Improved pipeline safety needed at all levels, NARUC committee told

Oil and gas pipelines and the government agencies that regulate them are making progress in improving safety and responses by emphasizing greater involvement at all levels, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioner’s Natural Gas Committee learned on Feb. 10.

“All sectors of the industry have embraced the goal of zero accidents through continuous improvement,” Jeffrey Wiese, associate administrator for pipeline safety at the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, said at the session during NARUC’s 2014 Winter Committee Meetings.

“Regulators don’t operate pipelines,” Wiese said, adding, “Our job is to influence those who do. Some of this involves enforcing regulations, but a lot of it involves working together.” Within the companies, he said PHMSA has found that “management has to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk,” adding, “But there also has to be commitment at lower levels.”

John Vorderbrueggen, chief of the pipeline and hazardous materials division at the National Transportation Safety Board, said NTSB went to the American Petroleum Institute after a July 2010 leak at an Enbridge Inc. pipeline in Michigan spilled crude oil into the Kalamazoo River to develop nonmandatory safety and response guidelines for operators to use.

That accident, which became the costliest onshore environmental event in US history ($2 billion and counting), revealed serious operating lapses in employees’ responses as well as problems in the pipeline itself, he indicated.

NTSB encourages its investigators to examine the entire organization when examining an accident, he told the committee. “It’s important to capture all the data when a pipeline is built so it can be studied later, but that’s not always possible since much of the pipelines in the ground were installed before this became the customary procedure,” Vorderbrueggen said.

Hidden infrastructure

“Also, with pipelines, most of the infrastructure is out of sight, unlike refineries or chemical plants,” he continued. Employee lapses during operations can lead to accidents, sometimes accumulating in seemingly innocuous ways that lead to trouble, Vorderbrueggen said.

Nick Stavropoulos, executive vice-president for gas operations at PG&E Corp., said that when he joined the California utility holding company after a September 2010 explosion and fire at one of its lines in San Bruno, Calif., killed 8 people, injured dozens more, and destroyed several homes, he found a culture of “positive discipline” that needed to be replaced.

The nonpunitive self-reporting that PG&E now encourages employees to use has increased the number of identified potential problems 850% in the time since, he noted. “It’s not that we’ve grown worse,” Stavropoulos explained. “It’s simply being reported more so we can do something about it.”

The pipeline asset management program PG&E adopted has transformed the company, which has satisfied nine of NTSB’s 12 recommendations following the San Bruno accident and expects to satisfy two more in another few months, according to Stavropoulos.

“We encourage our leaders to get out and talk to the people in the field,” he said. “It makes a huge difference to have someone from management visit a plant yard or pipeline to learn what people are doing, and thank them for it.”

Contact Nick Snow at

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