PA One Call exemption disputed

Bill Kiger, smiling at passersby and handing out fresh popcorn from an old-timey machine he rented for his booth at the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association’s conference last week at Heinz Field, actually was carrying out a small act of subversion.

In his own words, Mr. Kiger was there to get in the faces of the association’s leadership, which has been fighting efforts to incorporate the coordinates of conventional oil and gas wells and pipes into a warning system for construction firms. Mr. Kiger’s organization, PA One Call, maintains a list of utility and municipal assets underground and notifies their owners when someone calls with intentions to excavate at those sites.

PA One Call, a West Mifflin-based nonprofit, was a platinum sponsor of the oil and gas conference, where PIOGA Vice President Kevin Moody accused Mr. Kiger, PA One Call’s president, and Pennsylvania regulators of misleading legislators and the public.

The two camps are at odds over an exemption enjoyed by oil and gas wells and pipelines in rural areas from having to register their facilities with PA One Call, also known as “Call Before You Dig.”

The Public Utility Commission and PA One Call would like to see the exemption lifted, saying safety is at stake. PIOGA argues there are no safety issues, as evidenced by no catalog of incidents in which unregistered gathering lines caused explosions or fatalities.

“It’s a solution in search of a problem. There is no problem,” said Mr. Moody. “They have been talking public safety, public safety, public safety — but they haven’t shown that there’s a problem.”

No one knows exactly how many miles of those pipelines, known as Class 1 facilities, are underground and unregulated by either federal or state authorities. Class 1 infrastructure runs through areas where there are fewer than 10 homes within a radius of 660 feet.

Federal and state agencies oversee other pipeline classes in more populated areas, and those are automatically required to register with PA One Call.

Class 1 lines, however, exist with no such obligations.

The PUC has suggested there are 100,000 miles of such pipelines in the state. PIOGA hasn't disputed that number, but only because there’s no way to tell for sure.

Similarly, because no one is required to report damage to such facilities, it’s difficult to estimate how frequently damage occurs and how serious it is.

These often are small-diameter, low-pressure pipelines — some of them abandoned, some hooked up to no-longer-producing wells and some fully functional but not found on any public map.

“There’s a lot of old abandoned wells in Pennsylvania and a lot of abandoned lines,” said E. Alex Paris, president of Alex Paris Contracting in Atlasburg, Washington County.

“McDonald, Pa., is full of them because at one time, there was an oil and gas boom in McDonald,” he said. “If we go down [there] to do a job, it’s highly likely we’re going to hit a line.”

A few years ago, Mr. Paris’ company had a construction job in Greene County where his crew hit about 50 pipelines, he said. None were catastrophic events. No one was hurt and there were no explosions. He had to repair the lines and move along.

Mr. Paris is stuck somewhere in the middle of the beef between PIOGA and PA One Call. He’s a pipeline contractor who works closely with the oil and gas industry, and understands the argument that cataloging old pipelines and devoting staff to fielding notices from PA One Call might be costly.

But as president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Utility Contractors Association, which strongly supports requiring conventional oil and gas facilities to register, he thinks, “It’s something that needs to be done.”

“I think it’s a safety issue,” he said. “I think there needs to be some resolution.” That might mean lifting the exemption entirely or perhaps picking a starting date from which all pipelines would have to register.

“Definitely, if we don’t start marking all these Marcellus [lines], that’s a big potential problem,” he said.

Mr. Moody believes PA One Call registration is the latest instance of conventional oil and gas companies getting tossed into concerns about the burgeoning shale gas industry.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Robinson-based industry group that represents companies involved in shale gas production, has said it’s in favor of lifting the exemption for their facilities. Many of its members already voluntarily register with PA One Call.

So do some conventional producers, Mr. Kiger noted. Of PA One Call’s 43 oil and gas members, 16 are conventional operators. The rest are shale gas companies whose lines are much bigger and higher in pressure. Some of those companies can end up paying more than $50,000 a year to PA One Call, but the median fee paid by oil and gas members in 2013 was $1,771.

PIOGA surveyed its members to find out how frequently their lines are damaged by excavations and learned that it was infrequent and relatively inexpensive to fix, Mr. Moody said.

“The damage has been less than $5,000 to repair,” he said. “It could cost a couple thousand bucks a month to belong to PA One Call.”

The issue is being hashed out in House Bill 1607 in the Pennsylvania Legislature. The bill is moving through the House but has not yet been up for a vote.

The PUC also is concerned that having any exemptions to PA One Call would jeopardize its federal pipeline funding, something PIOGA has vehemently disputed.

Anya Litvak:, 412-818-7970.

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