Pipeline Safety Technical Experts Available

Check out our new listing of Pipeline Safety Technical Experts HERE!

The Trust published a Request for Qualifications in 2015, asking those with technical expertise in a whole range of pipeline safety issues to submit their information to us. Community organizations, local governments and individuals frequently ask the Trust for suggestions of independent technical experts with experience in engineering who can provide paid technical assistance in a broad variety of areas relating to oil and gas pipelines. They seek general advice, as well as specific advice related to pipeline conceptual design, construction methods, corrosion, pressure cycling, materials, electrical interference, air quality, mechanics, chemical impacts, siting safety, inspection techniques, leak detection, repair methods and a host of other topics. 

In order to provide an array of options to these local governments and community groups, we undertook this RFQ. Inclusion in the directory does not imply endorsement by the Trust. We appreciate those who responded to our request, and recognize how difficult it can be for communities to find independent experts able to provide unbiased information and advice. If you are someone seeking an expert, please have a look at our new listings here. If you are an expert, feel free to contact us to request inclusion in the future. 

What is the Pipeline Safety Trust, and what do you do there?

I began working in earnest for the Trust two years ago. Recently, I received a phone call from a timid citizen looking for support as he tried to educate himself in the midst of a pipeline construction project coming his way. He asked this question, and it offered me a brief opportunity to reflect on our work.

Do you remember 1999? If you lived in Bellingham, you know exactly where you were on June 10th of that year. Exactly where you were when an ominous and huge mushroom cloud rose into the clouds from the fireball that occurred after a 16” pipeline ruptured in a city park, sending a quarter million gallons of gasoline down a salmon creek, and subsequently igniting and causing an enormous explosion. Three kids died. Kids died and a salmon stream was wiped out because of negligence, poor management, lack of oversight and near nonexistent regulations.

So we remember. Sixteen years later, we remember these kids, and think about the 252 others who have died since 1999 in pipeline tragedies. We remember this disaster, and think about the 4,476 other significant pipeline incidents that have happened since 1999. It’s not easy to keep these issues on the forefront, especially when the oil & gas industry spends $141 million in a single year lobbying to keep their perspective on top.

We are not anti- or pro- pipelines. We are pro-safety, and work to make pipelines safer so human and environmental tragedies can hopefully be averted. Our board is very careful about where Trust funding comes from, and has been wise in investing the original endowment in a way that still makes our work possible.

In the Trust’s early years, it was difficult to access any information about pipeline safety. Now the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has a good website with more information than we can easily digest. We annually glean and assess the transparency of each state’s pipeline safety information, and hope that through this we push the bar higher and encourage more and more information about pipeline safety to be easily accessible to people who are affected by pipelines.

Our website too has grown, and offers a wide variety of information, tools, and educational materials to anyone looking for it.

Part of our work is asking questions and bringing up difficult issues so they can be talked about openly, as we try to do every year at our conference that draws about 200 people from the pipeline industry, the federal and state regulatory community, and every-day citizens or local government representatives who care about these issues and how they impact their local community. The kinds of in-person public conversations that occur at our conference do not happen anywhere else; it’s a unique opportunity for diverse stakeholder discussions about pipeline safety issues.

Other things we have accomplished and on which we continue to work:

  • Improve federal pipeline safety regulations by testifying before Congress and commenting on proposed rules.
  • Provide increased access to pipeline safety information.
  • Provide a “public interest” voice to pipeline safety processes and at a variety of meetings.
  • Serve as the public voice to the media looking into pipeline safety incidents and rules.
  • Partner with groups trying to move pipeline safety forward.
  • Provide technical assistance to impacted communities.

If you are affected by oil and gas pipelines, I hope you find the Pipeline Safety Trust helpful, join us in pushing the safety bar upward, and have confidence that what we provide is truly credible, independent, and in the public interest.

Conference Sneak Peek! Register Soon! Rates Going up August 1!

Question: When does early bird registration end for the PST conference???

Answer: Tomorrow is the last day to register at early bird rates! Do it today! Rates go up on August 1!

The Pipeline Safety Trust’s 10th Annual Conference will be held November 19-20 in New Orleans. The conference is a unique venue where operators, regulators, consultants, local governments, environmental groups, safety advocates and concerned community members all come together to talk about improving pipeline safety.

Some sneak peeks of what we’re looking forward to:

 

  • One of the co-authors of the NTSB’s recent safety report on gas transmission integrity management will speak about the findings of the report.

 

  • We’ll hear a variety of opinions about whether expanding state authority over pipelines would further safety.

 

  • Three groups will share how they’ve benefited from Community Technical Assistance Grants.

 

  • Learn how PHMSA plans to spend all that new money in its budget.

 

  • We’ll get some food for thought on whether pipelines should have permits or licenses that are reviewed periodically and whether enforcement proceedings should be closed.

 

  • Five years after Marshall and San Bruno, the struggle to identify the right safety metrics and how to measure them continues – we’ll try to jumpstart that discussion with an interactive look at some possibilities.

And as always, we’ll get a look back at this year, a look forward at what might be coming next year, and the ever popular Thursday evening walk for beignets, finding an astounding cross section of the pipeline world uniformly covered with powdered sugar.

Join us at the Royal Sonesta New Orleans, in the heart of all the fun and fabulous food of the French Quarter. Remember, rates go up on August 1! You can find registration information here.

 

What’s up with the differences in fines?

What’s up with the differences in fines?Money-tips-scale-of-justice

I just saw that along with the big fine ($1.6 billion) the California PUC levied against PG&E for violations relating to the pipeline failure in San Bruno, they also levied (and a court just upheld) a smaller, but still substantial $14.35 million dollar fine against PG&E for recordkeeping and notification violations relating to a pipeline segment running through San Carlos.

 

Here’s part of the story I saw, as reported by Sarah Smith in SNL:

 

Although the utility lowered the lines’ MAOPs after making the discovery in the field, the company did not notify the commission until roughly eight months later in an errata filing.

 

The CPUC in December 2013 voted to fine PG&E $14.35 million not only because of the lengthy reporting delay but also because PG&E informed the commission in an errata document — a type of filing the CPUC asserted is usually used for noting minor corrections. The CPUC said these actions had misled the commission, in violation of CPUC rules.

 

The fine included $50,000 for each day between when the company discovered its records were wrong and when the utility told the commission, along with $50,000 per day for the time during which PG&E’s misleading records correction document was on file.

 

My question is this: Why is there such a big difference between the size of these fines and the relatively small penalties levied by PHMSA for other big failures, like the Enbridge spill in Michigan, or the ExxonMobil Silvertip spill in Montana?

 

Answer:

There are two answers to this question. The easy one is that California has no maximum amount for a series of continuing or related violations; as long as a violation continues, that $50,000 per day can keep adding up. PHMSA is subject to a $2 million dollar limit for a “related series of violations.” (And the two spills you mention occurred before Congress in 2011 increased PHMSA’s penalty authority from 1 to 2 million dollars for a “related series of violations.”)

 

And that leads to the second answer, which is: PHMSA is anything but transparent about how it calculates penalties, how it chooses to compromise penalties during, or as a result of, closed enforcement hearings, what will be considered a “related series of violations”, and what will not, what kind of violation will result in the full $200,000 for each violation for each day it occurs, and what will not. While PHMSA has a limitation for related violations imposed by statute, it has not adopted a policy or rule defining what “related series of violations” means, nor do its enforcement decisions make it very clear. For example, is a recordkeeping or reporting violation that is discovered in the course of an incident investigation “related” to other violations for an insufficient risk assessment or emergency plan simply because the shortcomings were identified during the investigation of a single incident? Or what about two independent violations discovered during an inspection, for vastly different subject matters? Are they related? Hard to say. Actually, it’s impossible to say, because PHMSA doesn’t tell anyone.

 

What’s more, not even the industry is happy with the cloak of mystery surrounding penalty calculations. In a very enlightening document entitled “STATUS OF EVOLVING PHMSA PENALTY POLICY” prepared by two attorneys from Hunton and Williams for an AOPL Business Conference in 2013, they described their concerns with these same two issues: the difficulty in anticipating how PHMSA will calculate a penalty and how PHMSA will decide whether violations are in a related series.

 

This document also introduced us to the “Pipeline Safety Violation Report (PSVR) used by PHMSA: “PSVRs are prepared as part of the Agency’s enforcement process. They are considered ‘confidential enforcement information’ and protected from disclosure to third parties under FOIA. PSVRs are only provided to an operator in the event an operator challenges an enforcement action by requesting a hearing (and even then only upon an express request for the PSVR by the operator). In our experience, the amount of information included in a PSVR regarding the alleged violations and proposed penalties vary widely, and some do not even contain information regarding penalties at all. The information that is provided rarely (if ever) includes any sort of rationale as to the basis for a proposed penalty.”  Status of Evolving PHMSA Penalty Policy at page 2.

 

Until PHMSA decides to establish a penalty calculation policy and makes it available to the public, all of this will remain completely hidden from public view, just like everything else that happens in enforcement hearings kept closed from the public view.

 

 

 

Ignition of Natural Gas Transmission Pipelines

Question of the week:

A fairly large, 24 inch I believe, natural gas transmission pipeline recently failed here in Pennsylvania, and I was surprised that it did not ignite. I thought when natural gas pipelines ruptured they normally catch fire. Can you tell me why this one didn’t?

 

I think you are referring to the recent William’s Transco failure in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania that is described in a newspaper account here. We can’t really tell you why that one did not ignite, because few specifics are known about that failure at this time, but it is not unusual for gas transmission pipeline to rupture or leak without igniting. It all really depends whether the gas coming out finds an ignition source, which normally in an open area such as where this rupture occurred would be from sparks from the pipeline and rocks flying around due to the pressure of the escaping gas, or even static caused by the rapidly escaping gas.

 

We took a quick look at all the significant natural gas transmission pipeline incidents in the past 5 years and came up with this graph that shows for the various types of pipeline incidents whether they ignited or not. As you can see more often than not pipelines do not ignite when there are incidents, even when the lines completely rupture. We suspect that part of the reason people think they ignite more often is that when they do the incidents are quite spectacular and tend to make the news, whereas when they don’t ignite people hear much less about them.

ignitions

 

It is not unusual for these types of gas transmission pipelines to be operating at 800-1000 psi or more. Compare that to your car tires that operate at 30-35 psi and you get a sense of how much pressure is in these pipelines. Even just the pressure of the gas escaping can cause some impressive damage as the picture below shows. This picture shows a similar pipeline rupture in Washington State where there was no ignition. The crater is just from the force of the gas escaping. Notice the piece of pipe in the upper right hand corner of the picture. That is how far the force of the escaping gas threw that piece of heavy pipe.

 

WilliamsSouthofSeattle

 

Hope that helps answer your question.

Coming Back to Bellingham

June 10, 2015

We’ve just come back from a four day trip to California to participate in a couple of community forums  in Contra Costa County, visit with our friends in the city of San Bruno, meet some staffers in the Gas Safety Division at the CPUC, and research a report we’re writing for the community of Alamo about the liquid products line in their midst and how to improve safety around it.

Our trip fell just a couple of weeks after the oil spill in Santa Barbara, and between meetings, we spent more time on the phone with reporters and legislators and their staffers talking about how to improve pipeline safety in California.

With every public meeting, every conversation with a legislative staffer who has found our website, and every reporter wondering how it is the Trust came to exist, we tell and retell the story of June 10, 1999, the lives lost, the community reaction, the insistence that the story not be forgotten once the forest in Whatcom Falls Park recovered and the salmon returned to Whatcom Creek.

The Bellingham explosion was completely preventable. Just like the more than 74% of significant incidents on hazardous liquid pipelines in the past 10 years, it was caused by things within the operator’s control. (More than 57% of the past 10 years’ significant incidents on the gas transmission system fall into these same categories.) Causes like corrosion, incorrect operation, and material or valve failure – those are things the operators can anticipate, prevent and mitigate. But for whatever reason, they don’t, or won’t, or choose not to. And so, the Bambi vs. Godzilla story continues.

Last year, on the 15th anniversary of the Bellingham tragedy, Carl wrote a remarkable description of the impact of the Bellingham story.  It is a powerful reminder of Why the Bellingham Story Must Continue to Be Told. We urge you to revisit it.

dontforget-originalposter-edit

Bellingham on June 10, 1999

 

 

“I hope that everyone in Bellingham and around the country will join us today to remember the story again, and to show others that while we are tired of the story it is still important.”

 

 

 

Valves: Block, remote, automatic – which is best?

Our question this time comes from a resident of Santa Barbara and relates to the oil spill last month from an onshore pipeline that failed, allowing crude oil to reach the ocean.

Question of the week:

It would be very helpful for us here in Santa Barbara if you could answer some of our questions. 
One of the issues in our recent pipeline spill near Santa Barbara is whether there should have been an automatic shut off valve, as there is in most of the pipelines here. Industry spokesmen insist that the automatic shutoffs can cause unintended consequences, including over-pressurization elsewhere in the pipeline, and that it’s safer to shut down the pipeline manually. Other pipelines here have automatic shutoffs and haven’t had any incidents with them. Can you clear up this muddle?

I think there continues to be a good deal of confusion regarding this spill, which is too bad because either PHMSA or the company could clear it up with a little more communication.

For instance, I still do not know what type of valve was on that pipeline. Some reports say the valve was “manually” closed which would make someone believe that it was like the valve in San Bruno where someone had to actually drive to the site and turn the valve off by turning a large wheel/handle lots and lots of times. Other reports say the valve was turned off “manually” from the control room, as in an operator there pushed a button to remotely close the valve electronically. Those are two very different scenarios.

There are basically three types of valves in such locations:

Manual valves that need to be physically turned off at the valve site

Remotely controlled valves (RCVs) that can be turned off from the control room hundreds or thousands of miles away

Automatic shutoff valves (ASVs) that detect a problem on the pipeline themselves and then shut down without any needed human assistance.

Clearly the valve at issue on the Plains All American line was not an automatic valve, but from what I can decipher from the news stories I suspect it was a remotely controlled valve. After the San Bruno tragedy the NTSB recommended installation of automated valves on natural gas pipelines, and they left it up to PHMSA and the industry to decide which was better, remotely actuated or automatic valves. PHMSA did a large and expensive study on those types of valves for both natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines, which can be found here. The bottom line was:

“Feasibility evaluations conducted as part of this study show that under certain conditions installing ASVs and RCVs in newly constructed and fully replaced natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines is technically, operationally, and economically feasible with a positive cost benefit. However, these results may not apply to all newly constructed and fully replaced pipelines because site-specific parameters that influence risk analyses and feasibility evaluations often vary significantly from one pipeline segment to another, and may not be consistent with those considered in this study. Consequently, the technical, operational, and economic feasibility and potential cost benefits of installing ASVs and RCVs in newly constructed or fully replaced pipelines need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

 It is true that if an automatic valve decided to close incorrectly, it could cause pressure problems on other parts of the pipeline. In the Bellingham tragedy it was an incorrectly installed valve that decided to close on its own causing a pressure surge to flow back towards Bellingham and the damaged pipeline to burst at a weak spot. Smart engineers seem to believe that while clearly that is a risk, the technology has gotten better, not all automatic valves are installed incorrectly, and that the entire system can be engineered and programmed to do other things when an automatic valve sends a signal it is closing, such as change the speed with which it closes, or direct other components, such as other valves and pump stations, to adjust to the valve closure to overcome that risk.

It is also true that human errors by operators in the control room can delay closure of remotely controlled valves, allowing more oil to spill, as in the ExxonMobil Silvertip Pipeline spill into the Yellowstone, or cause things to be done in the wrong order so the closure of that type of valve may damage other parts of the system. 

So the bottom line is there is a good deal of grey area between exactly the benefits of an ASV over a RCV, and a good deal of it depends on the pipeline system, operator training and the topography. 

The current regulations applying to all hazardous liquid lines require that “a valve must be installed at each of the following locations: ….(c) On each mainline at locations along the pipeline system that will minimize damage or pollution from accidental hazardous liquid discharge, as appropriate for the terrain in open country, for offshore areas, or for populated areas.” 49 CFR §195.260.

For lines to which the integrity management rules apply – that is, that less than half of the liquid lines where a failure could affect a high consequence area – there are additional considerations relating to automatic or remote control valves, or EFRDs, in the regulations words, standing for Emergency Flow Restricting Devices.

First: “An operator must take measures to prevent and mitigate the consequences of a pipeline failure that could affect a high consequence area.” 49 CFR 195.452(i). The operator must undertake a risk analysis “to identify additional actions to enhance public safety or environmental protection”….including “installing EFRDs on the pipeline segment.”

Speaking specifically about EFRDs: “If an operator determines that an EFRD is needed on a pipeline segment to protect a high consequence area in the event of a hazardous liquid pipeline release, and operator must install the EFRD.” 49 CFR 195. 452(i)(4). This sentence is followed by a long list of factors that must be considered in determining whether an EFRD is needed.

Unfortunately, like most risk/performance based regulations, these do not help eliminate any of the gray area on this issue. And they leave the consideration and determination to each operator in the context of an integrity management plan the public will never see.

There is a good deal of speculation that a proposed change in the rules governing hazardous liquid lines may include changes to regulations about the installation of different kinds of valves, but no one knows for sure. An Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was issued in October of 2010, indicating that valves might be included in the proposed rule. The proposed rule has yet to emerge from PHMSA and the review by the White House Office of Management and Budget. To get notifications of progress in this area, go to www.regulations.gov, search for PHMSA-2010-0229, and sign up to receive email notifications when new information is posted.

Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Question of the dayI see a pipeline just spilled oil into the ocean near Santa Barbara, California. What can you tell me about the company that operates that pipeline and their safety record?

 

Thanks for the question. The cause and the size of the spill are still being determined, and the clean up will go on for weeks we are sure.  Here is a quick analysis of the company that operates that pipelines

Quick Analysis Plains Pipeline L.P pipeline that failed in California

With the spill yesterday into the Pacific Ocean from a pipeline operated by a subsidiary of Plains All American Pipeline L.P. we have received a lot of calls about why the pipeline failed and how Plains safety record compares to other companies operating similar pipelines. To date we have not seen any information about why the pipeline may have failed, so speculating on that would serve little purpose. The Plains All American Pipeline L.P. system that failed is referred to in the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) database as Plains Pipeline L.P, and their operator identification number is 300. Plains Pipeline L.P. is only part of the entire Plains All American Pipeline system which according to their website includes 17,800 miles of pipeline.

According to PHMSA Plains Pipeline L.P operates 6437 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines in 16 states, with 480 miles of it in California.[1] In the past ten years they have reported 175 pipeline incidents,[2] which caused nearly $24 million of property damage. Of those 175 incidents only 11 were in California. There have been 20 enforcement actions initiated against this company resulting in $284,500 in fines.[3] Of those enforcement actions none of them were for issues specific to California.

Here is some information about the incidents this system has had in the past ten years. Plains

The Pipeline Safety Trust today took a look at the incident data from PHMSA for the past 5 years (2009 – 2013) and compared Plains All American’s incident rates to the national average. Here is what we learned.

Graph1

 

 

 

The number of Incidents reported to PHMSA for all hazardous liquid pipelines is increasing, but incidents for crude oil pipelines are increasing at a faster rate. The number of incidents on crude oil pipelines operated by Plains Pipeline L.P. follows this trend, and is increasing faster then the national average.

Graph2

 

 

 

Since the mileage of pipelines has changed over the past few years we also normalized this analysis by looking at the number of incidents per mile of pipeline. We found that the rate nationally for crude oil pipelines is twice that of other types of hazardous liquid pipelines, and that the rate of incidents/mile of pipe for crude oil pipelines operated by Plains Pipeline L.P. was about 14% higher than the national average for crude oil pipelines.

Graph3

 

 

[1] http://primis.phmsa.dot.gov/comm/reports/operator/OperatorIM_opid_300.html?nocache=3583#_OuterPanel_tab_1

[2] http://primis.phmsa.dot.gov/comm/reports/operator/OperatorIM_opid_300.html?nocache=3583#_Incidents_tab_3

[3] http://primis.phmsa.dot.gov/comm/reports/operator/OperatorIE_opid_300.html?nocache=9182#_OuterPanel_tab_2

Another pipeline incident anniversary – have things changed since 2009?

Question of the weekI think it was around this time in 2009 that a gas pipeline blew up in Palm City, Florida near a school. What really happened then, and have things gotten safer in the past 6 years?

On May 4, 2009, an 18-inch Florida Gas Transmission Company interstate pipeline ruptured about 6 miles south of Palm City, Florida, releasing about 36 million cubic feet of natural gas and causing three minor injuries in Martin County. The community was fortunate: the gas did not find a source of ignition and catch fire, nor did two other large gas lines buried parallel to the one that ruptured sustain any damage, though 106 feet (over 5,000 pounds) of buried pipeline was blown into the air and landed in the right-of-way between two major highways. The pipeline segment that failed was between two automatic shutoff valves, but only one closed in response to the pressure drop on the pipeline. A Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system was in use by the pipeline operator at its control center in Houston, TX to remotely monitor and control the movement of gas through the pipeline. The SCADA system also failed to recognize the rupture or trigger any alarms.NTSB: Location next to I-95 and high school, in Rupture of Florida Gas Transmission Pipeline and Release of Natural Gas 20090504

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a pipeline accident brief on this incident, which found the cause of the accident to be the operator’s failure to detect cracking of the pipeline beneath protective coating. The NTSB also found that the operator failed to correctly identify the pipe as being within a high consequence area even though it was near a school.

As with most pipeline incidents, there were many contributing factors to this incident. The operator subsequently changed operations and procedures related to this pipeline in response to a PHMSA corrective action order as reported by the NTSB. But here, in response to the question about whether things have gotten safer in the past 6 years, we will focus on the issue of high consequence area (HCA) identification.

If the pipeline segment had been correctly identified as being within a high consequence area, then it would have been included in the pipeline operator’s integrity management program. There are specific rules in the federal regulations requiring the implementation of integrity management in high consequence areas, and these include specific inspection, analysis, maintenance and repair criteria designed to detect problems such as those that caused this 2009 incident.

As to whether these same mistakes could be happening today, the answer is yes. Are things safer? It’s hard to say. The same rules that allowed the identity and location of HCA’s to be kept secret from the public in 2009 are still in place. The public can’t know, until after an incident, whether an operator has accurately identified the HCAs along its route.  

A fundamental problem is that PHMSA essentially leaves the designation of high consequence area (HCA) boundaries up to the pipeline operators, and entrusts them to update the boundaries when any changes take place that would trigger a new inclusion in the HCA. There is no way for an average citizen to know about the details of these HCA boundaries, to know if PHMSA is enforcing the designation of those areas, and no way to help ensure operators encapsulate what needs to be included within those boundaries according to the regulations.

For example, on a gas transmission line like the one in Florida that ruptured in 2009, the presence of certain populated areas would trigger the HCA designation. There is a complicated way for gas pipeline operators to choose their method of designation and draw their boundaries (see 49 CFR §192.903). Put generally, any area near a pipeline with a high population (for gas pipelines, that means 20 or more homes), or with a populated activity center (e.g. school, office, assisted living, recreation area, campground, etc.; referred to as “designated sites” in the gas regulations), would be considered part of an HCA. Just how near to the gas pipeline these homes and activities need to be to trigger the HCA designation depends on how big the pipeline is, and the pressure inside it.

So what if a community is building a new school? Or what if a development goes in within a half-mile of an existing pipeline? In the case of a hazardous liquid (e.g. crude oil or petroleum) pipeline, nearby town water intakes or environmentally sensitive areas also trigger the HCA designation – what if a town changes their water intake or an agency recognizes a new critical habitat area? These types of changes and development happen all across the country, but only a very few communities have practices or rules in place that facilitate active dialogue between a pipeline operator and developer, or between an emergency management team and pipeline operator, to the degree that these types of changes are promptly reflected in a pipeline operator’s integrity management program.

In fact, PHMSA rules allow over 10 years – yes, TEN YEARS – from the time a natural gas pipeline operator identifies HCA changes to when that information must be part of a completed baseline assessment of the pipeline in the newly identified HCA. And PHMSA rules allow over 6 years from the time a hazardous liquid pipeline operator identifies an area of high population or sensitivity, to when that information must have been incorporated into its completed pipeline assessment. And the time between the actual on-the-ground change and the identification of that change by the pipeline operator adds even more time – a vague amount of time as this type of information analysis is only required by the operator ‘periodically.’

Contrary to some who think pipeline information needs to be less accessible, we think the secrecy surrounding pipeline operator’s designations of high consequence areas (HCAs) and other withheld information leads to more risky pipelines. If communities could access this type of information easily, it would be easy for planners, emergency responders, and concerned citizens to inform pipeline operators when a change is needed – thereby leading to SAFER pipelines, not more risky ones. Our experience is that those most impacted by pipelines – those who live in close proximity to them, are the ones with most at stake and most interested in keeping the pipelines and their community safe. Withholding information from these stakeholders disregards critical allies in our collective efforts toward safer pipelines.

Despite the lack of a transparent playing field in this area, there are some things you can do.

Communities with active Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC) often have regular open meetings, and the committee itself should include representation from community groups as well as emergency response professionals, elected officials, professional staff, and facility and pipeline operators. The emergency responders who participate in these meetings have the ability to access information from pipeline operators that the general public cannot access. Pipeline operators are required to share their emergency response plans with local first responders, and to maintain liaison with appropriate fire, police, and other public officials. Citizens can participate with the LEPC and request the committee work on accurate identification of HCAs in partnership with the pipeline operator. The LEPC topic is addressed in more detail in chapter 5 of our Local Government Guide to Pipelines.

PHMSA maintains a web-based National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS), which is viewable on a county-level and depicts the location of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines, along with population areas and other information. While the population areas may give some indication of where a high consequence area is likely to be designated, there is not a direct link between the NPMS information and what the operators currently use to designate their HCAs. The PHMSA information is not up to date, and does not include the level of detail or environmental information needed to truly assess HCA boundaries. This is a problem. There are periodic opportunities for the public to comment on this issue, as the Trust did in December 2014 and October 2013 (comments of the Trust on a variety of pipeline safety topics are viewable here). The public needs to be able to view information and data gathered from pipeline companies on NPMS that depicts pipeline locations within an HCA with a high level of accuracy. There is in fact a statutory requirement that HCAs be incorporated as part of NPMS and updated biennially.[1]

Lastly, the Palm City, Florida incident was one of the incidents the NTSB highlighted in their recent safety study published earlier this year entitled “Integrity Management of Gas Transmission Pipelines in High Consequence Areas” and discussed in our January 30 Smart Pig blog post. This study included a number of additional changes needed to help make pipelines safer over time.

[1] Pipeline Safety Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011; Section 6 made part of 49 USC 60132.

Local options when thinking about new pipelines

Question of the weekThere are rumors of a new pipeline coming to my community. I’ve heard of another town with its own pipeline ordinance, but I also hear that it’s not up to the community and we really have no say. Should we pass our own ordinance and will it help?

You can pass your own ordinance, but whether it will help or not depends on where you are, what type of pipeline is proposed, and what the ordinance says.

It is true that in some circumstances communities “have no say,” but not all. There are a few circumstances over which the federal agencies have exclusive authority: FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) has exclusive authority over the routing of new interstate natural gas pipelines; and PHMSA, the federal pipeline safety agency, retains authority over rulemaking and enforcement of safety regulations governing oil and natural gas pipelines. States can seek certification from PHMSA to regulate the safety of intrastate pipelines, and once certified can write stronger regulations for those pipelines than the federal minimum regulations established by PHMSA. States can take on a stronger role in other areas as well – but that is a subject for another post. If not disallowed by the state, local communities can have an important role when it comes to land use and pipelines.

For situations where local rules are not preempted by other state or federal laws, there are a number of options for action:

When a pipeline is built, the pipeline operator typically needs to get road crossing permits and negotiate franchise agreements or easements for crossing public roads, using road rights of way or crossing parks or other land owned by the local government. Some communities do this as they need to, and others have an ordinance that governs all these types of franchise agreements or easements between the town/county and the pipeline operator. This type of ordinance typically avoids preemption issues with state or federal law, though we recommend consulting with an attorney in your area. Franchises can address things like notification to the local government, maintenance of the right-of-way, availability of information, required payments by operators, circumstances where relocation of the pipeline may be necessary (and who would pay for it), pipeline abandonment, insurance and financial guarantees, and other issues. For examples of franchise ordinances, see the Franchise page on our website.

There are also community ordinances that establish a setback or consultation area between the pipeline and certain development, homes, or businesses. There are no federal regulations that set an absolute minimum distance that a pipeline can be built from a house, so a number of communities have moved forward on their own to do this. One option is to establish a ‘consultation zone’ so the pipeline owner and property owner or developer of any new project have to talk with one another prior to going ahead with the development or the new pipeline. Another option is to pass an ordinance requiring setbacks that vary depending on what type of residential uses exist near the pipeline. We have examples of these types of ordinances as well on our website.

Setbacks are often intended to help prevent damage to the pipeline by people doing something stupid on top of it (like installing a swimming pool or fence), or to aid in evacuation by offering a bit more time for folks to get out of the area. But they are likely not wide enough to protect a person from an explosion on a high pressure pipeline (for larger diameter high pressure gas pipelines, that distance may need to be over 1,000 feet).

A local government could also choose to treat new pipelines as a conditional use and require a pipeline proponent to apply for and receive a conditional use permit before beginning construction within the jurisdiction. You can find an example of this option on our website as well (see Colorado example).

Chapter 4 of our Local Government Guide describes in more detail options that local communities have as they think about how best to prepare for the prospect of a new pipeline coming to town.