May 2019, Vol. 246, No. 5


Congress Begins to Consider Changes to Pipeline Safety Law

Stephen Barlas, Contributing Editor, Washington, D.C.

Congress had its first hearings in April in both the House and Senate on reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Act, which loses its current authority Sept. 30, 2019. 

There will perhaps be some new safety requirements passed given that both Democrats and Republicans are unhappy with the continuing rash of accidents. But the industry may get some new leeway to use some new engineering technologies, which the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) has been pushing for. 

The good news is that Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials subcommittee seems open to industry-requested changes. 

“It is important to listen to the reasonable requests of industry stakeholders,” he said. But he also noted that according to the PHMSA there have been 11,992 incidents, 317 deaths, 1,302 injuries and $8.1 billion in damage from pipeline accidents between 1999 and 2018. “That shows there is much work to be done to insure the safety of our pipeline system.”

The new pipeline bill almost surely to emerge from Congress by September will probably be a mild one, light on new safety or environmental requirements and light on new transmission company mandates. That is because the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has failed to complete a number of significant rulemakings mandated by the last two pipeline reauthorizations, on in 2011 the other in 2016. 

That failure has drawn the most fire from both Democrats and Republicans at hearings so far. One of the biggest pending rulemakings, this one mandated by the 2011 law, is a gas transmission rule which would lay down procedures for how pipelines expand their integrity management programs beyond high consequence areas and how they retest maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) for pre-1970 pipelines. “Our top objective is getting that rulemaking published in final form,” said C.J. Osman, director of Operations, Safety and Integrity at INGAA.  

Robin Rorick, vice president, Midstream and Industry Operations, American Petroleum Institute, who testified at the House subcommittee hearings on April 2, pressed the subcommittee to allow pipeline companies to simplify the “burdensome approval process” companies must go through to be able to use alternative safety technology.

 “Establishing clear parameters and deadlines associated with PHMSA’s review, notification, and approvals of alternative technology will help provide more certainty in the process and allow operators to utilize the latest cutting-edge technologies to further pipeline safety,” he stated. 

“With this in mind, 50-year old regulations that only allow for new technologies to be used one rulemaking at a time must be updated.” He also pushed for changes to current regulations which say pipeline operators must report pipeline incidents if they meet certain conditions, including a clean-up cost of $50,000 or higher.  

INGAA, too, supports those kinds of changes. But pipeline companies may be in somewhat of a defensive crouch given likely efforts by environmentalists and public interest groups to advocate for restrictions on methane releases and changes to the agency’s risk-benefit analysis requirements, which some view as an impediment to faster PHMSA action of the 2011 and 2016 mandates. 

Elgie Holstein, senior director for Strategic Planning, Environmental Defense Fund, told the House subcommittee according to EPA’s latest greenhouse gas inventory, leaks and routine operations in the transmission and storage lead to 1.3 mtpa of methane.

“The problem is clearly serious enough to merit additional action by PHMSA and by Congress,” she stated.   

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, pointed to “the unique and onerous cost-benefit requirements PHMSA finds itself saddled with.” 

The PHMSA is the only federal agency which must assess the risk of a new regulation based on a cost-benefit standard. Weimer said that requirement, for example, makes PHMSA unable to regulate the 435,000 miles of natural gas gathering lines because since they are unregulated there is no information available, for the most part, about them. So, the PHMSA would be unable to do a cost-benefit analysis.

Osman says INGAA would oppose the kind of cost-benefit rule changes Weimer suggests. P&GJ

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