May 30, 2014
The head of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has resigned from an organization that bills itself as an advocate for the state's growing energy industry.
The move by Robert Powelson, chairman of the state PUC and a Kennett Square resident, comes as the regulatory agency is being asked to rule on Sunoco Logistics' request to expand a natural gas pump station at Boot Road and Route 202 in West Goshen. Powelson resigned from the Greater Philadelphia Energy Action Team two weeks after a report from StateImpact Pennsylvania cited concerns about his ties to the group and how they might conflict with his role as chairman of the PUC.
Powelson, former president of the Chester County Chamber of Business & Industry, submitted his resignation letter from the Energy Action Team to Robert Wonderling, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, on May 14. Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for the PUC, said the PUC has a policy regarding commission members who are involved with outside organizations, but it only applies to members who are compensated for their involvement. She noted that Powelson was a volunteer of the Energy Action Team.
According to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce's website, the Energy Action Team serves as "ambassadors, advocates, and educators for expansion of and investment in the energy, petrochemical, manufacturing, and infrastructure sectors in the area." The chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Energy Action Team is Phil Rinaldi, chief executive officer of Philadelphia Energy Solutions LLC, which lists Sunoco Inc. as a minority partner. In addition to Powelson, other members of the Energy Action Team include U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-7th of Delaware County, and Michael Krancer, an attorney who is part of the law firm currently representing Sunoco in its Mariner East case in front of the PUC, according to reports.
In his resignation letter, Powelson writes that he is resigning as a member of the Energy Action Team to "avoid even the appearance of bias with respect to issues that may come before the Commission." "This is a transformative time for the energy industry in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and as a result, there are several emerging issues that may require PUC review," the letter says. "These proposals have the potential to change the energy landscape in Pennsylvania," he continues later in the letter. "However, as they develop, I am becoming increasingly concerned about the nexus between matters of interest to the Energy Action Team and my official duties as Chairman of the PUC."
In the letter, Powelson notes that he had "little input" on the activities of the Energy Action Team as a member, saying he attended only two meetings and the team never took any official actions or positions based on Powelson's opinions. Powelson was not paid to be a member of the team. According to StateImpact, Powelson has previously voiced support for Sunoco's Mariner East project, prior to the company's application for public utility corporation status. At a recent PUC public meeting, Powelson said he did not know whether he should recuse himself from Sunoco's hearing.
One local group opposed to the Sunoco pipeline project, the Chester County Community Coalition, questioned Powelson's impartiality on the matter. In part, the letter released by group cofounder Tom Casey reads: "The Chester County Community Coalition has seen the letter from Chairman Powelson concerning his departure from the Energy Action Team. It seems odd that he has resigned from a group that he has clearly stated is important to him. As a public official he has an obligation to make decisions that are best, not only for business, but for the people of the state."
Powelson joined the commission in 2008, appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell, before Gov. Tom Corbett named him chairman in 2011. In February, he was reappointed as chairman of the five-member commission. According to the state's PennWATCH website, Powelson's annual salary is $145,241. According to the PUC's website, "The PUC balances the needs of consumers and utilities to ensure safe and reliable utility service at reasonable rates; protect the public interest; educate consumers to make independent and informed utility choices; further economic development; and foster new technologies and competitive markets in an environmentally sound manner."
Currently the PUC is reviewing Sunoco's application for public utility status for its Mariner East project. The project includes repurposing a pipeline to transport liquid natural gas byproducts, such as ethane and propane, from the Marcellus Shale region in western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook refinery in Delaware County. The products would then be mainly exported around the country and internationally, Sunoco has said. The pipeline, built in the 1930s, previously carried petroleum products. Sunoco has recently said that the pipeline will also be used to transport propane to its refinery in Twin Oaks in Aston, Pa., for local customers.
Sunoco has asked the PUC for public utility status for its above-ground facilities, including a pump station at Boot Road and Route 202, which would exempt those facilities from local regulations. Local residents have criticized the plan, citing safety concerns. The pump station would include a 30-foot vapor combustion system and is located in a residential zoning area. Sunoco also recently withdrew its zoning application in front of the West Goshen's Zoning Hearing Board. The application asked the township to allow a public utility use in a residentially zoned area. Sunoco withdrew the application, saying the company felt the PUC was the "appropriate public venue" for approval of such facilities. West Chester Daily Local News
Unsolicited marketing by text message is now illegal in Connecticut. Gov. Dannel Malloy on Thursday signed legislation that adds text messages to the state's "Do Not Call" registry. Sen. Paul Doyle, co-chairman of the legislature's General Law Committee, said during legislative debate that lawmakers were responding to complaints that consumers were being charged for unsolicited messages from telemarketers and other businesses. The law increases the maximum fine for violations to $20,000 from $11,000. It requires companies issuing account statements for cellphones and landline phones to print a conspicuous notice at least twice a year informing consumers of prohibited actions by solicitors and how to place their numbers on the "Do Not Call" registry. Associated Press
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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on Thursday continued to stump against Comcast's proposed $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable in an appearance at the Code Conference. Hastings accused Comcast of wanting to become the post office, a big national monopoly.
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts took his own shots when he took the stage at the Code Conference on Wednesday, saying Netflix just does not want to bear the costs of the massive volume of Internet traffic that its subscribers generate. Netflix paid for postage to ship DVDs to subscribers, it should pay for traffic, Roberts said. "They used to spend three-quarters of a billion dollars for postage," Roberts said.
He said the two companies are still friendly even though Hastings has complained about a deal Netflix struck with Comcast to speed up transmission. Hastings concedes that Netflix streaming accounts for about a third of Internet traffic. But, he said, should Comcast be allowed to grow ever larger, it will keep charging more "not just us, but to the whole Internet." The merger would give Comcast control of 40% of the Internet broadband and most of the nation's cable market. Regulators are reviewing the merger. USA Today; more in Philadelphia Business Journal
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