NTSB: Pipeline safety among top 10 transportation issues for 2013

The National Transportation Safety Board listed enhancing pipeline safety as one of the top 10 US transportation challenges for 2013. The US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Board and several oil and gas industry groups responded that they are already working hard to meet that challenge.

“We’re releasing the list now so it is available to policymakers at the state and federal levels as well as industry groups as they craft their priorities for 2013,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.H. Hersman said Nov. 14. “We want to highlight the results of our investigations and ensure that safety has a seat at the table when decisions are made.”

Enhancing pipeline safety—along with distraction elimination, fire safety, infrastructure integrity, positive train control systems, and motor vehicle collision avoidance technologies—are new to the independent federal agency’s annual list. It said the four other 2013 transportation challenges include airport surface operations safety, substance-impaired driving, general aviation safety, and bus operations’ safety.

In information that accompanied its announcement, NTSB said improved industry oversight is the first key to enhancing pipeline safety. “With hazardous materials coursing through pipelines, it is vital that pipeline operators be routinely evaluated according to effective performance-based standards,” it said. “Federal and state oversight agencies should work together to identify deficiencies in a pipeline operator's safety program and ensure that those deficiencies are corrected,” NTSB continued.

Acted aggressively

Responding to NTSB’s announcement, Jeannie Layson, PHMSA’s governmental, international, and public affairs director, said the US Department of Transportation agency already has acted aggressively to address pipeline safety issues identified by NTSB. “This has included strengthening enforcement of pipeline safety rules, raising awareness of the dangers of distraction, and focusing transportation funding on making sure our existing infrastructure is safe and in a state of good repair,” she said.

“PHMSA has been working hard to raise awareness about and urge replacement of aging pipeline infrastructure, and will continue to hold operators accountable when they violate safety laws,” Layson added.

Oil and gas industry groups involved in pipeline operations also noted that safety improvement already is a top priority as they applauded NTSB’s making this one of 2013’s 10 top transportation priorities.

“Pipelines are the safest way to transport crude oil and products where they need to go,” observed Peter Lidiak, the American Petroleum Institute’s pipelines director. “The nation’s crude oil and liquid fuels pipelines have an outstanding safety record and operators understand the need for continuous improvement.”

He said that between 1999 and 2011, the number of liquid pipeline releases was reduced by about 60% and the volume released cut by a little more than 40%.

Working hard

Andrew J. Black, president of the Association of Oil Pipelines, said his group’s members are working hard on safety improvements suggested by NTSB, PHMSA, and their own initiatives. Operators reported this summer that they spent more than $1.1 billion on pipeline integrity management in 2011 and announced an additional $1 million investment in new research to improve in-line pipeline technology and inspection capabilities, he said.

“In June, pipeline operators embraced a series of safety principles reflecting their shared safety values, including zero incidents, organization-wide commitment to safety, promoting safety culture, continuous improvement, learning from experience, safety systems for success, employing technology, and communicating with stakeholders,” Black said.

They also have taken up NTSB's recommendation to develop a pipeline industry standard for safety management systems, with representatives from industry, the public, and government coming together soon to begin that effort, Black added.

Natural gas pipelines are committed to safe and reliable operations, and take that commitment seriously, according to Interstate Natural Gas Association Pres. Donald F. Santa. He noted that INGAA established a board-level pipeline safety taskforce in 2010 and adopted five pipeline safety guiding principles in 2011 with the goal of reducing pipeline accidents to zero.

“INGAA is engaging stakeholders continuously, including NTSB, federal and state regulators, safety advocates, first responders, and the public, to discuss our efforts and conduct a dialogue about the path forward,” Santa said. “INGAA members have acted voluntarily, and are moving forward transparently.”

A top priority

Pipeline safety and integrity already is a top priority for US gas utilities, which work continuously to improve their operations, American Gas Association Pres. Dave McCurdy said. “Our members have incredibly innovative programs to help maintain the safety and integrity of gas pipelines and the safe and reliable service they provide to their customers every day,” he maintained.

“Due to its environmental, economic, and national security benefits, I have no doubt natural gas will play a significant role in our nation’s energy future, but in order to make this a reality, we need to maintain our infrastructure, promote safe practices, and sustain reliable service throughout the entire industry,” McCurdy continued.

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, Wash., said the citizens’ watchdog group was encouraged that NTSB added enhancing pipeline safety to its 2013 “most wanted” list.

“We are hopeful that this added focus can bring about some significant needed improvements,” Weimer told OGJ. “After a series of pipeline spills and tragedies over the past few years, we completely agree with the NTSB that improvements are needed in emergency and spill response, greater oversight by state and federal regulators, and clear verification that companies are assessing the risks to their pipelines correctly.

“While everyone agrees that zero pipeline incidents is the goal, pipeline operators and regulators need to now ensure that their actual actions along the pipelines in our neighborhoods line up with their often stated good intentions," Weimer said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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