Governor Tom Wolf has a growing Mariner East 2 problem—and now that his top aide is under an ethics investigation linked to the pipeline, his problems are not going away any time soon.
Sinkholes and Settlements With Sunoco
Sunoco’s drilling for the 350-mile Mariner East 2 volatile liquids pipeline recently led to sinkholes forming in West Whiteland, forcing families to evacuate their homes. The sinkholes prompted the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to issue an emergency order to stop the flow of the existing Mariner East 1 pipeline, which carries natural gas liquids from the fracking sites in Western Pennsylvania to the Marcus Hook terminal south of Philadelphia, where they are exported to Europe to produce plastic.
The sinkholes occurred just a little over a month after Governor Wolf and his Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced a surprise settlement with Sunoco over more than 100 violations of its construction permits (which were granted by the Wolf Administration despite known deficiencies). The DEP called Sunoco’s repeated violations “egregious and willful” violations of state law. But while Philadelphians were celebrating at a Super Bowl parade, Wolf was quietly entering into a $12.6 million settlement deal that would let the pipeline drilling continue. This construction has contaminated people’s drinking water and threatened their property, showing Sunoco’s disregard for the health and safety of the families living near it.
The fastest way for Governor Wolf to protect his constituents is by stopping the Mariner East 2 pipeline.
Ethics Investigations: Married To A Gas Industry Lobbyist
Ironically, on the same day that Governor Wolf announced his ethics reform plan, the news broke that the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission is formally investigating a complaint against his Deputy Chief of Staff, Yesenia Bane. The complaint was filed by Caroline Hughes, a Chester County resident and member of the Del-Chesco United for Pipeline Safety, a coalition of citizens’ groups concerned with how the Mariner East 2 threatens the health and safety of their communities.
The problem stems from a news report showing that, according to her 2016 daily calendar, Bane was regularly handling matters related to pipelines and drilling—despite being married to John Bane, a former gas industry lobbyist with Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, where he represented the massive Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, pipeline company Williams, and other fossil fuel interests. He is now working full time for the drilling company EQT as a senior government relations manager. Pennsylvania’s ethics law prevents public officials from using their office for private financial gain to benefit themselves, immediate family members, or businesses with which immediate family members are associated.
Errors in Sunoco's Mariner East 2 Permit Application
After Bane’s role came under scrutiny, the Wolf administration claimed that her duties had changed, and she no longer worked on oil and gas issues. However, we know that Bane continued to actively push for the approval of Mariner East 2 well into 2017. A recent Right to Know request revealed texts exchanged between Bane and DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell showing that Bane was initiating conversations with McDonnell regarding the Mariner East 2 pipeline and Sunoco Logistics as late as January and February of 2017. One message in particular raised serious concerns: she asked McDonnell if some of the errors flagged by DEP staff in Sunoco’s Mariner East 2 permit applications could “remain flexible for field adjustments.”
Meanwhile, the pressure on Wolf continues to build. At a special joint Senate committee hearing on pipeline safety on March 20, Republican and Democratic Senators alike referred to Sunoco as a “bad apple” and a “rogue company” for its abysmal track record. Senators also noted that Wolf’s DEP failed to submit written testimony for the hearing, and sent a mid-level staff person to present its case. As Senator Jack Rafferty put it, “DEP has been at the forefront of lack of execution of orders, and lack of oversight for the safety and welfare of the people of our district.”
While Wolf’s DEP is being taken to task by Senate Republicans for failing to devote adequate resources to the Mariner East 2 issue, one of his key staffers who has focused on the pipeline issue is blatantly compromised by her husband’s ties to the industry.
Governor Wolf should remove Yesenia Bane—and any other staff with ties to the oil and gas industry—from his administration. He should surround himself with advisors who can protect the public interest and the health and safety of residents of Pennsylvania, not the oil and gas industry. The fastest way for Governor Wolf to protect his constituents is by stopping the Mariner East 2 pipeline.