March 2019, Vol. 246, No. 3


PHMSA and Advisory Group Finalizing New Safety Program

A Voluntary Information Sharing (VIS) advisory group, working with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), voted to recommend a new, industry-wide safety reporting program in which employees, in a “no-fear” environment, would report pipeline operational and infrastructure risks and hazards.  Reports would be “de-identified” and centralized.  The goal is that potential problems would be found and corrected before they worsened, possibly becoming emergency situations.

This VIS effort was set in motion by Section 10 of the “Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016.”  Its charge is to –

“consider the development of a voluntary information-sharing system to encourage collaborative efforts to improve inspection information feedback and information sharing with the purpose of improving gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipeline facility integrity risk analysis.”

The VIS last met in December 2018, supposed to be its final meeting.  One critical agenda item was to vote on a recommendation – drafted by the Working Group – that the Secretary of Transportation should move ahead and establish a voluntary information sharing program, that such a program would benefit industry and society in general.  (PHMSA is an agency within DOT.)  The Working Group’s draft report to the Secretary is very clear:

“With this Report, the Committee recommends to the Secretary of Transportation that a pipeline VIS be stood up and a VIS Hub created. The Committee also recommends that steps be taken to ensure that pipeline operators and other stakeholders voluntarily participate in the system and share information and data to the VIS Hub now and well into the future.”

Elsewhere, the report tells that “the Committee unanimously states its conviction” (emphasis added) regarding initial recommendations to start a VIS project, adding that the Committee “believes that if these primary recommendations are accepted and implemented, the Nation will reap the benefits of improved pipeline safety and pipeline safety management systems.”

According to a PHMSA spokesman, the Working Group voted to approve “the recommendations that will be published in the (Draft) report, but the report itself is not yet complete.”  The core recommendations for a voluntary program will stand, but final details are still being resolved.  PHMSA personnel did not answer specific questions about next steps.

Working Group members were on the lookout for a revised draft in January; likely delayed because of the government shutdown.  Committee members will vote again on that revised report, then it will be made available for public comments, perhaps in the early spring. 

The Working Group Chairperson is Diane Burman, Commissioner, New York State Public Service Commission.  Through a spokesperson, Burman declined, without explanation, to answer questions about the December meeting.  Individual Working Group members, citing Burman’s refusal to talk, said they did not want it to appear as if one person might be speaking on behalf of the larger group.

VIS program development started two years ago, in December 2016.  The Working Group includes about 22 individuals representing all areas of the industry, including oil and gas companies, unions, public interest and environmental groups, academics and state utility commissions.  Alan Mayberry, PHMSA’s Associate Administrator for Pipeline Safety, is a member.  The Designated Federal Official is Christie Murray, with PHMSA.

Interestingly, the 2016 Act doesn’t require a voluntary program, just that the Working Group consider such a program and “provide recommendations to the Secretary,” who, presumably, could ignore the Group’s proposals or, indeed, move to enact the Group’s ideas.  Hence the importance of the December vote: what did they recommend to the Secretary: to support the Draft report, to move forward, or not?

The recommended program is a complicated one.  It will require new federal legislation and new funding.  From a review of VIS documents, it appears that all participants want a new program.  The Group’s unanimous support, from such a cross-section of interests, sends a strong message, very helpful to build momentum for next steps. 

Here’s a snapshot of what the Working Group will recommend to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao:

Members support an information sharing system used by the passenger airline industry.  This safety focus started in 1997, growing from just three airlines to an all-encompassing industry presence today, involving 99% of US aviation companies.  Critically, the Working Group directly links the passenger airlines’ stellar safety record, covering years of expansion and growth, to the presence and performance of this voluntary safety system.

The model cited by the VIS Working Group is called “Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing”– ASIAS.  Here’s why the Working Group likes it:

It is collaborative, involving the FAA and the airlines to “proactively analyze existing and voluntarily provided safety data to advance aviation safety.”  The ASIAS program works closely with the airlines’ Commercial Aviation Safety Team and the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee “to monitor known risk, evaluate the effectiveness of deployed mitigations, and detect emerging risk.”

The Working Group likes ASIAS’ governing principles:

  • Voluntary Submission of safety sensitive data;
  • Transparency for how data are managed and utilized;
  • Analysis approved by an ASIAS Executive Board;
  • Procedures and policies based on collaborative governance;
  • Operator/Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM)/Maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) date are “de-identified;” and,
  • Data (is) used solely for advancement of safety.

In summary, the Working Group “recommends incorporating the ASIAS characteristics into a pipeline safety VIS. By providing a system to mainstream an industry-wide culture of information sharing, the ASIAS system is the leading example and best model for the pipeline safety VIS to emulate.”

Importantly, ASIAS is an organizational entity of its own.  It has an Executive Board that directs studies, monitors risks, vulnerabilities and shares the results of this work with all participants.  ASIAS has two distinct information systems: the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) and the Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA).  These were reviewed closely by the Working Group.

The purpose of ASAP is to prevent accidents and incidents by encouraging employees of certificate holders to voluntarily report safety issues and events, information that may be critical to identifying potential precursors to accidents.

FOQA is a voluntary safety program designed to improve aviation safety through the proactive use of flight-recorded data. The value of FOQA programs is the early identification of adverse safety trends. Key elements include corrective action and follow-up to ensure that unsafe conditions are remediated.

In a summary, the Working Group writes that “compared to the airline industry, it is clear that there are inconsistencies and gaps in information sharing across the pipeline industry that need to be filled.”  Information sharing within the airline industry, for example, is “voluntary,” with “broad adoption.”  In the pipeline industry it was categorized as “ad-hoc and limited.”

The Working Group writes in the Draft that, for pipelines, “there is no existing industry-wide culture of consistent data sharing and trust” and, additionally, “safety advocate, environmental, and labor stakeholders are increasingly alarmed by what they perceive as a lack of transparency and honesty with regards to pipeline safety information.”

In a section titled “The Need for an Information Sharing System” the Working Group concludes:

“An effective information sharing system is critical to ensure the integrity, reliability, and safety of our pipeline infrastructure and to bridge data and information gaps across the industry to advance pipeline safety.”

As noted, the Draft recommendations present a strongly unified front among all the Working Group members.  That energy will be needed for next steps, even if the Secretary should endorse their full proposal.  New regulatory programs are always difficult.  This one starts with many challenges.

Consider the following.

The Working Group makes three Primary Recommendations:

  1. Congress should authorize and “stand up” a VIS, to include participation by pipeline operators, PHMSA, and other pipeline safety stakeholders.
  2. Congress should enact legislation to provide confidentiality, non-punitive, and other legal protections to pipeline operators that participate in the VIS.
  3. Distribution System information sharing must be included in the VIS program if meaningful industry incident reduction is to be achieved.

Then, there follows six “Supporting Recommendations.”  Then, four Recommendations for “Governance.”  Then seven Recommendations for “Competence, Awareness and Training.”  Then eleven Recommendations for “Process Sharing.” Then nine Recommendations for “Technology/R&D.”  Then five Recommendations for “Best Practices.”  Fifteen pages of Recommendations, presented just in summary form.

Issues of concern at the December meeting covered a range of topics: technology, “process sharing,” competency and training, best practices, legal and regulatory, and funding.  The public draft will present what’s expected within each of these programmatic categories.

Implementation will require Congress to act.  The Working Group writes that if its three primary recommendations are rejected, “the VIS effort will not be successful.”  Congress needs to act on two of those three.  All told, implementation will need Congressional action on at least seven topics.  That’s a big ask, at least within one Congressional two-year session.

Pipeline safety is a major concern in Congress right now, or at least one that’s highly publicized.  Pipeline development and expansion confront challenges in just about every state and legislative district, particularly the Northeast.  Perhaps Congress’ broad awareness, aligned with strong lobbying by VIS supporters, will push this complicated effort forward.

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