Pa.’s safe digging law extended and expanded, after compromise in Harrisburg
A compromise bill to expand Pennsylvania’s safe digging law and give it seven more years of life received final approval by the General Assembly on Monday after years of efforts to strengthen the law ended with only minor changes or delays.
With the Senate’s unanimous vote to pass the bill, the Legislature has adopted revisions that will require more — but not all — oil and gas pipelines in rural areas to participate in Pennsylvania One Call, a warning system for excavators that helps them avoid digging into buried pipelines and cables.
The House passed Senate Bill 242 last week.
The breakthrough came in June, when the bill was amended to exempt “stripper well lines” — pipelines no wider than eight inches across that connect to low-producing conventional wells, those that pump out less than an average of 15 barrels of oil or 90,000 cubic feet of natural gas a day.
The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, which led a push to preserve the exemption for pipelines run by small drilling companies, wrote in its October newsletter that the bill’s language would exempt “most pipelines operated by conventional producers” from having to participate in One Call.
Pipelines carrying shale gas, regardless of their size or location, will have to participate in the program known as “Call Before You Dig.” Most shale gas pipelines had already registered with One Call voluntarily, but some did not — notably, an unmarked line in Armstrong County that was hit, killing an equipment operator in 2015.
“If that event were to happen after this bill is passed, that line would be marked,” said Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner John Coleman Jr.
He could not say, because nobody knows for sure, how many thousands of miles of gathering and production pipelines will remain unregistered with the ongoing exemptions in the proposed law.
“We were looking for all of the exemptions back to the wellhead to be eliminated,” Mr. Coleman said. “This language strikes a compromise between what we were looking for and what the industry was looking for.”
Pennsylvania One Call System CEO William Kiger said he is grateful to the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, for persistently pushing to expand the safety law. The bill also extends the law’s sunset date from the end of this year until 2024, thereby avoiding the “chaos” that would have resulted if the law was allowed to expire, he said. One Call is based in West Mifflin.
Because of continued exemptions in the law, the final compromise achieves “less than I expected,” he said.
Along with the stripper well pipeline exclusion, the bill maintains notification exemptions for excavation work by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and mining companies, he said.
“The excavator has a right to safety,” he said. “This bill limits that.”
The president of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, based in Wexford, did not return requests for comment.
The changes will put Pennsylvania more in line with other states in some respects, according to a report released by the General Assembly’s joint Legislative Budget and Finance Committee last week.
Six of 17 neighboring or major gas-producing states that were analyzed in the report use damage prevention committees to investigate violations of their state’s One Call laws. Senate Bill 242 will create such a committee in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania was the only state among those reviewed in the report that uses its Department of Labor and Industry to enforce its One Call law. Most states give enforcement responsibility to their state Public Utility Commission, a change Pennsylvania will also make with the revised law.
Between the damage prevention program and a new enforcement team that the utility commission intends to create, the Pennsylvania PUC has a goal of cutting the number of accidental hits to underground lines in half over the next five years.
Pennsylvania will continue to be among the minority of the states that the committee reviewed — six of 17 — that exempt some natural gas gathering pipelines in rural areas from One Call requirements.
Mr. Coleman said the remaining exemptions can be revisited in the future if data show that excavator strikes of the smaller, unmarked lines are an issue.
Laura Legere: firstname.lastname@example.org.