Everything is Awesome!…. or is it?

This recent tweet by Brigham McCown (former head of PHMSA in the Bush Administration) about rail and pipeline safety gave us pause. It praised government agency oversight and questioned congressional initiatives to push for greater safety, begging the question: Are we missing something? Should we as a country really be patting ourselves on the back for successful pipeline safety improvements?

In a more recent tweet he stated that “#pipelines have decreased accidents by 50%” – the same thing that PHMSA’s Deputy Director for Governmental, International and Public Affairs told media in Montana when talking about the recent spill into the Yellowstone River. That would be great if it were true, but it’s just not.

If only we were more technologically advanced, we would create an animation of Mr. McCown and the heads of the large oil and gas industry groups singing “Everything is Awesome” and touting the ‘continuous improvement’ and ‘excellent job reducing incidents, spills, injuries’ that have apparently happened of late while the rest of us have been watching oil spill into the Yellowstone and fireballs threaten more pipeline neighbors.

We would love to agree with Mr. McCown, but cannot reconcile his sentiment with what we know about the reality of pipeline safety today and the recent record of pipeline failures. He specifically called into question the actions of Congressman DeFazio, later suggesting he should “stand down.” Before we start in on our own perspective, here is part of what Peter DeFazio had to say to the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Inspector General (this excerpt comes after discussion of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) slow action and failure to issue new rules regarding safety of rail tank cars):

In multiple pipeline accident investigations over the last 15 years, the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] has identified the same persistent issues, most of which PHMSA has failed to address on its own accord. Each and every time, Congress has been forced to require PHMSA to take action, most recently in the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-90). Three years later, almost none of the important safety measures in the Act have been finalized.

Finalizing these rules is imperative; our Nation’s vast 2.5 million-mile pipeline network is aging. According to PHMSA, more than 50 percent of these pipelines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. The potential for catastrophic accidents is not a matter of if, but when. DOT must be prepared to address any pipeline or hazardous material safety deficiencies now, not just when we mandate action.

For these reasons, I am concerned with the agency’s ability to address significant safety issues and am requesting an audit of PHMSA’s pipeline and hazardous materials safety programs. Specifically, I request an evaluation of the agency’s effectiveness in addressing: congressional mandates, and NTSB, Government Accountability Office, and Office of Inspector General recommendations in a timely manner; the process PHMSA utilizes for implementing such mandates and recommendations; the sufficiency of PHMSA’s efforts to coordinate with the modal administrations and address safety concerns raised by those administrations; and any impediments to agency action.

We think Mr. DeFazio is spot-on. Not only because of what needs to be done to prevent future incidents, but also because of what has already happened. In the first ten days of 2015 alone, there were 11 reported pipeline incidents, 4 of them significant, and all of those four were from causes within the operator’s control. It is too early to know the total damage done, but we do know that one of the incidents not yet included in the PHMSA database resulted in an estimated 30,000 gallons of crude oil spilling into the Yellowstone River in Montana and polluting the drinking water supply for the town of Glendive, requiring emergency changes to the water treatment plant to filter out benzene from the spill.

Since 1995, the number of significant pipeline incidents has risen by 3% – going from a rolling 3-yr average of 275 (1995-1997) to 283 (2012-2014). And the most prevalent cause of significant incidents is something within the operators’ control: material/weld/equipment failure. In fact, according to PHMSA data, the majority of significant incidents in the past 10 years have been caused by three things within the operator’s control: corrosion, incorrect operation and material/weld/equipment failure.

Operators will say that many more miles of pipelines have been installed in recent years, and they are still the safest form of oil and gas transportation. But even with the incident data normalized by miles of pipeline, we’ve still got lots of improving to do. 


You will see that throughout this piece, we refer to “significant incidents.” The types of incidents are divided by PHMSA into “serious”, “significant” and “all”. Significant incidents include:

  1. Fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization
  2. $50,000 or more in total costs, measured in 1984 dollars
  3. Highly volatile liquid releases of 5 barrels or more or other liquid releases of 50 barrels or more
  4. Liquid releases resulting in an unintentional fire or explosion.

Serious incidents are a subset of significant incidents and only include those causing a fatality or in-patient hospitalization. And serious incidents have indeed decreased over the past 20 years, and we celebrate that. Mr. McCown and Ms. Klinger were perhaps thinking only of serious incidents when making their claims. But looking at serious incidents only does not tell the whole story about pipeline safety. In the case of the Yellowstone spills or the Marshall, Michigan spill, no one was killed or hospitalized, so they were significant incidents. The records of serious incidents will not tell you about catastrophes even of that magnitude. The difference between whether an incident is categorized as serious or significant is sometimes as random as whether someone whose house was destroyed by pipeline explosion happened to be home at the time. Had they been home, the incident would have been serious. They weren’t, so the incident was significant. The pipeline wasn’t safer just because no one was killed. They just weren’t home. If we only looked at serious incidents trends, we’d miss learning from many significant incidents and mislead the public into thinking fewer incidents were happening.

Another metric that the pipeline industry likes to tout is that 99.999% of the oil and refined products shipped by pipeline arrives safely at its destination. Wow! That is really awesome, you say, starting to hum along with Mr. McCown and the crew. But hold on. How much is that .001%, you wonder? Well, as API/AOPL tell us in their new “Pipelines by the Numbers“, 14.9 billion barrels of oil and refined products were shipped by pipeline in 2013. So that .001% works out to be 149 thousand barrels, or 6.258 million gallons of oil and refined products that did NOT make it safely to its destination.

6.258 million gallons spilled from pipelines. That’s the equivalent of:

One spill the size of the Enbridge spill at Marshall, Michigan EVERY OTHER MONTH for a year;


Two spills the size of the 1999 Bellingham, Washington incident EVERY MONTH for a year;


One spill the size of the Exxon Valdez every other year.

Our point (in case you missed it): It’s a lot of oil and refined product spilling and leaking from pipelines every year. “#Pipelines” have NOT reduced accidents by 50%. Things are NOT awesome. Pipelines may be the safest means we have, but they’re not nearly safe enough. And it’s Congress’ duty to call out the regulator when things aren’t good enough. That’s what Representative DeFazio did, and that’s why.

NTSB’s recent study on systemic weaknesses in gas pipeline safety

News media recently reported that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found continuing systemic weaknesses in gas pipeline safety. What does the NTSB have to say about where improvements are needed?

The NTSB and the gas pipeline integrity management rules

The NTSB is a congressionally-mandated transportation agency that operates independently to conduct objective accident investigations and safety studies, and advocates for implementation of safety recommendations. The NTSB does not conduct investigations of all pipeline incidents; it investigates those in which there is a fatality, substantial property damage, or significant environmental impact. In the past five years, the NTSB investigated three major gas transmission pipeline accidents in which operator and PHMSA oversight deficiencies were identified as concerns, occurring in Palm City, FL (2009), San Bruno, CA (2010), and Sissonville, WV (2012). These three accidents resulted in 8 deaths, over 50 injuries, and 41 homes destroyed with many more damaged.

The five-member NTSB Board held a meeting on Tuesday and soon after released an abstract of their recommendations. [The full study is now available here.] The study focuses on gas transmission pipelines within High Consequence Areas – basically, areas with higher population – and therefore must have in place an integrity management program. Only about 7% of the nearly 300,000 miles of gas transmission pipelines nationwide are required to have an integrity management program, though the industry says many more miles are inspected under integrity management than what the rules require.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) gas pipeline integrity management program rules took effect in 2004. They require, among other things, that the pipeline operators inspect their gas pipelines at least every seven years, and have a program in place to assess risk and ensure their pipelines are safe and reliable. Integrity management rules are performance-based rather than prescriptive, and rely on the operator to have good and complete data that is continually evaluated. Pipeline operator integrity management programs are periodically inspected by PHMSA and/or state regulators to assess compliance. Theoretically, using integrity management, gas pipeline operators should be finding and addressing potential problems before they result in accidents. Clearly, that is not working as evidenced by the accidents mentioned, leading the NTSB to embark on their study.

The NTSB Study

The study highlights shortcomings of the gas transmission integrity management system, and underscores issues the Trust has been bringing up for years. [See our 2012 comments submitted to PHMSA on gas transmission line safety and our 2014 comments to PHMSA on improving the national pipeline mapping system.] The abstract from NTSB states, “there is no evidence that the overall occurrence of gas transmission pipeline incidents in HCA pipelines has declined.” The complexity of the integrity management programs require expertise in multiple technical disciplines from both operator personnel and pipeline inspectors, and PHMSA does not have the resources for guiding them. The thirty-three findings of the study are published in the abstract and are followed by twenty-eight recommendations.

In brief, many things need improvement, including much better geographic information so that inspectors and operators clearly know where pipelines and high consequence areas are, and all data is better integrated; better communication between state inspections lead by the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives and PHMSA; better use of in-line inspection tools and improved operation of the same; better threat identification and assessment methods, with PHMSA acting as a guide for pipeline operators and inspectors in this area; and generally stronger, clearer standards and criteria for both operator and inspector programs and personnel to raise the safety bar higher.

We sincerely hope that 2015 will be remembered not for more terrible pipeline accidents, but for safety improvements that are made in part when studies and recommendations like the NTSB’s are heeded.

New Natural Gas Pipelines and Proximity to Homes

We’ve had a couple inquires in the past few weeks from citizens who have property on or near which a new natural gas pipeline is being proposed. They have asked: 1) How close to homes can one of these pipelines be installed? and 2) What are the options to minimize the danger when developing pipelines in proximity to other structures if the pipeline were to rupture?

The answer to the first question is straightforward: There is no limitation on how close gas pipelines can be built to homes. The federal regulations say nothing about any minimum distance away from homes that pipeline installation must occur. There is language in the regulations that requires operators to generally protect the pipe from hazards, but often much is left up to the discretion of the operator. For example:

CFR §192.317(a), “The operator must take all practicable steps to protect each transmission line or main from washouts, floods, unstable soil, landslides, or other hazards that may cause the pipeline to move or to sustain abnormal loads….”


CFR §192.325(a), “Each transmission line must be installed with at least 12 inches (305 millimeters) of clearance from any other underground structure not associated with the transmission line. If this clearance cannot be attained, the transmission line must be protected from damage that might result from the proximity of the other structure.”

The second question leads to a longer answer. And one we cannot address without making mention of PIPA (the Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance), a group made up of industry (including representatives from interstate natural gas pipeline operators), government, and public representatives that developed a set of recommended practices for development near existing pipelines. This group met for years to address the very real concerns of development and pipelines impacting one another and posing risks to one another. Recommended practices include things like: “Reduce Transmission Pipeline Risk in New Development for Residential, Mixed-Use, and Commercial Land Use,” which states in part:

“…it is prudent to design buildings and related facilities in a manner that mitigates the potential impacts on people and property from a transmission pipeline incident. Locating structures away from the pipeline right-of-way (ROW), incorporating more stringent building fire safety measures are examples of mitigation techniques that may improve public safety and limit damage to buildings or infrastructure in the event of a transmission pipeline incident.”

It is puzzling to us how the industry can see the importance of these types of recommendations, and not see the importance of turning them around to apply to the development of new pipelines near existing buildings. We have been pushing PIPA to be reinvigorated and tackle this issue, but as of yet it has not happened.

Risks in proximity to gas pipelines are relative to the size and pressure of the pipeline. “A Model for Sizing High Consequence Areas Associated with Natural Gas Pipelines” was published in 2000 by Mark Stephens of C-FER Technologies, and prepared for the Gas Research Institute [LINK]. This report gives detailed explanations and calculations that lead to a proposed hazard area radius as a function of line diameter and pressure (see Figure 2.4 in the report). The hazard area radius is basically the area in proximity to the pipeline within which there would be virtually no chance of survival if a pipeline rupture and fire were to happen, and it varies in size from about 100 feet to about 700 feet for a 6-inch to 42-inch pipeline, respectively. For example, A 26-inch, 600 psi natural gas pipeline would have an approximate 450 foot hazard area radius, according to the C-FER model. The model does not take into account things like wind, topography, and any protection such as berms or fire walls.

States and (if the state does not preempt them) local communities may adopt their own setbacks between pipelines and homes. No jurisdiction that we know of has adopted the C-FER hazard area as the basis of setbacks from natural gas pipelines, though it has often been discussed. For jurisdictions that have adopted some sort of setback or consultation ordinances, see this link.

A few of the ordinances accessed through our website link specifically discuss evacuation, and evacuation is also addressed in the PIPA recommendations. Language repeated in a number of recommendations is “…buildings should have a safe means of egress with exits located where they would not be made inaccessible by the impacts of a pipeline incident. Similarly, cul-de-sac streets should not be designed crossing a transmission pipeline as the only route of ingress or egress could be blocked during a pipeline incident.”

Some gas pipelines lie within High Consequence Areas – basically areas with higher population density – and operators of those pipelines are required to have an integrity management program that includes conducting risk management and regular assessment of the pipeline. Depending on the location, the pipeline may also be required to have thicker walls or more frequent valve spacing.

While we know of no instances where FERC has denied a new gas pipeline application, there are instances where the pipeline route has changed due to environmental, safety, or other concerns brought to light during the FERC proceedings.

Natural Gas Transmission Pipeline Leaks & Repair Criteria

Smart Pig’s Question of the Week – 

A Texas farmer recently contacted us to ask how long could an operator allow a leak from a natural gas transmission line to go without being repaired? He indicated that a leak – identifiable by the soil being sprayed up in the air above the line – had reportedly been visible in a neighboring field for some time, and there had been no apparent effort by the operator to repair it.

Leaving aside all of the reasonable, predictable questions about how that could happen or what an operator’s representative might have said when notified of the leak, here’s what the regulations say about leaks in gas transmission lines. As we suggested in our last post, the regulations vary depending on whether the leak is in a “high consequence area” (HCA) – generally an area of higher population. If you need the details on how gas transmission line operators identify HCAs, you can find them here.

This leak is nowhere near a high consequence area. Not even close. So the leak repair criteria in the gas integrity management rules that would apply in HCAs don’t apply. That means the repair falls under the general gas transmission repair regulations, found at 49 CFR § 192.711, seen in the box below.


§ 192.711 Transmission lines: General requirements for repair procedures.

(a)Temporary repairs.Each operator must take immediate temporary measures to protect the public whenever:
(1)A leak, imperfection, or damage that impairs its serviceability is found in a segment of steel transmission line operating at or above 40 percent of the SMYS; and
(2) It is not feasible to make a permanent repair at the time of discovery.
(b)Permanent repairs.An operator must make permanent repairs on its pipeline system according to the following:
(1) Non integrity management repairs: The operator must make permanent repairs as soon as feasible.
(2) Integrity management repairs: When an operator discovers a condition on a pipeline covered under Subpart O-Gas Transmission Pipeline Integrity Management, the operator must remediate the condition as prescribed by § 192.933(d).
(c) Welded patch.Except as provided in § 192.717(b)(3), no operator may use a welded patch as a means of repair.


To paraphrase, an operator must make immediate temporary repairs to protect the public, but only when lots of qualifiers apply to the situation:

1) the leak/imperfection/damage impairs the serviceability of a pipeline;

2) the line is operating at or above 40% SMYS (specified minimum yield strength, defined in 49 CFR § 192.4); and

3) it is not feasible to make a permanent repair at the time of discovery.

For permanent repairs, none of those qualifiers are necessary: for non-integrity management repairs, meaning like the line in question it is not in a high consequence area, the operator must make permanent repairs “as soon as feasible”. So that begs the question, what does “as soon as feasible” mean? It doesn’t say “immediately,” (presumably because they’ve already made immediate temporary repairs where there is risk to the line or to the public) but it also doesn’t say “as soon as practicable,” or “in the course of ordinary business.” To an ordinary reader, I think “as soon as feasible” would mean “as soon as you can, even if that’s sooner than you want to.”

Unfortunately, the answer could get a bit muddier (or at least more expensive to determine) if one were to look to the rules for repairs on pipes subject to integrity management rules for guidance in determining how soon is “as soon as feasible.” That’s because, as noted in the text box above, repairs on pipes in high consequence areas are required to follow the criteria in 49 CFR 192.933 (d) in remediating a “condition.”  If we assume that a leak qualifies as a “condition,” (and I would argue it does, since “condition” is used in §192.711 interchangeably with “leak, imperfection or damage”) then an operator needs to determine, within 180 days, whether it poses a potential threat to the integrity of the line. Assuming it does pose such a threat, then the operator has to “complete remediation of the condition” within the timeframes included in an industry standard incorporated by reference into the PHMSA regs, but unavailable to mere members of the public unless you either buy them at considerable expense, or trek to the bowels of the Department of Transportation office or the National Archives, both in Washington DC in order to see a copy of them. Once there, you will want to see the schedule in ASMA/ANSI B31.8S, Section 7, figure 4. Unfortunately, this little piggy has not purchased the appropriate set of industry standards, nor am I able to travel to either of these offices, so I am not able to tell you how a leak large enough to blow soil into the air might be classified for repair. The remainder of subsection (d) of the regulation is not of much assistance, either: it names specific types of anomalous conditions on a pipe and indicates whether they are “immediate repair conditions”, “180 day repair conditions”, or a “monitored condition”, which need not be repaired until it gets worse. Leaks are not included in any of those lists.

Bottom line: Leaks on gas transmission lines outside of HCAs need to be repaired as soon as feasible. Leaks inside HCAs: it depends – but only somebody with the industry standards can tell you exactly on what it depends. And I expect there will be continuing conversations about whether it’s okay to make people who live with the consequences of a law pay a private industry organization for a copy of a standard that has been incorporated into that law.

Remembering San Bruno

Today, September 9th, is the 4th anniversary of the pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California that left 8 people dead, 66 injured, and the Crestmoor neighborhood in ruins. Our thoughts are with the residents and leaders of San Bruno as they remember those who were lost four years ago and continue their reconstruction, healing and advocacy for improvements in pipeline safety.san_bruno_02-2

In four years, there’s been lots of reconstruction. The neighborhood has new underground infrastructure. Twenty-four new homes have been rebuilt and 17 damaged homes repaired. More work is slated for the next year, though it may be another 3-4 years before everything is completed.

The blunders of PG&E, however, are far from being resolved, and so much remains to be done to insure that the horrors endured by the people of San Bruno are not repeated. Many of the important safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board have not yet been enacted. Federal prosecutors filed a criminal indictment against PG&E. The state regulator has proposed an unprecedented fine of $1.4 billion, with the vast majority slated to go to the state general fund, and few measures to ensure ongoing safety initiatives are completed with the kind of oversight and assurances needed. PG&E recently announced its intention to appeal the proposed fine.

You may have noticed that this is yet another blog post commemorating a pipeline disaster. After each horrific event, the community says “May this never happen again!” And yet, it does happen again. And again. The industry says it shares our goal of getting to zero incidents. And yet…

  • Integrity management programs (like PG&E’s) rely on the thorough, complete, and competent work of pipeline operators to know everything about their systems and the environments in which they operate and to identify and manage risks, with occasional regulatory inspections. Clearly more stringent and more frequent oversight is needed.
  • Thousands of miles of gathering pipelines in rural areas are entirely unregulated.
  • Exemptions abound for requirements to ‘call before you dig’ to avoid excavation damage to pipelines.
  • Protections for the environment where pipelines cross rivers and elsewhere are woefully inadequate.
  • The public still cannot get access to basic information about where all the local pipelines are, how big they are, and what they are carrying, or whether the operators or first responders are prepared to deal with a pipeline failure.
  • No new significant rulemakings on pipeline safety standards have been issued in more than four years. It’s taken more than 3 years and counting for previously-published advanced notices of rulemakings to move forward to the rulemaking stage. We are hopeful that the proposals will eventually enact many of the safety improvements recommended by the NTSB and asked for by the communities most recently affected.

We could go on and on with our list of what needs to change. The Pipeline Safety Trust has made great strides forward in the fifteen years since the Bellingham explosion , and continues to push for greater public and environmental safety. But our efforts need to be multiplied. Multiplied through people paying attention to these issues and more resources going toward pipeline safety efforts; through legislators and regulators taking their jobs seriously and holding operators accountable; and through the industry being honest about what needs to be done, transparent about what they are doing, and diligent in following through.