Partnerships are essential for success, new PHMSA administrator says

Partnerships with pipeline owner-operators, state and local governments, and Congress will be critical as the US Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) strives to be a more effective regulator amid rapid change, its new administrator told a US Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee on Sept. 18.

“First, PHMSA is undergoing an organizational assessment,” Marie Therese Dominguez said at the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security Subcommittee’s field hearing in Billings, Mont. “Through this assessment, the agency will work to optimize its regulations, enforcement authority, and internal processes to ensure that it is structured to be responsive and drive innovation that enhances the safety mission.”

The fiscal 2015 federal budget provided the US Department of Transportation agency with money to hire 109 employees, 80% of whom will be working on inspection and enforcement, Dominguez said in her written testimony.

“PHMSA has an aggressive strategy under way to recruit, hire, and fill these positions as quickly as possible,” Dominguez said. “The majority of these positions will consist of inspectors and enforcement personnel to be located across our five regional offices to oversee operators’ pipeline safety programs, conduct critical inspections and accident investigations, and participate in spill-response activities.”

The agency also is undergoing an organizational assessment to optimize its regulations, enforcement authority, and internal processes, Dominguez said. It is the first DOT division to implement an agency safety action plan ordered by Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx to find ways to use existing authority and capabilities more effectively, she said.

New proposed rulemaking

PHMSA also has completed 26 of 42 mandates in the 2011 Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act, Dominguez testified. The agency separately announced the same day that the White House Office of Management and Budget completed its review of a new proposed rulemaking, which PHMSA is preparing for publication in the Federal Register in 7-10 days.

“We believe the proposed regulations will result in critical safety improvements to our hazardous liquid pipeline system and prevent incidents that can be devastating to people and the environment,” Dominguez said.

She said recent crude oil pipeline leaks in Montana (OGJ Online, Feb. 17, 2015) and California (OGJ Online, June 4, 2015) underscore the need to work with state partners to push for improvements that mitigate risk and prevent future incidents.

“States’ input and experience is critical as PHMSA sets public policy, strategically allocates resources, and moves forward with new regulations,” Dominguez said. “Through agreements and certifications, states assume authority over more than 80% of intrastate gas and hazardous liquid distribution and transmission pipelines by inspecting and enforcing both federal and state regulations.

“PHMSA’s efforts to support pipeline safety also include providing grant funding to support state damage prevention programs and technical assistance related to pipeline safety issues,” she added.

Montana state and local governments have worked with pipeline owner-operators and PHMSA to apply lessons learned from a 750-1,000 bbl leak from ExxonMobil Pipeline Co.’s Silvertip line into the Yellowstone River during heavy runoff 4 years ago (OGJ Online, July 7, 2011), a second witness told the subcommittee.

Range of actions

“River crossings have been looked at, new pipelines and older ones are being bored much deeper under our important waterways, and new valves have been installed with additional monitoring equipment with a focus on pipeline safety and more efficient operations while working to reduce the possibility of future incidents,” Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund said in his written testimony.

It is in pipelines’ and refineries’ best interests to comply with all safety regulations, he noted. “I see a strong desire by the private companies to go beyond what is expected,” Ostlund said. “While regulation and compliance are important, please consider that overregulation drives up costs, slows progress, and impedes new development at a time when oil production in our great country is at an all-time high.”

A Phillips 66 Pipeline LLC official told the subcommittee that following the 2011 ExxonMobil pipeline leak, the Phillips 66 division launched a large-scale effort in its Billings division to survey more than 400 crossings to verify the depth of cover and identify those prone to erosion and water channel changes; and identify and assess hundreds of potential land movement features that could affect its pipelines.

It then tried to develop metrics to prioritize higher-risk pipelines based on depth of cover, channel migration and scour potential, possible impact from debris, land movement, and possible consequences to water users downstream and others, Phillips 66 Pipeline Pres. Todd Denton said in his written testimony.

“We then used the data gathered to select and mitigate permanent mitigation strategies such as new horizontal directional drills (HDDs), new trenched crossings targeting double potential scour depth, bank stabilization, and pipeline relocations,” Denton said. Phillips 66 Pipeline also operates a real-time flood event monitoring program for flood events which includes proactive snow monitoring, historic flow rates and trigger maximum flow rates, and US Geological Survey real-time stream flow which includes data from 40 measuring stations, Denton said.

Projected expenditures

“These efforts do not come cheaply,” Denton said. “The Billings Division alone plans to spend nearly $120 million on approximately 100 projects over six years averaging nearly $20 million/year. This program has been successful in large part due to the cooperation of many stakeholders and government agencies including PHMSA; the Montana governor’s office; multiple state, county, and local agencies, the Tribal Nations, and many landowners,” Denton said.

Michelle Slyder, a founding member and treasurer of the Montana Liquid & Gas Pipeline Association (MLGPA), said the organization of 30 major operators meets or exceeds federal requirements to deliver baseline messages to responders annually and to public officials every 3 years through its Pipeline Association for Public Awareness (PAPA).

“In 2007, MLGPA began hosting more than 20 face-to-face meetings annually with emergency responders and public officials,” she said in her written testimony. “Through these meetings, MLGPA members meet with an average of more than 600 stakeholders annually. This outreach is performed by the members and not contractors, and is crucial to establishing the relationships necessary to ensure effective response and teamwork in the event of a pipeline release.”

The association also conducts substantial outreach to excavators and other stakeholders through a partnership it developed with the Montana Utility Coordinating Council and Montana811, which includes a statewide advertising campaign and effectiveness surveys to promote the “Call Before You Dig” program to the state’s residents, Slyder said.

“The members of MLGPA consider collaborative organizations to be a cornerstone of our success,” she said. “The extensive level of stakeholder engagement in Montana proves that it is effective to allow operators the flexibility to implement commonsense local strategies to address code requirements, and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to public awareness.”

Contact Nick Snow at

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