A fracking gas pipeline key to the “shale gas revolution” promised by Grangemouth petrochemical giant Ineos has been shut down by US safety regulators to prevent “catastrophic results impacting the public”.

State authorities in Pennsylvania ordered the closure of the 300-mile Mariner East pipeline after three large sinkholes were discovered near drilling for another adjacent pipeline. Continuing to pipe huge amounts of inflammable and explosive gases presented “a clear and present danger to life or property”, a state investigation concluded.

Mariner East was heralded by Ineos in 2016 as the start of the “virtual pipeline” that would see eight ‘dragon’ boats bring millions of tonnes of ethane gas thousands of miles from western Pennsylvania’s fracking fields to Grangemouth and Rafnes in Norway. It was the subject of a major investigation by The Ferret in 2017.

The ethane imports were “the culmination of a $2 billion investment by Ineos”, the company said, and were labelled “a game changer for British manufacturing” by Ineos chairman, Jim Ratcliffe.

But according to reports in the US, exports to Europe from the Mariner East terminal at Marcus Hook near Philadelphia have now ceased – and it is unclear when they might start again.

Campaign groups describe the pipeline closure as a “big blow” for Ineos, and question the safety of transporting gas around the world. The company, however, says it can get supplies from other sources, including a terminal at Morgan’s Point near Houston in Texas.

Mariner East 1 was shut down by an emergency order issued by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) on 7 March. The pipeline’s operating company, Energy Transfer Partners, was told to conduct a series of tests to ensure it was safe.

PUC engineers found three sinkholes caused by subsidence along Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, one of which was just ten feet from a house. “The sinkholes are also near the area where construction, including horizontal directional drilling, is underway for a new pipeline, known as Mariner East 2,” said PUC.

The PUC investigation concluded: “Permitting the continued flow of hazardous liquids through Mariner East 1 pipeline without proper steps to ensure the integrity of the pipeline could have catastrophic results impacting the public.”

The risks to the public outweighed the financial risks for the company, PUC said. The emergency order was issued because “there exists a clear and present danger to life or property”.

An active and ongoing investigation is continuing by the commission’s independent bureau of investigation and enforcement. Spokesperson, Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission

The closure was initially expected to last a fortnight, but has now been in force for more than five weeks. “An active and ongoing investigation is continuing by the commission’s independent bureau of investigation and enforcement,” said a PUC spokesperson.

“Future actions by the commission will be contingent upon whether and how the terms and conditions of the emergency order are satisfied. Any reinstatement of service will require formal action by the commission, at which time the commission will outline the process for addressing those matters.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland warned that the pipeline closure would increase opposition to fracking on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s a big blow to companies involved in exporting fracked gas from the US to Europe, including Ineos,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

“The sinkholes and water pollution that have led to this closure demonstrate the inherent dangers of transporting gas half way around the world.”

According to the US campaign group, Food and Water Watch, the construction the Mariner East 2 pipeline alongside Mariner East 1 had caused “a series of disasters” across Pennsylvania, including spills and contamination.

“These pipelines being built to deliver fracked hydrocarbons for Ineos are inherently dangerous at every step of the way, a disaster for people and the planet,” argued the group’s Emily Wurth.

The pipeline operator, Energy Transfer Partners, did not respond to requests to comment. But the company told Natural Gas Intelligence newsletter on 5 April that it expected the closure to last four to six weeks.

“We are working with the PUC and appropriate agencies to complete the necessary testing and remediation in order to ensure integrity of the pipeline before putting it back into service,” said a company spokeswoman.

Ineos insisted that the Grangemouth petrochemicals plant was “unaffected” by the pipeline closure. “Our feedstock comes from a number of different sources,” said a company spokesman.

Ineos bid to reverse Scotland’s fracking ban

The Grangemouth petrochemical multinational, Ineos, is taking the Scottish Government to court next month in a bid to overturn Scotland’s ban on fracking for underground shale gas.

The company claims that the ban is unlawful and costly, and relies on a flawed decision-making process. The claims are denied by Scottish ministers.

As well as importing fracked gas from the US, Ineos wants to frack for shale gas under large parts of central Scotland around Grangemouth. But in October 2017 the energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse, announced an “immediate, effective ban” on fracking.

The ban followed a major public consultation in which 99 per cent of the 60,535 responses were opposed to fracking. “Fracking cannot and will not take place in Scotland.” Wheelhouse said.

This was because of concerns about health impacts and climate pollution, he explained. It was also because there was no ”social licence” for the technology in the 13 council areas that would be most impacted.

At the time Ineos strongly criticised the decision. “It is a sad day for those of us who believe in evidence-led decision making,” said Ineos Shale operations director, Tom Pickering.

“The Scottish Government has turned its back on a potential manufacturing and jobs renaissance and lessened Scottish academia’s place in the world by ignoring its findings.”

Photo thanks to Kirsi Jansa. A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 15 April 2018.

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