Energy Sovereignty

Archives from the Stop the PSU Pipeline Campaign and the early days of CITY-GREEN

Reasons Supporting the April 1 Resolution & Permit Non-Approval

This document was found in the folder containing hard-copy public records during a Right-to-Know review session on April 30. This is a verbatim transcription of the document: 

It’s undated, but given email correspondence after April 1 and before the April 11 permit non-approval letter from Borough Manager Tom Fountaine, I think it was probably provided as Council and Mayor input to that letter-writing process. 

Reasons for denying a permit to Columbia Gas for the Prospect Ave pipeline

These were suggested by councilmembers Don Hahn, Sarah Klinetob, Peter Morris, and by Mayor Goreham.

Category 1. Cost vs benefit.

  • The benefits of this project go almost entirely to Penn State University. The proposal to put two miles of the pipeline through State College would levy a substantial cost to the borough with almost no compensating benefit.
  • The proposed pipeline begins and ends on Penn State University property. Its purpose is solely to convey natural gas to a steam plant located on the Penn State campus.
  • The proposed pipeline has a diameter of 12 inches and is intended to sustain a pressure of 400 pounds per square inch.
  • The size and high capacity of the proposed line put it in a category which requires a great deal of care in its siting and construction.
  • The most important cost to the Borough of the pipeline is the risk to the health and safety of its citizens. Accidents involving large high-pressure gas pipelines can involve extremely high temperatures, fire and explosions. Such an accident occurred in San Bruno , CA in 2010. Eight people died and observers described a wall of fire 1000 feet high.
  • The probability of such an accident in any one year is low. Over the projected lifetime of the pipeline, however, the probability that no accident will occur decreases steadily. Borough residents are being asked to take part in a sort of casino game in which they bet their lives and property against the possibility of a paltry win.
  • Economic costs of the pipeline to Borough citizens are less important than the health and safety costs but are still substantial.
  • One estimate puts the loss of property values along the routes of large high-pressure gas pipelines at 15%. In addition, residents can expect an increase in their insurance premiums.
  • There is also a probable economic cost to the Borough as a whole. If the pipeline is built, Prospect Ave and its neighboring streets will become less desirable for families. This would result in an out-migration of wage-earning residents and the conversion of more houses to student rentals, causing erosion of the Borough tax base.
  • It is common for infrastructure projects such as highways, mass transit systems, and utility lines to result in costs (economic and noneconomic) to be borne by a community. As long as there is a roughly commensurate benefit to that community, most people would agree that fairness has prevailed and that the project can go forward. The proposed pipeline is, under that common-sense principle, unfair to State College Borough and its citizens.
  • The basic unfairness of the imbalance between cost and benefit to the Borough justifies denying a permit.

Category 2. Safety of the pipeline

  • The proposed pipeline would be 3 to 4 feet under the street surface, at the same level or a few feet above stormwater, sewer and water lines. Those lines are 50-100 years old in that part of the Borough and thus frequently in need of repair and replacement.
  • The most common cause of pipeline incidents is third party excavation. The proposed placement of the gas pipeline in relation to other utility lines is therefore inherently dangerous and justifies denial of a permit based upon Borough law (Ord. 2005) which calls for denying permits for exactly that reason.
  • The crews who will excavate in close vicinity  of the proposed pipeline will of course try to do so carefully. But human errors are inevitable and any such error could cause a catastrophe.
  • Columbia Gas makes good-sounding promises about maintenance of the pipeline. They say their maintenance standards will exceed those required by law.
  • Over the course of time, however, things change. Columbia Gas could be bought out by a less scrupulous corporation; Columbia Gas could go bankrupt. Maintenance standards could be lowered in order to save money.
  • The Borough has no way to enforce those maintenance promises.
  • In addition, after many years of use, the wise course might be to replace the pipeline. That, again, would be expensive and the Borough has no way to force such a replacement.
  • The proposal to build the pipeline includes no provision for a bond dedicated to repairing damage caused by an accident or to pipeline replacement. Without such a bond, the Borough would likely be liable for the costs of an accident.
  • These concerns about the long-run safety of the proposed pipeline justify denying a permit.

Category 3. Violation of the Borough Charter

In November, 2011, the voters of State College Borough adopted, by a 72% majority, an amendment to the Borough charter establishing an environmental bill-of-rights. Paragraph 3 of that amendment states:

“It shall be unlawful for any person or corporation, or any director, officer, owner, or manager of a corporation to use a corporation, to engage in the creation of fossil fuel, nuclear or other non-sustainable energy production and delivery infrastructures, such as pipelines, processing facilities, compressors, or storage and transportation facilities of any sort that would violate the right to a sustainable energy future for State College Borough.”

Thus, construction of the proposed pipeline would be a clear violation of the fundamental law of the Borough. This consideration justifies denial of a permit.

Category 4. Alternative Routes.

Alternatives to routing the proposed gas pipeline through the Borough were not fully explored during the planning phase of this project. Several alternative routes have since been proposed.

There is an extensive system of steam tunnels on the Penn State campus. The gas pipeline could be built inside those tunnels.

State-of-the-art pipelines are being built above ground, in corridors similar to the steam tunnels. This method of construction simplifies inspection and maintenance.

The pipeline could be built under campus sidewalks on either the southern or northern edge of the Penn State campus.

Penn State is a major research university and employs hundreds of talented engineers and scientists. Their skills should have been applied to choosing a safe solution the problem of replacing coal as the fuel for campus uses. If natural gas has to be used to replace coal, the skills of those talented people should have been applied to choosing a safe route for the gas pipeline.

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