environmentally friendly method to transport oil and gas. In short, given this track record and the importance they play in moving forward the energy future of Pennsylvania and that of the country, we must be cautious about regulating them out of existence. 

Neither shutting down existing pipelines nor preventing the construction of new ones is a serious option in the Keystone State. Instead of pursuing such drastic and unrealistic steps, we must find ways to learn from the West Reading incident and identify any potential blind spots in the more than 93,000-mile-long pipeline network that currently exists in Pennsylvania, building upon its remarkably safe track record overall. 

In recent months, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a series of reports and documents – including a new trove in late February – that shed more light on the incident in question and provides a possible roadmap for the best path forward. Specifically, it appears that a piece of equipment known as an Aldyl A service tee utilized by the local utility provider UGI was at fault.

In recent years, these service tees have proven to be a significant point of vulnerability in an otherwise safe pipeline distribution network and their continued use has been questioned because of reported leaks and malfunctions. In fact, as far back as 2007, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) added Aldyl A service tees to their list of pipe materials with “poor performance histories relative to brittle-like cracking” and these parts have been linked to other incidents across the country.

Fortunately, action appears imminent at the federal level as Pennsylvania’s leaders in Washington have come together in a bipartisan plan to address the issue. Congressional Representatives Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA 6) and Dan Meuser (R-PA 9) have joined together to introduce H.R. 5638, a piece of legislation known as the Aldyl A Hazard Reduction and Community Safety Act, that will require all Aldyl A pipeline equipment to be located and replaced no more than five years after the law is enacted. Additional guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on what to do during a natural gas emergency would also help significantly improve safety, as it doesn’t appear that the agency has provided any direction on evacuation procedures specific to such an incident.

At a local level, legislators in Harrisburg should consider amending the Public Utility Confidential Security Information Disclosure Act (CSI Act) to better equip state regulators to respond to such incidents. The law, which was passed in the wake of 9/11 with a goal of preventing sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands, has hampered the recent investigation into the West Reading incident by preventing the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PAPUC) from sharing inspection and investigation reports critical to the investigation with the NTSB. Adding an exception to this law for federal and investigative agencies could help facilitate cooperation in any future probes while still ensuring that sensitive information is held in confidence.

As regulators, lawmakers, and industry stakeholders continue this important dialogue on improving infrastructure resilience and emergency response protocols, it is imperative that we balance the vital role of pipelines in supporting Pennsylvania’s energy needs with the equally important mandate of safeguarding our communities. Through such collaborative and informed actions, we will continue to strengthen the overall safety of Pennsylvania’s extensive pipeline network and ensure a more secure energy future for all its residents.

Becky Corbin previously served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and was Secretary of the Environmental Resources & Energy Committee.

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