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Hearing to begin on pipeline reversal

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A pipeline fight that began nearly a year ago is moving from the court of public opinion to a hearing room in Harrisburg.

On Monday an administrative law judge for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission will begin hearing arguments for and against a plan to reverse the flow of gasoline on part of a pipeline that crosses the state.

Advocates say the reversal will allow cheaper Midwestern fuel to reach more of Pennsylvania and reduce dependence on imports.

They have asked the PUC for permission to reverse a section of the Laurel Pipe Line, which carries gas west across the state from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Terminals are scattered along the way, including at several points in the midstate.

Buckeye Partners, which operates the line, wants gasoline to continue flowing eastward to Eldorado, near Altoona.

"We appreciate PUC’s thoughtful consideration of the overwhelmingly clear facts and long-term market fundamentals driving this important project, which will help create meaningful consumer and energy security benefits for the entire commonwealth," Bill Hollis, senior vice president for Buckeye, said in a statement.

Critics say the move will turn Pittsburgh into a captive market for Midwestern refiners, which will not be able to meet the demand, thereby driving up prices.

"If there’s any kind of problem in the Midwest or pipeline issues, prices are going to spike and without having eastern supply to buffer that, you’re going to have prices spike even higher and last even longer," said Michael Lorenz, executive vice president of petroleum supply for Sheetz Inc. The Altoona-based convenience-store chain is among those opposing the reversal.

Critics also have questioned whether Buckeye will eventually seek to reverse additional portions of the pipeline.

Buckeye has said it would like the reversal to take place in 2018. But there is no time limit on the PUC’s decision making.

The administrative law judge will weigh evidence from this week’s hearings and make a recommendation to the Public Utility Commission. The commission will make the ultimate determination, though its ruling could be appealed.

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