December 2020, Vol. 247, No. 12


GAO Cites ‘Generally Reliable’ Transmission Pipeline Service

By Stephen Barlas, Contributing Editor

Transmission pipelines received something of an endorsement from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a study that found “Reports of serious interruptions of service that interstate transmission pipeline operators submitted to FERC from 2015 to 2019 show that unplanned service interruptions were generally infrequent and limited in scope.”   

 The GAO did the survey after a request from two Rhode Island senators, reacting to an outage in their state where about 7,000 homes and businesses in Rhode Island went without heat for a week in January 2019.  

The report, published in October, looked at service interruptions to the customers of natural gas transmission pipelines between 2015 and 2019, and emerging risks of pipeline service interruptions.  

On the first score, pipelines got high grades. After interviewing operators who manage over nearly 94% of the total interstate natural gas transmission miles in the United States, the GAO concluded the transmission pipelines are “generally reliable.” That was based on reports of “serious interruptions of service” interstate pipelines are required to submit to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).   

Operators must file a report when the interruption of service to a firm customer is unplanned and lasts three or more hours. That happened 140 times from 2015 to 2019.  

The reports do not tell the whole story, however. Estimates based on these reports do not include interruptions lasting less than three hours or interruptions on pipelines that lie outside of FERC’s jurisdiction, such as intrastate gas transmission pipelines. Moreover, no operator has ever been fined for failing to submit a report so there really is no incentive to make a report.  

 The takeaway from the GAO report – besides the “attaboy” for the industry – is GAO’s belief that FERC needs to do a better job of identifying and assessing “trends in the frequency or scope of service interruptions on interstate transmission pipelines” because of the growing dependence of electric utilities on natural gas.  

“Without this analysis, FERC is not well positioned to take action, if necessary, to fulfill its mission of working to ensure reliable natural gas transportation,” the GAO concluded.  

It recommended two specific actions FERC should take. FERC should: 1.) use available information, such as reports by transmission pipeline operators on service interruptions, to identify and assess risks to the reliability of natural gas transmission service; 2) develop and document an approach to respond, as appropriate, to risks it identifies to the reliability of natural gas transmission service.   


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