Trump v. Cuomo – The Battle of the Pipelines

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President Trump joined the pipeline battle last week by issuing two Executive Orders aiming at limiting the power of state officials to determine federal policy. One Order calls on the Environmental Protection Agency to streamline its process for awarding oil and gas permits and to expand the ability of the nation’s railroads to transport liquid natural gas. The other Order limits to the President personally the right to “issue, deny or amend” permits for infrastructure projects that cross international boundaries of the United States. Not surprisingly, the environmental community is appalled, and certain governors have blasted the Executive Orders as being a usurpation of state power by the federal government.

As discussed innumerable times on this blog, the permitting issue in the first Order revolves around something known as a Section 401 State Certification of Water Quality. This is a certification under the Federal Clean Water Act from a state confirming that any interstate pipeline that may result into a “discharge” into “navigable waters” within its boundaries will comply with the Clean Water Act.

Initially after enactment of this legislation, many states did not pay close attention to Section 401. They either did not act on requests for certification for more than a year, in which case the state’s authority to act was deemed waived, or trusted the applicable federal agency. This includes pipeline projects for which FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, retains primary jurisdiction.

Enter New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo was terrified of the power and influence of the New York State environmental community. Without really raising any specific good faith environmental objections, in 2016 Governor Cuomo ordered his New York Department of Environmental Conservation to deny the issuing of the Section 401 Certification for the Constitution Pipeline. This pipeline is a proposed 165 mile link running from the Marcellus Shale gas fields in Northeastern Pennsylvania to the Southern Tier of New York State. There, the Constitution would connect into another larger pipeline called the Tennessee Pipeline which led into New England.

Without this link, natural gas from the most prolific gas fields in the world now has no way of being transported to New England. Just five hours away from the Marcellus, Boston instead relies on natural gas imported over the ocean from Trinidad and Tobago, and at times from Russia. In effect what Governor Cuomo did was dictate energy policy not just for his own state but for all of New England as well.

Since Cuomo’s action, other governors have emulated his refusal, turning energy policy into a hodge podge of conflicting local policies and chaos. Using Section 401, Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan and others have blocked the permitting of interstate pipelines coming within their borders, insisting against all evidence that the energy shortfall from denial of pipeline access can be made up with so-called “renewables”. Those on the ground who have to deal with the real world implications of this situation understand its ramifications. Consolidated Edison, the franchise power company in Westchester County New York, already was recently forced to declare a moratorium on new gas hookups as there is no available supply.  The needed gas is just two hours away in Northeast Pennsylvania, but Governor Cuomo won’t let it arrive.

While there are bound to be judicial challenges, President Trump’s Executive Order is the first step in the federal pushback against what actually can be seen as a state usurpation of an inherent federal power. Pipelines cross state boundaries.  Thus, they are classic examples of Interstate Commerce. Constitutionally, that should be a matter of federal and not local concern or jurisdiction.

From a purely legal standpoint, however, the President’s Executive Order may not work. It clearly raises innumerable legal issues about federalism, executive authority, environmental enforcement and numerous other legal concepts – many still untested in the courts. Also, it gives no real explanation for how a mere Order from the Executive Branch can override a federal statute, which clearly refers to the “licensing or permitting agency… from the State.”

Despite all of these uncertainties, however, the Order really had to happen – if for no other reason than to highlight the debate and the substantial energy dilemma that now exists in the Northeast as a result of the absence of rational and cohesive energy laws and policies throughout the nation. Within all of our laws there is an implied element of good faith. Nowhere does the Clean Water Act assume or provide that a state can purposely refuse to issue these types of permits for any reason based on that state’s unilateral policy decision. In reality, without ultimate federal control, the entire system could and likely will collapse. That certainly was never the intent of Congress in enacting Section 401.

While advocates of a “green revolution” intend to fight the President tooth and nail, their objections in the end will defeat their own cause unless they realize that we all are in this together. The Green New Deal talks about eliminating fossil fuels by 2030. However, even if this were scientifically possible (which it really isn’t without massive use of nuclear power that many reject for other reasons), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ed Markey and their supporters offer no way of constructing the infrastructure needed to move, and especially store, renewable energy given the current system, available technology and the current level of state environmental rejection.

Although it almost doesn’t seem possible, the noise level over national environmental and energy policy will be ramped up following President Trump’s Executive Order. Each side will raise the specter of the apocalypse should the other side prevail. What really matters though, is what kind of system can be restored that retains federal control over interstate energy transmission, respects local concerns about environmental protection, pays due regard to the need to combat climate change, and guards against grandstanding politicians who will use whatever means they can to leverage local platforms as a way to assert control over all of our lives.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

Is West Virginia Prioritizing The Past Over The Future?

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West Virginia Governor Jim Justice made one of the most curious gubernatorial moves in recent years recently, when he vetoed a bill that would have directed money to plug the Mountain State’s approximately 4,000 abandoned gas wells.

The bill, which had strong bipartisan support, would have decreased the State’s severance tax on low producing wells and directed other monies to a fund for the plugging of the abandoned ones.

To show how strong support was for the legislation, the House passed the bill 89-11 and the Senate 33-1. At a time when different political camps have difficulty agreeing on anything, the bill was supported by the oil and gas industry, landowners, the West Virginia Farm Bureau, and the environmental community. That kind of agreement from notoriously warring factions is almost unheard of.

Given that level and breadth of support, why did Governor Justice veto the bill? In his veto letter, the Governor objected to the tax rate cut on the low-producing wells and stated that the money to plug the abandoned wells should come from West Virginia’s General Fund. That seems a curious position given the positive environmental goal and the amount of public support.

Some see a nefarious purpose behind the Governor’s move. The “Marcellus Drilling News” suggested that the Governor vetoed the bill as a payoff to his supporters in the coal industry, specifically big coal mine operator Robert Murray. Indeed, last week the Governor signed a bill lowering the tax rate on steam coal used in power plants, but then turned around and rejected a cut in the gas tax rate payable by low producing wells and raising other funds to help clean up West Virginia.

It’s not a pretty picture. At best, the Governor committed political malpractice by blindsiding nearly everyone in the State. At worst, the Governor made a terrible choice to reward certain large coal operators at the expense of the citizens of West Virginia.

This all comes at a time when West Virginia is about to receive a massive $2.5 billion investment in an ethane cracker plant to support the gas industry. How Governor Justice explains his veto to the industry that is plowing money and resources into his economically depressed State will be interesting to watch in the weeks to come.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

Marcellus Shale Update – When the Snow Turns Green

When the snow turns green in russia

Residents of the Siberian town of Pervouralsk have been horrified by a sight they never expected – green colored snow.  Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in the same way as the Communist Soviet Union, industrializes with little regard to the environment.  Now, pollution from a chrome factory in Pervouralsk turns snow a poisonous green.  Elsewhere in Siberia, pollution from open air coal pits in Kemerovo falls as toxic black snow and makes streets black and grimy.  Meanwhile, residents of Sibai in the Urals must wear masks due to choking smog from a copper factory.  Protests have broken out throughout Siberia and elsewhere.  Meanwhile, the Russian citizens’ trust in Putin has plummeted more than 33 percent since 2006.  The environmental mess, together with a stagnant economy and related issues, means that Putin now has popularity ratings south of Donald Trump’s.

The Russian environmental disaster shows the folly of American states like Massachusetts and New York that rely in any way on Russian oil or natural gas, then claim that this is environmentally superior to building pipelines from the Marcellus Basin.  Simultaneously, it’s a cautionary tale for the pipeline builders and the natural gas industry themselves about the importance of environmental responsibility in their operations.

New York and New England continue to pursue policies destined to produce both energy deficiency and environmental destruction.  The Boston Globe reported that two Massachusetts towns, Holyoke and Middleborough, have issued moratoria on new natural gas hookups due to lack of supply.  This follows Con Edison’s moratorium in Westchester County, New York.

Massachusetts’s supply constraint is the result of the Bay State’s failure to allow the build out of natural gas pipelines from the Marcellus Shale region of Northeastern Pennsylvania.  The Globe warned that many energy experts believe that while the State’s two largest gas suppliers, National Grid and Eversource, claim their natural gas supplies are adequate for now, that won’t last long.

Environmentalists in Massachusetts call for increasing supplies from Canadian hydropower and offshore wind, but fail to state what the grid to store and transmit that power would look like.  Skeptics also note that whenever a large offshore wind farm project is proposed there is mass opposition from many of the same environmentalists who oppose shale drilling.  Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, the New Jersey Shore, Chesapeake Bay, Vermont and others are places where offshore wind farms have been proposed but dropped due to local opposition.  Where exactly do we build the wind farms that the environmentalists want?

It is this type of idealistic, irrational thinking that results in environmental destruction.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” calls for eliminating fossil fuels in ten years.  Were this concept to pass, how would that occur?  Presumably, a politically appointed group would be authorized to decide unilaterally how and where energy is created, where transmission lines go, and how it gets stored.  To make this work at all, there could be little opportunity for public input.  There wouldn’t be enough time.  But how happy could the public possibly be ceding this kind of decision making to a politically appointed body?  And what about things like eminent domain and the need to seize private property for wind turbines, solar panels and the like; where and how will power storage occur when battery storage technology simply does not exist at present to meet the demands of the system; etc.  The result would be a disaster for our environment, if it could even work at all which is most dubious.

Of course, the opposite also is true.  The energy industry must show continually that it can preserve the environment as it performs its tasks.  Those who wish to see the end of the fossil fuel industry will not hesitate to point to every mistake that the industry makes as rationalization for its elimination.  This week the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Mariner East 2 pipeline, admitted that “we’ve made mistakes and we are correcting those mistakes and will not make those mistakes again.”  Let’s hope he means it.  Mariner East has been plagued with problems, and ETP has done little before to show it cares or that it even is aware of the depth of suspicion that exists toward its performance.

From a political standpoint, environmental degradation can have enormous consequences.  Putin, already facing dissention over his economic performance, must deal with the people who can’t understand why their snow now is poisonous.  The air in Beijing is so bad that Chinese Communist leaders no longer can just add more factories to China’s enormous metropolises.  Ironically, the pollution itself is the only thing capable of putting a stop to its creation.

It remains true that the greatest environmental destruction occurs in places wholly run by government.  The Massachusetts and Mariner situations remind us we need to seek the proper balance.  That will be a continuous but evolving process in which both public and private interests must participate.  Without both, our planet will not be safe.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

Venezuela, Iran and American National Failure

While President Trump and House Speaker Pelosi bicker about nonsense, two very important parts of the world are on a hair trigger today.

The country with the largest supply of oil reserves, Venezuela, is teetering on the brink of revolution, while the country with the fourth largest oil reserves, Iran, is threatening all out war against Israel over Israeli bombing of Iranian positions in Syria.  Both of these situations could spiral out of control any minute, with profound consequences for the world’s energy supply, American national interests, and indeed our own security.

Both Iran and Venezuela are led by deeply unpopular governments.  In Venezuela, it is the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro.  In Iran, it is the theocratic government of Ali Khamenei.  Khamenei has as his underpinnings the concept of Shiite Islamic Fundamentalism.  Maduro only has his economic system.

Both governments have run their countries into the ground.  Khamenei has spent so much of his country’s wealth on seeking nuclear weapons and financing military adventures – creating Hezbollah in Lebanon, arming Hamas in Gaza, backing Assad in Syria and supporting the Houthi Rebels in Yemen – that the world slapped sanctions on the country.  President Obama, whose foreign policy team was Class D at best, lifted those sanctions in 2015 as part of a multi-party Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but President Trump reestablished them in 2018.

Maduro, successor to the socialist revolution of Hugo Chavez, has established government control over the energy sector and many other parts of the Venezuelan economy.  In doing so, he has turned what once was one of the richest countries in South America into such an economic basket case that the average Venezuelan has lost over twenty pounds in the last year from malnutrition and starvation.

In a desperate attempt to stave off national default on Venezuela’s foreign debt, Maduro has given the Russians large ownership interests in his country’s energy industry and raised the possibility of establishing a Russian military base in Venezuela.  That would be the first in the Western Hemisphere and a direct challenge to the Monroe Doctrine.

Khamenei at least can fall back on his religious fanatical supporters.  Large demonstrations broke out last year in many Iranian cities, but the Iranian Revolutionary Guard put them down.  The mullahs use a combination of religious fervor and selective payments to favored political and military supporters to maintain their control.

Maduro has no such religious backing.  That he continues to hold power shows two things.  First, there remains a deep seated sense of class division in Venezuela to the point that many people will accept the catastrophic state of the economy so long as those who formerly were on the top of the economic and social pyramid no longer remain there.  Second, the opposition is so fractured it has been unable to convince the junior officers in the Venezuelan military and the regular soldiers, who after all are the ones that must put down any rebellions, that Maduro is driving the country to ruin and they can provide a better future.  Whatever happens, this does not portend well for the future.  The Venezuelan energy sector is so rundown it will take time, and massive investment, to rehabilitate.

In the Middle East, Iran has been trying to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, right on Israel’s border.  Israel, facing Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in the South, has reached its red line.  It has begun carrying out continuous military raids against Iranian positions in Syria.

Yesterday, Maduro broke off diplomatic relations with the United States.  Also yesterday, Iranian Air Force Commander Brigadier General Azaz Nasirzadeh stated that the Iranian Air Force is “ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the Earth.”  Of course, both Iran’s and Israel’s actions are complicated by the large presence of Russia in Syria, another byproduct of incoherent Obama era foreign policy.

So now we have two grave crises happening simultaneously in different parts of the globe affecting the world’s largest sources of energy.  Attempting to manage this will be an untried President with little respect at home or abroad and with a government partially shut down over a petty squabble between two politicos, each of whom make themselves look smaller by the minute.  Fortunately, we have our shale gas and oil to cushion the economic blow sure to come from such international uncertainty, but we still can’t move the oil and gas where we need it.  Despite an abundance of domestic energy, whole geographic areas of our nation, most notably New York and New England, rely on imports.  If President Trump embargoes all Venezuelan oil, who will pick up the slack?  Putin?

All of this was foreseeable.  That it is happening at the same time may be some bad luck, but anyone looking at the world over the last few years could anticipate these problems occurring.  The fact that as a nation we are where we are is an example of national failure.  Perhaps it partially explains why both political parties revolted against their establishment candidates in 2016, and why they might do so again in 2020.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

 

When Governors Face Real World Energy Choices

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Last week, New York City area utility Consolidated Edison notified regulators that, as of March 15, it would accept no new natural gas customers in Westchester County due to supply shortages.  It is possible that cutoffs in the City itself may follow.  While this is happening, New York City is requiring customers to switch out of dirtier burning fuel oil.  Most are seeking natural gas.  Already, over 5000 buildings in the City have made the switch.  Meanwhile, as prior commentary in this blog has noted, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration have stymied all attempts to build a new pipeline that would be capable of supplying the City and other areas, like New England, with plentiful and inexpensive natural gas from the nearby Marcellus Shale region.

Once again we are seeing the Alice in Wonderland effects of New York State environmental incoherence.  It desperately needs energy to grow, and also to improve environmental air quality, but does everything possible to prevent that energy from being available.

New York’s inconsistent energy policies make Amazon’s decision to build massively in Long Island City quite curious.  The metropolitan New York area has numerous advantages, but it simply may not have access to enough energy needed to power the growth it seeks.

The energy dilemma cannot just be wished away.  The implications of not building pipelines and securing our energy future are real and starting to bite.  Without reliable energy supply, regions can’t grow.  Without growth, there will be no jobs for an expanding population.  Intellectual discussions and arguments about the large job opportunities available in the renewable sector are nice, but where are they?  More to the point, where is the consistent supply of energy that will be provided by these renewable sources?

Out west in Oregon, newly reelected Governor Kate Brown, who ran on a progressive, clean energy platform, faces a challenge from her left with a new Clean Energy Jobs bill.  Back in 2007, Oregon set goals for reducing its carbon emissions in 2010, 2020 and 2050.  It met its goals for 2010 but admits it will not do so for 2020.  In fact, the Oregon Global Warming Commission predicts the State will over-pollute in 2020 by 20%.  There is an interim goal for 2035, but lawmakers may choose to ignore that and concentrate on 2050.  This has environmental advocates alarmed.

Ironically, one proven way for the environmental advocates to reduce CO2 emissions is through increased use of natural gas.  They have not been inclined to accept that option, however, putting all their eggs in the basket of renewables.  Governor Brown then likely will face the problem Governor Cuomo faces.  She will run a left-leaning state with a well-meaning yet unrealistic program for achieving goals about which most of us can agree.  Governor Cuomo has chosen one path.  It won him electoral platitudes but now faces future trauma.  It will be interesting to see which way Governor Brown goes.

In Pennsylvania, the long battle over the Mariner East 2 pipeline appears over.  Last week the Public Utility Commission ruled that a landowner group had failed to show that safety concerns necessitated an emergency shutdown of the pipeline.  In typical fashion for this matter, two days later another sinkhole exposed a section of the older Mariner 1 pipeline.  Chester County emergency service officials stressed there was no damage to the pipeline and no danger, but the entire situation continues to be messy and delicate.  It does not help public perception that a horrific gasoline pipeline explosion in central Mexico predated the Mariner 1 sinkhole occurrence by a few days.

Internationally, and ironically, the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela, falls deeper and deeper into turmoil.  President Nicolas Maduro’s security forces put down another mini-uprising Monday, but nationwide demonstrations have been called for Wednesday, the anniversary of the end of the most recent military dictatorship in 1958.  Venezuela’s oil production has plummeted along with the rest of its economy, and President Maduro has given away large amounts of it to Russia in exchange for needed foreign reserve to service its enormous debt.

Despite starving his nation, Maduro retains the loyalty of large segments of the military command.  Those commanders don’t carry the guns that fire on the starving people, however.  The weapons themselves are in the hands of individual soldiers commanded on the street by junior officers.  It remains a confounding question as to why the opposition, which still exists in Venezuela, has been so unsuccessful in convincing the junior officers that their long term interests do not lie with Maduro and the senior military commanders but with the starving people in the streets.

Of course, should Maduro’s regime eventually fall, it would set in motion the need for some fancy diplomatic footwork and military readiness, something neither the Trump Administration, nor its predecessor, have shown much capability to implement.  Under those circumstances, energy markets would be thrown another huge curve ball.  Both our government and companies retaining any interest in Venezuela, either directly or indirectly, should be planning for these scenarios right now.

For those of you in most of the country, try to stay warm.  I’ll be in Texas in two weeks.  Hopefully the wind chill will be in the positive numbers down there at that time.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

 

2018, The Year in Review

Year in Review - Marcellus Shale Update by Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg PC

2018 began with the United States producing immense amounts of oil and natural gas; pipeline companies struggling to build out the national pipeline system but not being transparent about how they are doing it; Europe, led by Germany, continuing to move toward 100% reliance on renewable energy yet becoming even more dependent on Russian gas as a result; and New York and New England continuing to block energy generation and pipeline construction in their areas so that they, too, had to import gas from Vladimir Putin.

2018 ended with the United States still producing immense amounts of oil and natural gas; pipeline companies still struggling to build out the national pipeline system but not being transparent about how they are doing it; Europe, led by Germany, still continuing to move toward 100% reliance on renewable energy yet becoming more dependent still on Russian gas as a result; and New York and New England still continuing to block energy generation and pipeline construction in their areas so that they, too, may have to continue to import gas from Vladimir Putin.

As the saying goes, the more things change….

Meanwhile, here in Pennsylvania, the biggest news was the reelection of Governor Tom Wolf and the confusion over the time-honored “rule of capture”. Wolf’s reelection, along with Democratic gains in the State House and Senate, mean the severance tax issue will be back on the table come budget season. The Governor almost had his severance tax in 2017 but threw it away in a move that remains inexplicable following agreement from Senate Republicans to support it. The “rule of capture” means that whatever gas flows into the producer’s pipes belong to the producer, subject to paying royalties to the landowner. In the hydraulic fracturing context, the argument is that the gas may have been taken illegally because it emanated from an adjacent landowner’s property. How an adjacent landowner could prove any of this, or more importantly how a gas company could disprove it, remains a mystery. Now, it will be up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to make a decision.

In West Virginia, the State Legislature in 2018 voted overwhelmingly to uphold the State’s “marketable product” doctrine for paying royalties. The votes followed a 2017 West Virginia Supreme Court decision in the Leggett case changing the calculation rule, which is unusual but also used in states such as Oklahoma and Kansas. The difference between “at the wellhead” states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and “marketable product” states like West Virginia is that in West Virginia a producer cannot deduct its costs from the overall royalty payments it makes to the landowner until the gas has been reduced to a “marketable product”. Of course, exactly what that means often is a subject of controversy. Regardless, West Virginia made sure it stayed in the “marketable product” group of states, and the overwhelming votes in both houses of the State Legislature shows how popular that concept is.

Ohio ended 2018 leading the region in development of the Utica Shale. The Utica is deeper than the Marcellus. Companies such as Cabot Oil and Gas now actively are exploring the Utica in Ohio. Combined with the Marcellus, the two basins portend an enormous potential for energy production in the Marcellus-Utica Region.

Then there’s New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo won reelection easily in 2018 so we can expect his anti-natural gas policies to continue. The Governor is about to shut the Indian Point nuclear reactor and claims there will be sufficient power from renewable sources – mostly hydroelectric from something called the “Champlain Hudson Power Express” – to make up the shortfall. That hasn’t worked in New England and is unlikely to work in New York. Already New York is importing gas from Russia.

In November, FERC gave Governor Cuomo and unusual setback when it granted the Constitution Pipeline a rare time extension to finish construction. The Constitution remains stalled solely because of Governor Cuomo’s power grab regarding the Section 401 Clean Streams Permit.

New York has refused other pipeline permits and seems determined to follow its renewable idealism regardless of the practical consequences. While the Mueller Commission continues to investigate the possibility of collusion between Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump, Putin’s best friends in the United States may be Andrew Cuomo and the other New England governors. They insist on ensuring that Russia will continue to have influence over the energy security of the Northeastern United States.

Cuomo’s international energy champion is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since 2010 Merkel has pursued her energy policy of “Energiewende”, trying to shift the German economy from nuclear power and fossil fuels to renewable energy. It hasn’t worked. Germany now has the highest energy prices in Europe, is increasingly dependent on Russia for supply (hence “Nord Stream 2”), needs to burn coal for decades in order to make up for the intermittent nature of solar and wind, and actually has to pay foreign governments to offload extra supply from solar and wind sources when they actually are producing because the supply is so uneven it would damage the German power grid.

Merkel and Cuomo are environmental “Idealists”. They are not to be confused with true “Environmentalists”, for whom improvements to the environment are paramount. Environmentalists likely will encourage the switch to natural gas from coal as a bridge to hopefully even cleaner fuels in the future. Idealists like Merkel and Cuomo will fight it at every turn. They will continue to preach and pursue policies that are lovely in the abstract. In real life, however, those policies make our environment dirtier, our economies weaker, and the respective national securities riskier.

Finally to pipelines. As with people like Merkel and Cuomo, pipeline proponents often are their own worst enemies. Energy Transfer Partners has been consistently non-forthcoming in its information regarding construction of the Mariner East 2 and Rover pipelines, but ETP is not alone. Two weeks ago a MarkWest Energy natural gas processing plant in Chartiers Township, Pennsylvania, suffered an accident that killed one person and injured three others. Some press reports stated there was an explosion, others that it was a flash fire. The owners of the pipeline involved, including Marathon Petroleum, won’t clarify publically what happened.

Coming on the heels of other pipeline explosions recently in places like Lawrence, Massachusetts, it would seem in the industry’s best interest to clear up what occurred. Without transparency, new pipeline projects such as Jordan Cove in Oregon and Atlantic Coast in Virginia and North Carolina will face more opposition and trouble.. If Cuomo and Merkel are pursuing self-defeating policies on behalf of their constituents, the pipeline companies are doing the same on behalf of their industry. Hopefully honesty, clarity and transparency will be in greater supply in 2019. That would benefit us all.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

Pipelines, Courts and Reports

Storage Tanks and pipelines in the refinery.

Pipeline issues continue to dominate the natural gas news.  Last week, the pipeline industry got some good news, some bad news, and some news potentially so devastating it could threaten the entire industry.

Good news came for Mariner East 2.  First, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a challenge from the Clean Air Council and some landowners in Delaware and Chester Counties to the utilization by the pipeline builder, Sunoco Logistic, of eminent domain along its 350 mile route.  Later in the week, an Administrative Law Judge for the Pennsylvania State Public Utilities Commission rejected a request from seven citizens in Delaware and Chester Counties to shut down finishing of Mariner East 2 and to stop existing operations on Mariner East 1.

Sunoco Logistics repeated again that it would get Mariner East 2 in service by the end of the year, but not in the form originally intended.  In certain areas, Mariner East 2 only will be 20 inches in diameter, with older pipe being attached to newer pipe.  Sunoco Logistics never has fully explained why this is happening.  Is it because of an operational problem?  A cost cutting move?  A supply issue?  A timing issue?  Especially with the use of older pipe that was never part of the original plans and the use of smaller diameter pipe than was originally proposed, concern with safety should be paramount.  At the very least, the public is entitled to a full explanation from the pipeline company.

Make no mistake, Mariner East 2 is a very important project.  It secures the supply of gas to Marcus Hook, where it either can be exported to help free Western Europe from reliance on Vladimir Putin or it can be moved domestically to ensure our national supply.  It’s for this very reason that the PUC should demand answers.  For years, Mariner East was proposed as a certain type of project.  In the end, Sunoco Logistics is delivering another one, with a slightly different route, less capacity, and older pipe in certain places.  If the PUC doesn’t know why this is, it needs to find out and publicize its findings.

While Sunoco Logistics received its good news on Mariner East 2, Penn East Pipeline, which will go from Northeastern Pennsylvania to Central New Jersey, also got positive court results.  On Friday, US District Court Judge Brian Martinotti ruled that PennEast Pipeline Co. LLC, the owner of the pipeline, can use eminent domain to take properties in New Jersey – although initially, PennEast may only be seeking survey access to those properties as it still needs to address local environmental concerns for which the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has still not given State blessing.  The pipeline will go through Hunterdon and Mercer Counties in New Jersey, allowing connection to pipelines that serve New Jersey and potentially the New York City Metropolitan Area.  The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office had no comment.  Since the election of Democrat Phil Murphy in 2017, New Jersey has done an about-face and is not friendly to natural gas development.  As with other opponents, however, Governor Murphy has no real plan to live without it.

There was bad news also.  On Friday a pipeline owned by Mark West exploded in Washington County in Western Pennsylvania, injuring four people, one critically.  It is believed that workers were cleaning the pipeline when vapors caught fire and ignited other combustible material.  No matter how you slice it, pipelines are serious business, and safety should always be, but sometimes is not, given the full attention that it deserves.

More bad news for the pipeline industry came further south.  A panel of judges for the Fourth Circuit vacated certain permits issued by the United States Forest Service to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would have allowed the pipeline to be built through the George Washington and Monongahela national forests. Atlantic Coast would run 600 miles from West Virginia through Virginia and into Eastern North Carolina.  Twenty one of those miles would be through national forests.  The Forest Service repeatedly told Dominion Energy, Duke Energy and the Southern Company, co-owners of the pipeline, that the pipeline might violate environmental standards.  In 2017, however, the Forest Service issued permits allowing for the pipeline’s building through these forests.  The Fourth Circuit Panel vacated the permits, stating in effect that the Forest Service isn’t doing its job properly.  The pipeline owners intend to fight the decision, saying the judges are undermining the judgment of seasoned professionals.

Finally, the really devastating news came from California, where the California Public Utilities Commission charged utility Pacific Electric & Gas with falsifying safety and maintenance records.  PE&G in effect admitted the accusation.  Now the utility is facing massive criticism in light of the recent wildfires that were the most destructive in California history.  While there is no evidence tying natural gas pipelines to the wildfires, PE&G’s system is antiquated and poorly maintained.  It also doesn’t have enough inspectors to fulfill its reporting obligations.

Should any evidence arise that ties the pipelines to the fires, and then to PE&G’s malfeasance, the entire industry could be at risk.  Once again, it is up to the industry, and its trade groups like the Marcellus Shale Coalition, to start supporting the industry and not just reflexively opposing all government regulation and involvement.  Like all of our nation’s infrastructure, the pipeline system is antiquated and wearing out.  It needs to be rebuilt, using new materials and state of the art construction techniques, and it needs companies willing to do so.  It also needs government both willing to let them do so and to hold them to the highest standards.  Let’s all focus on that.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.