PHMSA to issue gas pipeline safety rules soon, House panel told

March 14, 2016
The US Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration expects to issue natural gas pipeline safety rules in the next few weeks now that its proposals have completed a White House Office of Management and Budget review, PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez told a US House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee.

The US Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration expects to issue natural gas pipeline safety rules in the next few weeks now that its proposals have completed a White House Office of Management and Budget review, PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez told a US House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee.

"We have the authority right now to regulate underground gas storage, but do not presently have it for anything below the surface. That is something we'd like to look into," she said during an Energy and Power Subcommittee federal pipeline safety reauthorization bill hearing on Mar. 1.

Subcommittee members from both parties were critical of the US Department of Transportation agency's not implementing more of the 2011 federal pipeline safety law's requirements by now. "If you were an industry, you would have been fined for not meeting your deadlines," asserted David McKinley (R-W.Va.).

"The 2011 pipeline safety law included 42 mandates of PHMSA and 16 of them remain incomplete well beyond the statutorily imposed deadlines," noted Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), the subcommittee's chairman. Dominguez said the upcoming gas pipeline safety rules would address integrity management, safety, and other mandates in the 2011 law.

PHMSA has been working hard to address the 2011 mandates and should be given time to complete the process, another witness suggested. "We are concerned that additional mandates could lead to a detour from the significant work that is already under way," said Ron Bradley, vice-president of gas operations at PECO Energy, who testified on the American Gas Association's behalf.

More to be done

A third witness-Association of Oil Pipelines Pres. Andrew J. Black, who also testified on the American Petroleum Institute's behalf-said that PHMSA is working to finalize a broad liquids pipelines rulemaking, which was started before the 2011 law was enacted. "A PHMSA rulemaking on valves from the 2011 law likely to be proposed this spring will also not be finalized until later this year or beyond," he said, adding that the agency and its leadership nevertheless appear resolved to move expeditiously to meet legislative and regulatory mandates.

He expressed concern, however, over the House bill's discussion draft's section that would let individuals sue PHMSA in federal district court for failure to perform any nondiscriminatory duty. "Private mandamus civil actions to compel agencies to perform nondiscretionary duties have earned the moniker 'sue and settle' because of their abuse at agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency," Black said. The process circumvents public participation by allowing parties to reach court-approved settlements in private "containing quick deadlines for regulatory action and sometimes even substantive agreements that agencies are reluctant to change given the prior court approval," he said.

A fourth witness, Interstate Natural Gas Association of America Pres. Donald F. Santa, said this provision "could result in the pipeline safety priorities and the allocation of agency resources, established by PHMSA pursuant to the guidance provided by Congress, being supplanted by the priorities of individual private litigants and the judgment of a federal district court judge." It could become another arrow in the quiver of people or groups opposing new pipeline construction since they could seek injunctive relief in connection with PHMSA's review of a proposed new gas pipeline, he warned.

"In addition, the provision could be used to seek injunctive relief compelling PHMSA to update existing rules or pursue other actions based on the allegation that the agency's inaction was a failure to perform a nondiscretionary duty under the pipeline safety law," Santa said. "If allowed, this situation could rapidly deteriorate into a regime of 'regulation by litigation.'"

Gathering lines

When committee member Richard Hudson (R-NC) asked Dominguez if PHMSA was considering regulating oil and gas gathering lines, the administrator said the agency is, adding: "Part of the work we have done on gas transmission includes gathering lines."

Class 1 gathering lines are the only pipeline designation that is not regulated by states or the federal government, and should be included in any federal pipeline safety reauthorization, a fifth witness said in his written testimony. "New gathering lines can operate at pressures up to 2,000 psig and pipe size as large as 40-plus in. diameter, which are on a par with those that are built for transmission pipelines," noted Norman J. Saari, a member of Michigan's Public Service Commission who also testified on the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' behalf.

He said under current laws, new gathering lines at many locations are not required to be part of an underground damage prevention system, do not require odorization, do not have to meet welding or pressure depth standards, and do not have to be installed at specific depths. "Moreover, the owners also do not have to perform leak surveys or even have to report locations of the lines to PHMSA or to state authorities," Saari said. "This means gathering line incident data is almost non-existent because there are limited reporting requirements."

Incidents that are not reportable obviously do not require any investigation, he added. "Gathering lines are increasingly interfering with existing transmission systems, and can interfere with transmission operators' corrosion protection systems and public awareness plans," Saari said. When the National Transportation Safety Board recently investigated an incident involving a 4-in. gathering line, the local fire chief was bewildered because he had no idea that any gathering line was located there, the Michigan official said.

"Today gathering lines are more numerous and, in some cases, larger than those installed years ago," he said. "They require oversight. Your constituents deserve the same pipeline safety oversight regardless of whether they reside in rural, suburban, or urban areas. Safety oversight should not depend on whether a particular pipeline is characterized as gathering or distribution."

About the Author

Nick Snow

NICK SNOW covered oil and gas in Washington for more than 30 years. He worked in several capacities for The Oil Daily and was founding editor of Petroleum Finance Week before joining OGJ as its Washington correspondent in September 2005 and becoming its full-time Washington editor in October 2007. He retired from OGJ in January 2020.