US Congress investigates pipeline regulatory gaps

Aug. 2, 2010
Industry and regulatory representatives appearing before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials June 29, 2010, addressed perceived gaps in existing safety regulations governing hazardous liquid pipelines.

Industry and regulatory representatives appearing before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials June 29, 2010, addressed perceived gaps in existing safety regulations governing hazardous liquid pipelines. Witnesses included Stephen Falgoust, director, asset integrity, Plains All American Pipeline LP and Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.


According to PHMSA's web site there were 100 significant hazardous liquid pipeline incidents (98 onshore and two offshore) in 2009, resulting in four fatalities, four injuries, and about $59 million in damages.

PHMSA defines "significant incidents" as an incident resulting in:

• Fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization.

• $50,000 or more in total costs, measured in 1984 dollars.

• Release of 5 bbl or more of highly volatile liquid or 50 bbl or more of other hazardous liquid.

• Unintentional fire or explosion.

The US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure felt such reporting by PHMSA may be misleading, as the statistics published may not include incidents valuable in evaluating the safety of the industry and requested PHMSA provide information on all reported pipeline incidents over the last 5 years (see accompanying table). In 2009, 331 reportable hazardous liquid pipeline incidents occurred; of those, 169 were spills involving 5-210 gal of hazardous liquid, and 162 involved the release of 210 gal (5 bbl) or more. Only 100 of these 331 incidents are reported to the public on PHMSA's web site.

Pipelines exempt from the PHMSA's safety regulations, include:

• Certain onshore gathering lines and gathering lines in an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico.

• Certain rural low-stress pipelines.

• Pipelines subject to safety regulations of the US Coast Guard.

• Certain low-stress pipelines serving, running through, or confined to refining, manufacturing, or truck, rail, or vessel terminal facilities.

• Certain offshore pipelines transporting hazardous liquid or carbon dioxide in state waters.

• Certain pipelines transporting carbon dioxide.

• Certain produced-water lines.

These exemptions prompted concerns regarding PHMSA's ability to effectively regulate the industry. Incidents such as the March 2006 spill of 5,000 bbl on the North Slope of Alaska from a 34-in OD low-stress pipeline owned by BP Exploration and at the time unregulated by PHMSA due to its low-stress classification, only heightened these concerns.

Congress directed PHMSA in the Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement and Safety Act of 2006 to issue a rulemaking subjecting all low-stress hazardous liquid pipelines to the same standards and regulations as all other hazardous liquid pipelines. PHMSA published a final rule regulating 803 miles of large-diameter, low-stress pipelines on June 3, 2008, stating it would need more time to gather general data about unregulated low-stress pipelines.

Recent rulemaking

On June 23, 2010, PHMSA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to regulate all low-stress pipelines, including those left uncovered in the 2008 rule: rural low-stress pipelines of any diameter more than 0.5 miles from an unusually sensitive area (USA) and those with less than 8.625-in OD within 0.5 miles of a USA. Rural low-stress pipelines crossing navigable waterways were already subject to PHMSA's safety requirements, as were rural low-stress pipelines 8.625 in. or greater within 0.5 miles of a USA.

Congress noted, however, that the integrity management portion of the proposed rule still did not hold low-stress pipelines to the same "could affect a high-consequence area" standard as all other hazardous liquid pipelines, PHMSA instead retaining the specific mileage buffer included in the 2008 rule: low-stress pipelines within 0.5 miles of an unusually sensitive area would be required to conduct comprehensive integrity management assessments, but those outside the half-mile buffer area would remain exempt from those requirements.

Improved safety

In addressing the committee both Quarterman and Falgoust (who also appeared on behalf of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines and the American Petroleum Institute) noted the improved safety record of hazardous liquids pipelines under PHMSA's regulatory oversight. Quarterman said PHMSA had driven down the number of serious pipeline incidents over the past 20 years despite increased risk exposure (Fig. 1).

Quarterman also emphasized the improvements in coverage made as part of the June 23 rulemaking (Figs. 2-3) and stated during the question and answer session that PHMSA was developing a new pipeline safety reauthorization bill, declining to give a timetable for its release, but stating that PHMSA would be reviewing current laws and regulations for gaps in safety as well as reexamining the necessity for current exemptions from regulation.1


1. Association of Oil Pipe Lines, Pipeline Notes From Washington, Vol. 13, No. 27, July 6, 2010.

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