Witnesses cite pipeline safety progress, and unfinished work

Significant progress has been made in making US oil and gas pipelines safer and reducing the number of accidental releases, government and industry witnesses agreed at a US Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee hearing. But they also emphasized that more work needs to be done.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued 77 recommendations since 2000 to the US Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) and its predecessor agency, the Research and Special Programs Administration, NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said in his written testimony at the Sept. 29 hearing. All but one—which dealt with training employees involved in integrity management programs to meet minimum professional qualification criteria—were accepted and implemented, Hart said.

Twenty-eight recent recommendations were based on a safety study of natural gas transmission pipelines integrity management (IM) programs in high-consequence areas (HCA) that NTSB’s Safety Research Division conducted earlier this year, Hart told the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security Subcommittee.

“The study found that, although PHMSA’s IM requirements have kept the rate of corrosion failures and material failures of pipe or welds low, no evidence exists to show that the overall occurrence of gas transmission pipeline incidents in HCA pipelines has declined,” Hart said. “Rather, the study identified areas where improvements need to be made.”

Hart also noted that safe operation of oil and gas pipelines is a responsibility shared by operators, government regulators, and local communities. PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez included Congress as an important partner when she made a similar point at the subcommittee’s first 2015 pipeline safety hearing on Sept. 18 in Billings, Mont. (OGJ Online, Sept. 21, 2015).

Seven GAO recommendations

Another witness testified that PHMSA has begun, but not fully completed, efforts to improve pipeline safety in response to seven recommendations it received from the Government Accountability Office since 2012. Susan A. Fleming, GAO’s physical infrastructure issues director, said in her written statement that the federal government watchdog service found information was insufficient from largely unregulated gathering pipelines, unreliable on operators’ incident response times, and the 7-year frequency for pipelines’ required integrity assessments.

“PHMSA has been working to propose regulatory changes to address safety risks of unregulated gathering pipelines, but this effort is not yet complete,” Fleming told the subcommittee. The agency also said enforcement has been hampered by conflicting and ambiguous language in current regulations that can produce multiple classifications for the same pipeline, effectively making some portions federally unregulated and others under its jurisdiction.

To improve incident reports, GAO recommended that PHMSA use better data to evaluate whether to implement a performance-based framework, Fleming said. Officials at the agency told GAO in July that they had begun to address this matter, including making changes to its incident reports and requiring that operators report specific pieces of information regarding an incident, she said.

“Additionally, PHMSA officials said that, later this year, they plan to propose further changes to the report forms to collect additional data that will allow the agency to better track incident response times,” Fleming said. “PHMSA officials also said they plan to develop a more specific performance-based standard for incident response as part of the upcoming February 2016 rulemaking.”

Awaiting final rules

Two witnesses representing gas industry associations said while it is essential for Congress to reauthorize pipeline safety legislation on schedule this year, key portions of the 2011 law still have not been implemented fully.

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America supported the most recent Pipeline Safety Act reauthorization and its implementation through regulations, INGAA Chairman Donald F. Santa said in his written testimony. “To date, however, [PHMSA] has not yet implemented several of the key regulatory mandates from the 2011 Act. INGAA hopes PHMSA will release these proposed regulations for public comment soon, so stakeholders can participate in a process that culminates in final rules within the next year.”

INGAA’s purpose is not to be critical of, but work collaboratively with, the federal pipeline regulator, Santa said. “The regulatory process goes far beyond what PHMSA can control, and policymakers should avoid assigning PHMSA too much blame for the delays in implementing the 2011 Act,” he said. Completion of those regulations will provide the necessary certain in a form that clearly defines expectation, Santa said.

“Natural gas distribution companies are eager to implement aspects of the 2011 Act that DOT has not finalized,” said WGL Holdings Chief Executive Terry McAllister, who testified on the American Gas Association’s behalf. “However, concern exists that their actions may be nullified if DOT’s final regulations are inconsistent with the legislation. These inconsistencies could result in unnecessary costs to customers, repeat work, and disruption to the public.”

He urged regulators to stay the course in developing comprehensive, risk-based requirements that provide the necessary regulatory certainty for gas utilities to ensure a safe and reliable local distribution system. “Many of these have only recently been implemented, and need time to be evaluated before additional regulations are created,” McAllister said in his written statement.

A fifth witness—Michael Bellamy, general manager of PII Pipeline Solutions, a pipeline inspection company based in Billerica, Mass.—said that in-line inspection technology is growing quickly so operators can prioritize problems that need the earliest attention.

“Regulations should encourage the development and adoption of new technology that can further enhance pipeline safety,” Ballamy said in his written statement. “Finding an effective way to share dig-verification data, in a no-fault environment, will enhance tool learning and make in-line inspection even more effective.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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