Natural gas gathering lines built in rural areas would be included in a utility safety program under a bill facing crunch time this week.
The Senate-passed measure, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, seeks to renew and update Pennsylvania's "One Call" program, the requirement that companies and individuals contact an 811 communications system before they dig to avoid striking underground lines. The call enables a line to be clearly marked before excavation starts.
The measure would transfer oversight for the program to the state Public Utility Commission from the state Department of Labor and Industry.
The program was started in the 1970s, to protect people working or living around underground lines from the risk of explosion or fire in the event of a break caused by excavation work.
Preventing damage to underground lives not only save lives, but also can prevent power outages and environmental damage, Baker said.
Marcellus Shale drilling in recent years put a new emphasis on the safety of underground gas pipelines connecting the gas well fields to markets.
The legislation, if enacted, would require new Class 1 gathering pipelines that transport gas from wells to major transmission pipelines participate in the One Call program and provide maps.
A fatality involving a pipeline explosion last year in Armstrong County in western Pennsylvania underscores the need to bring gathering pipelines into the program, bill supporters said.
A worker suffered injuries that led to his death after a bulldozer he operated struck an unmarked high-pressure gathering line. This was the catalyst for a violent explosion and fire.
"These types of events are inevitable, but they are also clearly preventable, by eliminating the exemption in the current One Call law," said PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen.
Baker said existing gathering pipelines aren't included in the bill because they often are unmapped or were laid by companies no longer in business. A report issued earlier this year by Gov. Tom Wolf's task force on gas pipeline development recommends that all pipeline owners and operators participate in the call system to the greatest extent possible.
However, the report notes it may not be possible to have all existing pipelines in the system because of the lack of documentation and absence of cost-effective technology for locating older pipelines.
The Senate approved the measure 34-14, but rejected an amendment offered by western region senators to exempt specifically new conventional or shallow oil and gas well production lines from the program. Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport, voted against the bill because this amendment wasn't included.
The conventional production lines are low pressure and used for production purposes, said Yaw aide Adam Pankake.
The One Call bill faces potential votes in the House and the Senate to agree with House amendments this week as lawmakers rush to wrap up the voting session for 2016-17.
The authorization for the program expires at year's end lending an urgency to obtaining final passage this week, Baker said.