IBEW members have helped convert the Marcus Hook industrial complex from an oil refinery to a processing facility for natural gas liquids. 

A massive pipeline project spanning the southern half of Pennsylvania has helped bring steady jobs for hundreds of IBEW members across the state, but after four long years, the first phase is finally nearing completion with the second close behind.

“Having highly trained electricians such as ours working on this major, complex infrastructure project is the best way to ensure a quality outcome and a safely built project,” said IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson. “As this pipeline project wraps up, we’re proud to have been a part of making it a reality.”

The Sunoco Logistics Mariner East 2 project consists of two 350-mile long pipelines designed to take natural gas liquids — such as ethane, propane, and butane — drawn from the Marcellus and Utica oil shale fields of Ohio and transport them across West Virginia’s northern panhandle and 17 southern Pennsylvania counties to the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex on the Delaware River in suburban Philadelphia.

The oil shale was formed over millions of years, starting as deposits of silt and organic debris at the bottoms of pre-historic lakes and other large bodies of water. Over time, heat and pressure transformed the deposits into oil shale in a process similar to how crude oil is formed.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Marcellus Shale contains about 3.4 billion barrels of recoverable natural gas liquids; the Utica Shale, 208 million barrels. (There are 42 gallons in one barrel.)

When complete, the Mariner East 2 pipeline will span 350 miles, from eastern Ohio to the Marcus Hook facility in suburban Philadelphia.
Map provided by Energy Transfer Partners.

IBEW’s relationship with the Mariner East 2 project began about four years ago. The international union’s Business Development Department offered Energy Transfer Partners — the owners of the Sunoco Logistics — to go before Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, as well as local governments along the pipeline’s proposed route and the public at large, to explain how using a safe, highly trained workforce would result in a safe, quality project and have a positive economic impact thanks to the local jobs it would create.

“We committed to Energy Transfer Partners to use our trained workers to help deliver their project on-time,” said Ed Hill Jr., IBEW Third District International Representative for Business Development, “to advocate for the project, and to assist them in sourcing qualified contractors to bid the project’s electrical portions in exchange for the work.

“Backed by our 350,000 construction members and our more than 14,000 electrical construction partners,” Hill said, “our goal was to make sure that Energy Transfer Partners understood the value that union electricians bring to construction projects.”

The union also offered to meet with Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to help secure contractors who typically bid on the types of electrical work required and to help generate broad support for the estimated $2.5 billion project.

“My involvement was mainly going to public meetings and DEP meetings,” said Reading, Pa., Local 743 Business Manager Ryan Helms. “Myself and other building trades and IBEW members went to speak on behalf of Sunoco.”

“We attended a lot of the hearings,” said Harrisburg, Pa., Local 143 Business Manager Robert Bair. “We spoke about the amount of jobs this type of project could bring to Pennsylvania.”

The new pipes are designed to supplement and mostly parallel the 80-year-old Mariner East 1 pipeline, a former gasoline conduit that has been reconfigured to carry natural gas liquids.

A Sunoco-funded report by Philadelphia’s Econsult Solutions figured that the Mariner East 2 project has supported close to 10,000 construction jobs across several trades, and it has helped to establish more than 500 permanent jobs.

“We’ve been able to build kind of a bridge, where labor and business are working together on another level — instead of just us as labor working with just our contractors that we commonly work with,” Helms said. “We wanted to step outside of the normal boundaries, and now we are working with the end-user — the customer — to help them bring a project in.”

A dispute in January between the DEP and Sunoco regarding permit violations put the project on hold for a month, but the company still estimates that the first Mariner East 2 pipeline will be in service by July, the second one by next April.

“Energy development in Pennsylvania gives us an economic advantage over other regions,” Chester, Pa., Local 654 business manager Paul Mullen said. “Using local union labor means this project will be built by dependable, highly trained, highly skilled craftsman who have spent decades training, building and maintaining infrastructure.”

“Pennsylvania has a unique opportunity, with multiple proposed pipeline projects, to bring huge economic benefits to the region,” said Bair. “At the same time, we’re ensuring direct access to our homegrown energy resources.”

Natural gas liquids can be turned into plastics, burned for heating and cooking, or blended with other petroleum products to become vehicle fuel. Energy Transfer Partners said that most of the pipeline-transported material processed at the Marcus Hook refinery gets loaded on ships bound for manufacturing facilities in Europe.

A former oil refinery, Marcus Hook has in recent years become a source of work — and of pride — for IBEW members.

The 1902-built facility once produced fuel for aircraft flown by the United States during World War II. Through the second half of the 20th century, it served as a major gasoline producer, eventually becoming an exclusive petroleum products provider for NASCAR.

With crude oil prices still soaring in 2011, as the U.S. economy struggled to recover following the Great Recession, Sunoco was forced to close Marcus Hook and lay off hundreds of workers. A year later, though, with interest in shale field drilling taking off, Energy Transfer Partners reopened the refinery, eventually hiring more than 5,000 workers to repurpose the industrial complex as a site for the eventual distribution, warehousing, and processing of billions of gallons of natural gas liquids.

Mullen estimates that the Marcus Hook project, which lies within Local 654’s jurisdiction, has generated hundreds of electrician jobs for his local alone, as well as providing a much-needed economic boost for the entire area.

“It’s been a godsend,” Mullen told West Chester, Pa.’s Daily Local News. “Everybody’s working and earning a good living. This is the best thing we’ve had around here for the last 27 years.”

The range of electrical work has included pre-outage tasks such as preparing and terminating cables plus installing and grounding cables and other equipment. Other work has included metering and upgrading Marcus Hook to take advantage of a more modern distributed control system.

“At the peak of this job, there were probably 750 electricians down here, total,” said Local 654 President William Adams. “We had manpower come from surrounding locals, and we probably had at least 350 members from our own local, too.”

Energy Transfer Partners says that the Mariner East and Marcus Hook projects generate more than $100 million a year for Pennsylvania’s economy.

“When trades like IBEW do the work, that’s good news for our members and great news for our communities,” Mullen said, “because having skilled tradesmen on the job enhances safety and efficiency in building and maintenance.”