I am honored and excited to join the Pipeline Safety Trust as Deputy Director. I want to thank the board for the trust they are placing in me and the staff for the warm welcome and assistance with this transition. I certainly did not imagine starting this new position in the middle of a global crisis but, while challenging in many ways, it has allowed me much more time to soak up information about our nation’s pipeline safety systems.
I want to take this opportunity to introduce myself and what I’m working on. My family and I love books, bikes, mountains, forests, rivers, and the ocean and believe that the Pacific Northwest is a truly special place. My last position was Director of Finance and Development for the Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon. The DRC is a consensus-based organization dedicated to working collaboratively to improve streamflow and water quality in the Deschutes River Basin. I am no stranger to holding industry accountable to a values-based mission in a complex technical and regulatory environment and I’m excited to use those skills here at the Pipeline Safety Trust.
I’m in my second week and Carl and Rebecca have been pointing the firehose at me, helping me get up to speed quickly as I roll up my sleeves. So far two big issues have required our attention. The first is producing comments on PHMSA’s proposed rules on Valve Installation and Minimum Rupture Detection Standards. Back in 2010, 10 years ago now, America saw two catastrophic pipeline failures. The first was the Enbridge oil spill in Marshall Michigan, resulting in the spill of more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River, wreaking ecological havoc. It took the operator 18 hours to finally confirm the rupture and shut down the line. 18 hours of dumping crude oil into the beautiful Talmadge Creek, Kalamazoo River, and surrounding wetlands. Then, less than two months later, a PG&E gas line ruptured in San Bruno, CA. This incident resulted in the uncontrolled release of natural gas for 95 minutes, an uncontrollable fire, 8 deaths, 51 injuries requiring hospitalization, the destruction of 38 homes, damage to 70 other homes, and the evacuation of approximately 300 houses.
As a result of these two horrific incidents, Congress issued a mandate to PHMSA, the federal agency charged with regulating our nation’s pipelines, to issue new regulations to prevent incidents like these from occurring and to mitigate the harm when they do. And now, nearly 9 years after that mandate (!), we have proposed rules to review. The proposed rules don’t go nearly far enough to truly respond to Congress’s mandate nor do they fulfill the recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board following the San Bruno incident. The proposed rules would only apply to new and replaced lines and are full of loopholes. I am shocked at the federal regulator’s tepid response to a Congressional mandate.
The next issue we’ve been working on is the proposed regulation of natural gas gathering lines. There are over 400,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in this country that don’t fall under any level of regulation. These are called gathering lines and they collect raw gas from producing areas and deliver it to gas processing plants. It is crazy to me that these lines, containing every bit the potential for catastrophe as many regulated transmission lines, are completely unregulated. A 10-inch gathering line failed in Midland, TX in 2018, killing a 3-year-old girl. The cause – unknown; since these lines aren’t regulated, failures don’t need to be investigated.
The American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry trade association, has issued proposed industry-developed standards for its members that might choose to apply them to the gathering lines in their systems. Unfortunately, API did not follow its own process on developing these standards and had very little input from non-industry stakeholders. The process was so flawed that the State Regulators (NAPSR) withdrew from the effort, citing serious concerns with the process. Not surprisingly, these voluntary standards are minimal, applying to less than 4% of the more than 400,000 miles of currently unregulated gas lines, and only if the owners of those lines choose to use them. This is shocking and unacceptable.
After my first two weeks, I am mostly shocked. I am shocked at how little these proposed rules and standards attempt to tackle. I am shocked to see how paralyzing the cost-benefit analysis requirement is to these processes. And I am shocked to see the extent to which the industry is allowed to write its own rules.
There is plenty of hard work to do but I believe it is accomplishable. As stakeholders in our nation’s energy infrastructure, we are all on the same side with the goal of zero incidents. No one wants people to die and no one wants to destroy ecosystems. We need to develop fair processes to create a clear, enforceable regulatory framework where companies can deliver our energy needs without danger to human life and our environment, and where regulators hold responsible those who fail to do so. Let’s work together to make this a reality!