The petrochemical giant, Ineos, successfully pleaded with US authorities to reopen a pipeline that supplies fracking gas to Grangemouth, complaining that regulation was “unpredictable and disconcerting”.

The 300-mile Mariner East 1 pipeline across Pennsylvania was shut down for a second time by state authorities in May because it presented “a clear and present danger to life or property”.

But a letter released by a US Senator reveals that Ineos wanted it reopened because the ethane gas was “an important export as feedstock” for the company’s plants in Europe.

On 14 June the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) agreed with Ineos and voted to reopen the pipeline, overturning its previous emergency closure order. Campaigners have condemned the company’s intervention for putting “profit over people”.

The Ferret reported in April that PUC had shut down the Marine East 1 pipeline because of fears that an accident could cause “catastrophic results impacting the public”. At the time Ineos said that its Grangemouth petrochemicals plant was “unaffected” because its feedstock came “from a number of different sources”.

Fracking gas pipeline ‘a clear and present danger to life’

On 3 May PUC allowed the pipeline to reopen, but then ordered it closed again on 24 May after a complaint by Democratic state senator, Andy Dinniman. He subsequently published all the representations made to PUC on his website.

One was a letter on 1 June from David Thompson, the chief executive of Ineos Trading and Shipping in Switzerland, to PUC secretary, Rosemary Chiavetta. Ineos was the largest customer of ethane from the pipeline, Thompson said.

“Ethane from the Mariner East 1 pipeline is an important export as feedstock for Ineos’s European petrochemical facilities,” he wrote. Ethane from western Pennsylvania’s fracking fields is shipped across the Atlantic for processing into plastics at Grangemouth and at another plant at Rafnes in Norway.

The pipeline’s repeated closure created “an unpredictable and disconcerting regulatory environment for companies like Ineos who have made significant capital investments in Pennsylvania and substantial commitments to Pennsylvania businesses,” Thompson said.

“On behalf of Ineos, I commend the commission for its diligence in ensuring that the Mariner East 1 pipeline was safe to operate in advance of its May 3rd unanimous decision and respectfully request the commission reinstate its decision and allow the Marine East 1 pipeline to commence operations.”

Although PUC agreed to reopen Mariner East 1 pipeline, by a majority verdict it did not allow work to restart on a second, adjacent Mariner East 2 pipeline which has been under construction. Pipeline builders now have to provide more safety assurances.

The closures followed the discovery of three sinkholes caused by subsidence near drilling work for the construction of Mariner East 2 along Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township. One was just ten feet from a house.

Senator Dinniman criticised PUC for failing to keep Mariner East 1 shut, and promised to review “any and all options” with his attorney. “That’s the one that potentially presents the most immediate danger to my constituents,” he said.

“We continue to have very real and significant concerns regarding the stability of Mariner East 1 – an 87-year-old pipeline carrying highly volatile natural gas liquids within close proximity of schools, playgrounds, senior care facilities, neighbourhoods, a library,  a shopping mall, and a rail line.”

A US campaign group opposed to the pipeline, the Uwchlan Safety Coalition, warned that Mariner East 1, which is operated by Energy Transfer Partners, posed “an immediate risk” to local communities. “PUC should be ashamed of their findings to prioritise the corporate interests of Ineos and Energy Transfer Partners over the safety of Pennsylvanians,” said the coalition’s Rebecca Britton.

Andy Gheorghiu, policy advisor for the campaign group Food & Water Europe, argued that fracking for plastics made a significant contribution to pollution on both sides of the Atlantic. “But instead of acknowledging that, Ineos complains about foreseeable stranded assets and the negative impacts a shutdown of the Mariner East project will have for its supply chain at Grangemouth,” he said.

“It’s more than evident now that Ineos only wants to frack the UK in order to secure a cheap feedstock for its plastic production.” Ineos is bidding to frack for underground shale gas in England, and has taken the Scottish Government to court for banning fracking in Scotland, claiming multi-million pound compensation.

According to Friends of the Earth Scotland, local communities in the US were right to be concerned. “Ineos’s lobbying efforts in response to a second closure of the Mariner East 1 pipeline due to major safety concerns clearly indicates the strategic importance of this supply route for fracked gas to the company and its partners,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

“We haven’t seen the end of this worrying episode which simply serves to highlight the inherent dangers of transporting gas half way around the world, and will only increase opposition to fracking and the fossil fuel industry on both sides of the Atlantic.”

PUC chair, Gladys Brown, said: “While there is insufficient evidence to support a finding that Mariner East 1 is being operated unsafely in West Whiteland Township, I do find that there is sufficient evidence to support a finding that the construction on Mariner East 2 should remain halted.”

Ineos did not respond to requests to comment. The company has previously stressed the economic importance of Grangemouth and fracking.

“Natural gas keeps the power on and homes warm in Scotland as with the rest of the UK, and shale has the potential not only to meet these needs but also to have a positive impact on the economy and energy security,” said a company spokesperson in April 2018.

The letter from Ineos to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission

Photo thanks to the Uwchlan Safety Coalition.

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