There are three bills before the Pennsylvania General Assembly that could impact basic services that many Pennsylvanians take for granted. All three involve jurisdiction over pipes that run underground in the Commonwealth. The first two bills before the Pennsylvania General Assembly concern whether the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (“PUC”) or the municipalities/authorities will ultimately get to set rates and reasonable service standards for water and sewer service provided by municipalities. The third bill before the General Assembly came into the spotlight on October 10, 2017 when Rep. Barrar filed a resolution, strongly urging the PUC to deny Laurel Pipeline’s Application to reverse the flow of its Philadelphia-to-Pittsburgh pipeline from the current westerly flow to easterly.
There are two House Bills (“HB”) that would address the issue of who regulates the rates and service of municipal entities: HB 798, introduced by Rep. Tina Davis of Bucks County and HB 1490, introduced by House Speaker, Rep. Mike Turzai of Allegheny County. The broader of the two bills, in terms of scope, HB 798 would simply revise the definition of “public utility” found at 66 Pa. C.S. § 102, to include:
[A]ny municipal corporation now or hereafter owning or operating in this Commonwealth equipment or facilities for:
- Diverting, developing, pumping, impounding, distributing or furnishing water to or for the public for compensation.
- Sewage collection, treatment or disposal for the public for compensation.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Code defines “Municipal corporation” as: “All cities, boroughs, towns, townships, or counties of this Commonwealth, and also any public corporation, authority, or body whatsoever created or organized under any law of this Commonwealth for the purpose of rendering any service similar to that of a public utility.” 66 Pa. C.S. § 102. Accordingly, this “simple” revision would effectively subject all municipal sewer and water systems -- including those owned or operated by municipal authorities -- to PUC regulation similar to all other for-profit water and sewer companies currently serving in Pennsylvania. Today, municipalities are free to set rates and conditions of service, subject to oversight only by the county courts of common pleas upon the complaint of patrons.
There have been some high-profile cases in recent years involving allegations that municipal authorities, perhaps because their members are appointed, not elected, had engaged in questionable decision-making, but it is not clear if this particular issue inspired the legislation. Nonetheless, this bill, if passed, would have far ranging impact: on the PUC by expanding its jurisdiction to many new water and sewer systems that so far have not been subjected to the rigors of regulation; and to the municipalities themselves, that would be required to seek approval for rates and subject their water and sewer service to new requirements from accounting and billing to tapping fees and disconnections. HB 791 has been in the Local Government Committee since March of this year and it is not clear whether it will ever have the support to move out of committee.
Speaker Turzai’s HB 1490 on the other hand appears to be very near the finish line; it already has passed the House, and in the Senate, has passed on Second consideration. It now requires a final vote in the Senate and the Governor’s signature to become law. HB 1490 appears to take a more surgical approach, modifying 66 Pa. C.S. § 1301 to require that when the PUC is determining what constitutes “just and reasonable” rates for municipal corporations providing water and/or sewer service beyond the corporate limits, which service currently is subject to PUC jurisdiction, the PUC shall use an imputed capital structure of comparable utilities providing similar service. This provision would allow the PUC to treat this type of extra-territorial service on a similar footing as its for-profit competitors from a rate making perspective.
The primary purpose of HB 1490, however, would be to subject Cities of the Second Class, of which Pittsburgh is the only one (Scranton is a City of the Second Class A) and any municipal authorities which own or operate water systems, sewer systems or storm water systems in such cities, to the full range of PUC regulation, except for Chapters 11 (certificates of public convenience in certain circumstances) and 21 (affiliated interests) of the Public Utility Code. It would appear that the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (“PWSA”) is the target of this bill. Published accounts of expected large rate increases and vastly understaffed customer service departments may hint at the reasons why Speaker Turzai has turned his attention Pittsburgh’s way, but nonetheless, it would appear fairly certain that PWSA soon may find itself spending more time in Harrisburg.
Rather than seeking to regulate that which is now arguably not regulated, HR 531 seeks to enlist the entire House in doing what a large number of legislators already have done on their own, which is to urge the PUC to deny Laurel Pipeline’s (an intrastate petroleum pipeline) request to reverse the flow on its line west of Eldorado, which, according to the resolution, would have the effect of closing, from the Eastern PA refineries, the Pittsburgh market for gasoline, diesel fuel and heating oil thus making Pittsburgh a captive market of Midwest refineries. It appears, based upon the name of the project, “Broadway”, and certain media accounts, that Buckeye (Laurel Pipeline’s parent that also operates interstate pipelines) aspires to eventually reverse the flow of the Laurel line over its entire length so that it can allow Midwest refiners to reach New York Harbor. As part of the Application, Buckeye would remove much of the pipeline from PUC jurisdiction and convert it to oversight by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”), which in the case of petroleum pipelines, is much less extensive than PUC regulation.
The Application currently is in litigation before an Administrative Law Judge and will eventually end up before the Commissioners, perhaps as soon as early next summer. The battle lines have been drawn, with Laurel on the side of closing the Western PA market to Pennsylvania refineries, in favor its allies, the Midwest refineries. On the other side, the largest sellers of gasoline and diesel in Western PA, Sheetz and Giant Eagle, have sided with the Pennsylvania refineries because the local supply from Eastern PA, which now competes with the Midwestern supply in the Pittsburgh market, is generally lower priced than Midwestern supply for most of the year, which benefits customers. The reversal will eliminate the current competition and make Western PA captive to those Midwest refineries. The long and short of it is, according to the Resolution, Laurel is attempting to leverage the regulatory process to pick market winners and losers, while Rep. Barrar of Delaware County is seeking to throw down the gauntlet for the PUC by bringing the matter to the attention of the entire House.