PHMSA chief wants fresh look at pipeline inspection intervals

The top oil and gas pipeline regulator in the US wants operators to use inspection programs that do the best job of determining their systems' condition. That's why he would like Congress to reconsider pipeline inspection intervals, he told OGJ.

Feb 26th, 2007

Nick Snow
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, DC, Feb. 26 -- The top oil and gas pipeline regulator in the US wants operators to use inspection programs that do the best job of determining their systems' condition. That's why he would like Congress to reconsider pipeline inspection intervals, he told OGJ.

"The 7-year interval doesn't make sense from a risk management perspective. We want operators to focus their attention on areas of greatest risk. Some lines may not need to be inspected that frequently. Others might need to be inspected more often," said Thomas J. Barrett, administrator of the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

More than 50% of the baseline inspections required by the original pipeline safety law, which was passed in 2002, were completed by last summer as Congress considered a reauthorization bill, he said. "So far, very few are turning up the need for necessary repairs, and even fewer are suggesting that immediate repairs are required," Barrett said in an interview at PHMSA headquarters.

The 2002 law's 7-year inspection interval means that operators have to reexamine already inspected segments while completing remaining inspections, he explained. The provision remained in the reauthorization bill, which Congress passed and US President George W. Bush signed into law late in 2006.

A Government Accountability Office report favors risk-based intervals, so PHMSA plans to outline criteria such as inspection history and stress corrosion incidents, Barrett said. "In fairness to Congress, we may not have explained this as well as we should last summer," he said.

"I think, overall, we'd have safer systems. I am an advocate of data-driven risk management. In pipelines, that translates into integrity management," Barrett said. Better-trained employees also will be needed, he added.

He pointed out that there have been 55,000 repairs of federally regulated pipelines in the last 5 years where problems were identified and fixed without incident. "That's exactly where we want to be," he maintained.

Third-party damage
The recently enacted pipeline safety reauthorization law addresses third-party damage, which Barrett said is the most serious safety issue. "The law goes right at it. The industry was very supportive of it. So were the contractors," he said.

Also in the law are low-pressure oil pipeline provisions that go beyond proposals issued by PHMSA early last fall. The agency had been preparing its proposals, required under the 2002 pipeline safety law, when leaks began to be discovered in BP PLC's oil gathering system at Prudhoe Bay nearly a year ago.

PHMSA plans to issue a supplemental proposal this spring that will incorporate the new law's requirements. Barrett said Congress has indicated the agency can phase in the more difficult provisions.

"Prior to the BP spills, we had not had significant problems with this type of line. These also are the largest low-pressure lines in the country so their problems were not typical," he said.

A major consequence was the potential impact on supplies when the lines were shut down during the summer for repairs, Barrett continued. "Even though we're a safety agency, Congress wants us to factor in reliability," he said, noting that PHMSA and the US Department of Energy plan to jointly examine the problem.

But Barrett emphasized that the agency will continue to focus on safe and efficient pipeline operations. "We want operators to understand the condition of their lines through their own inspection programs and take action. I'm not certain how we'll do this, but one possibility is a two-tiered inspection program where we'd make an initial evaluation and follow up with a more detailed inspection if we find a problem," he said.

He considers making sure pipelines operate safely a key element of US energy security. "We'd like to reduce congestion. We're looking at new construction and metallurgy to allow 80% SMYS [specified minimal yield strength] instead of 70% so more gas can be transported," he said.

Barrett said PHMSA and pipelines likely would play a major role in transporting alternative fuels. "We would approach it from a safety perspective. We have been talking to the National Association of Fire Marshals and industry stakeholders," he said.

"Pipelines move more oil and gas than truck, rail, and vessel barge combined. So if you plan to move large volumes of an alternative fuel, you'll need pipelines to do it," Barrett said.

Contact Nick Snow at nsnow@cox.net.

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