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Pennsylvania Compressor Fire Highlights Regulatory Gap

The recent fire at the Lathrop natural gas compressor station in northeastern Pennsylvania, which forced a major Marcellus Shale producer to reroute gas supplies for several days, is highlighting a gap in pipeline safety legislation passed earlier this year.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) did not have the authority to investigate a flash fire at the Williams Partners LP-operated Lathrop station in Springville Township in late March (see NGI, April 2). The PUC sent an inspector to the site to investigate, but after gathering preliminary information the inspector found that the lines leading into the facility fell outside of PUC jurisdiction. "When it was not jurisdictional, he simply closed the investigation," PUC Spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said.

The 12,000-square-foot facility houses seven compressors. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, authorities were alerted to a natural gas leak at the station in Susquehanna County. There were no reports of injuries. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., which sold the Lathrop station to Williams in 2010, and which often works with Williams in the Marcellus, said it had been notified of a flash fire, "which extinguished itself immediately." At the time of the incident Cabot was moving about 365 MMcf/d through the station, according to CEO Dan Dinges.

Through Act 127 passed earlier this year, the PUC became the "state agent" for the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA). The designation gave the PUC authority to conduct inspection and enforcement duties over thousands of miles non-utility gas gathering pipelines on behalf of the federal agency, but it did not give the PUC the authority to regulate "Class 1" gathering lines in sparsely populated areas, such as the Lathrop station.

Class 1 areas are generally defined as having 10 or fewer buildings intended for human occupancy within 220 yards of either side of a pipeline.

Although early drafts of the law extended oversight to these Class 1 gathering lines, the final bill instead established an inventory of remote pipelines in the state. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican from northeastern Pennsylvania, has said she plans to introduce legislation to include Class 1 pipelines in PUC jurisdiction.

In its final report, the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission recommended that the PUC be given jurisdiction over these Class 1 pipelines. Because the classes are based on population figures that can change as development expands, the midstream industry has previously argued that it already has an incentive to build rural gathering lines to higher specifications.

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