Proposed pipeline safety reauthorization raises penalties

US Transportation Sec. Elaine L. Chao submitted a legislative proposal to Congress on June 3 that would reauthorize safety programs at the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) from fiscal 2020 through 2023. It also would strengthen criminal penalties for damaging or destroying a pipeline facility, which the Association of Oil Pipe Lines welcomed.

US Transportation Sec. Elaine L. Chao submitted a legislative proposal to Congress on June 3 that would reauthorize safety programs at the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) from fiscal 2020 through 2023. It also would strengthen criminal penalties for damaging or destroying a pipeline facility, which the Association of Oil Pipe Lines welcomed.

“Members of the public, surrounding communities, and the environment are put in danger by attacks on pipeline facilities that Congress can deter by updating federal pipeline safety laws,” AOPL Pres. Andrew J. Black said.

Section 18 of the proposed legislation would specify that vandalism, tampering with, or impeding, disrupting, or inhibiting the operation of a pipeline are punishable by criminal fines and imprisonment. It also would specify that pipeline facilities being constructed are included within the scope of the damage prohibitions in addition to facilities already operating.

The proposed legislation’s other provisions include measures to modernize PHMSA’s incident and construction data collection, establish a voluntary safety information sharing program, encourage replacement of aged local pipeline systems, and clarify certain regulatory measures to prevent incidents from occurring on the nation’s oil and gas pipelines.

Calls for tougher penalties followed October 2016 attacks by pipeline activists on five crude oil pipelines in four states along the US-Canadian border, AOPL said. After breaking the chains and locks on perimeter fencing, assailants entered the facility grounds and turned valves off, stopping the flow of crude oil in pipelines with a 2.8 million b/d total delivery capacity, or around 15% of daily US consumption, it indicated.

Following more attacks in 2017, the US Department of Justice pledged to conduct strong prosecutions when individuals or groups vandalize oil and gas pipelines or other US energy transportation systems (OGJ Online, Nov. 13, 2017). “This department is committed to vigorously prosecuting those who damage this critical energy infrastructure in violation of federal law,” a spokesperson said in response to a letter 70 US House members sent to then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions. Assailants attacked another pipeline in northern Minnesota in 2019, AOPL said.

Why attacks pose threats

Black said AOPL supports First Amendment rights under the US Constitution and understands that their exercise can take the form of peaceful protests around pipeline facilities or project sites. However, attacks on pipelines endanger members of the public, surrounding communities, and the environment, he said. Congress should deter future attacks against pipelines by closing loopholes in the scope of criminal liability in current federal pipeline safety law, Black added.

More oil and gas associations discussed other aspects of the pipeline safety reauthorization proposals on June 3. “As our nation’s pipeline safety regulator, PHMSA is uniquely positioned to recommend enhancements to the Pipeline Safety Act,” Interstate Natural Gas Association of America Pres. Donald F. Santa said. “We appreciate the efforts of Secretary Chao and staff at DOT and PHMSA to develop these recommendations, which will help to promote a timely reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Act later this year.”

The Natural Gas Council—which has the American Petroleum Institute, Independent Petroleum Association of America, American Gas Association, Natural Gas Supply Association, INGAA, and AOPL as members—said in a statement that the recommendations were timely in helping the US gas industry, and the federal, state, and local government entities which regulate it, continue to keep operations safe, timely, and reliable.

“Pipelines are the safest way to transport the energy Americans use every day, and in order to improve upon industry’s strong safety record and reach its goal of zero pipeline incidents, it is imperative that the industry, regulatory environment, and PHMSA be positioned to meet current and future safety challenges,” said Robin Rorick, vice-president of midstream and industry operations at API.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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