The Continuing Education of the New Deputy Director

Bill Caram, Deputy Executive Director, Pipeline Safety Trust

Bill Caram, Deputy Executive Director, Pipeline Safety Trust

I’m now in my 4th week, and the state of our nation’s pipeline safety continues to shock me.  I have seen many examples of the industry writing its own rules.  Why the regulators abdicate this important work is beyond me.  Expect to hear more from Carl on this soon.

But I’d like to focus on something else in my space this week.  As I dig into each area of pipeline safety, I continually run into the same question in my head – Why on earth don’t these regulations go far enough!?  Surprisingly, there is generally one answer – the Cost-Benefit Requirement. 

Why is it that in response to a Congressional Mandate after the catastrophic failures of Enbridge in Michigan and PG&E in San Bruno, CA does PHMSA come back with such a tepid response that barely scratches the surface of what is truly needed?  The Cost-Benefit Requirement.  Any new proposed regulation must make economic sense for the industry.  Any proposed rule must not cost too much relative to the benefits.  I’d like to clearly state here that the benefits we are talking about are not just protecting our clean water and natural world, but also human life.  I’m morbidly curious what dollar value is placed on a human life in their calculations.  And on the cost side of the equation, who calculates what a new proposed rule would cost?  The industry groups do.  I don’t know about you, but this shocked me.

Also embedded in this requirement is a classic Catch-22, on par in absurdity with much of the novel’s circular logic:

  • New regulations need to pass the cost-benefit test.
  • In order to pass the cost-benefit test, the agency needs to calculate benefits (read human lives saved).
  • In order to calculate benefits, incidents need to be reported.
  • In order to be reported, incidents need to be part of a regulated system.
  • In order to be part of a regulated system, we need to pass new regulations.
  • Return to the top and repeat

This system is maddening, broken, and needs an overhaul.

How did we get here?  Are other regulatory agencies similarly hamstrung?  To answer these questions, we need to revisit the mid-1990’s and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”.  House Republicans had an ideological belief that “overburdensome” regulations were counterproductive and believed instead in “Rationalism” when it came to environmental, health, and safety standards – cost-benefit requirements comprising a core tenet of this “rationalist” approach.  It turns out that their power to induce change was relatively short-lived and they were able to apply this mandate to only one piece of legislation – The Pipeline Safety Act of 1996, passed in response to the explosion on a pipeline owned by the Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation in Edison, NJ.  Our nation’s pipeline industry is the only industry protected by such an explicit and codified cost-benefit test.

We can blame this requirement for much of our regulatory shortfall.  Why aren’t our more than 400,000 miles of natural gas gathering lines regulated at all?  Why don’t we have better standards for leak detection and responsive shut-off?  Why aren’t pipeline segments that cross rivers sufficiently protected?  Largely, because of the cost-benefit requirement.

It is irreconcilable to have a regulatory agency and industry group tout the goal of “zero-incidents” while hiding behind this requirement that explicitly allows for incidents.  It is unfathomable to trust industry to calculate costs.  It is unconscionable to assign a dollar value to a human life.  We need to abolish the cost-benefit requirement.

I believe that our safety, health, and environment should be subject to more vigilant standards that are responsive to public values, not oil and gas companies’ bottom lines.


A Few Early Thoughts From The Pipeline Safety Trust’s New Deputy Director

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!

NH, CA and CO Improve in 2017 Website Transparency Study

Since 2011, the Pipeline Safety Trust has conducted an annual review of each state regulatory agency’s pipeline safety website. Our goal is to encourage states to make information about pipeline safety — like inspection records, incident data, maps, etc. — as transparent to the public as possible.

We evaluate each website with the following criteria:

  • Ease of finding the state agency’s website and contact information for agency staff;
  • Accessibility of federal and state statutes and rules;
  • The description of the scope of the state’s authority (and lack of authority);
  • Existence of transmission pipeline maps and operator contact information;
  • Availability of inspection records, and incident, enforcement and excavation damage data; and
  • Information about siting and routing of new pipelines.

The graphic below shows how states performed in our 2017 review. We consider below 17 points to be “failing” (red), 17-24 points to be “passing” (yellow), 25-32 points to be “good” (light green), and a perfect score of 33 points is “excellent” (dark green). California has two entities responsible for pipeline safety; one agency has a score of “good” while the other has a score of “failing.” States and territories in black have no pipeline safety program.

2017 Website Transparency Results

Map of the results of our 2017 transparency review. Dark green and light green states have “excellent” and “good” websites. Yellow states have “passing” websites and red states have “failing” websites. Note: California PUC, which is responsible for gas pipelines received a score of “good” in the 2017 review while California Fire Marshal, which is responsible for hazardous liquid pipelines received a score of “failing.”

For some states, seeing their state in red is enough to force them to act. For others, a drive for excellence catalyzes website improvements. For years now, Arkansas and Washington have led the pack, getting perfect or near-perfect scores every year. Last year, they were joined by Nevada, which achieved a perfect score for the first time.

This year, however, we decided public shaming isn’t always the best way to get states to improve their website transparency. So, we offered a free website audit, including detailed recommendations for improvements, to any state that wanted to participate. Fifteen states signed up in time to receive an audit and make changes before the 2017 review.

Among those 15 states, three have already taken our recommendations to heart and made significant changes to their websites. The California Public Utilities Commission made notable improvements to their site after our audit this year, bringing them from the middle of the pack to the top. Colorado also asked for an audit and worked closely with us to improve their website in 2017, leading to a much more user-friendly, transparent site. And, New Hampshire amped up an already fine website, adding information about siting and routing and better access to some data. We hope other states we have worked with will make similar changes in the coming year as time allows.

While not all the states for which we conducted audits incorporated our recommendations, we are pleased with the outcome of this effort, and will continue to offer audits into 2018. In 2016, we had 19 states with a score of “passing” or better. Now have 21 states with passing scores or better, and next year, we’re shooting for 25.

Do you have questions about our transparency study or how to get an audit for your state? Contact Kate Blystone at for more information.

Clouded Vision

This story, Taxpayer Funded Horror at Standing Rock, came across my desk today.  Here’s the link:

There has to be a better way: to make decisions, to spend scarce tax dollars, to treat each other.  This is horrific on so many levels.  For those of you concerned that these events or this story are outside the bounds of what we should be concerned with, here’s a reminder of the vision statement of the Trust, a document that was written after the Bellingham pipeline explosion destroyed any public trust in institutions responsible for pipeline safety. In the continuing reports coming out of Standing Rock, this vision seems at least as far away as it must have seemed in 1999.  We have to do better.


A Vision for Our Communities

We See:

  • Communities where residents feel safe from the hazards of energy infrastructure,
  • Communities where residents trust their government to protect them from hazards,
  • Government authorities that are proactive and innovative in their approaches to accident prevention,
  • Energy production, distribution and consumption that is consistent with sustainable development principles,
  • Energy and utility industries that are partners in promoting community safety and environmental protection . . . .


February Friday food for thought

A little February Friday food for thought.

As most of you know, we scan news providers for stories about pipeline safety, pipeline incidents, pipeline regulations, for our listserv.  Jaxon Vanderbeken, now a reporter with the NBC affiliate in San Francisco, covered the San Bruno explosion and all of the hearings, lawsuits, and political fallout for the San Francisco Chronicle for years.  (Another well-deserved hat tip to him…)  So because I followed Jaxon, some of the news alerts I see are things that Jaxon is now covering.  He’s been covering the debacle surrounding the Millenium towers in San Francisco for many months now – the construction of a very expensive new high rise in downtown that is now sinking and tilting towards a neighboring tower.  A pretty clear case of at least one, or perhaps a whole series of mistakes.  

The news alert that came across my desk today is about a hearing and the testimony of a civil engineer who wrote a letter in 2006 about the now-suspect foundation to the effect that “it meets the requirements of the code.” (  It brings to mind what the public frequently hears from pipeline operators after an incident: “but we construct and operate in compliance with the code.”  In both cases, there are major public safety issues: a falling down building in a major metropolitan area; and a failed pipeline.  The engineer testified that he stands by the letter: the foundation design met the code.  It’s just that no one asked him whether it would actually work to hold up the building. (I’m paraphrasing.)

In recent litigation, pipeline operators have tried to raise a defense that PHMSA can’t hit them with a civil penalty just because there was an incident.  The pipeline safety code isn’t a strict liability code, they argued. Just because there was an incident doesn’t mean we violated the code.  The questions this raises for me are these:  Absent some third party damage, shouldn’t a pipeline constructed, operated and maintained in compliance with the code be capable of keeping the product in the pipe? Don’t you want compliance with the building code to mean that the foundation will actually work to hold the building up?   If compliance with the pipeline safety code doesn’t already mean the stuff stays in the pipe, shouldn’t it?  

Enjoy your weekend. 

Welcoming our new Outreach Manager


This week we welcome our new Outreach Manager, Kate Blystone.  Or we could say we’re welcoming her back, since in 2000, she was a college intern for Safe Bellingham, the community organization that preceded the formation of the Pipeline Safety Trust.  

In her new role, she will respond to requests for assistance from the public, assist with maintaining the Trust’s listservs, and develops programs designed to educate and involve citizens in pipeline safety issues and initiatives. One of her first tasks will be to complete the 2016 review of state pipeline safety websites for improvements in the transparency of information available to the public.  

Before joining the Trust, Kate worked for fifteen years as a public engagement specialist, land use planner and issue advocate for nonprofit organizations and private consulting firms across Washington, as well as a county planning department. She graduated from Western Washington University with a liberal arts degree, and from Eastern Washington University with a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) and an emphasis in small town planning.


Sixth Anniversary Thoughts on the Enbridge Spill in Marshall Michigan; comment opportunity

July 25, 2016

Six years ago today, Line 6b, part of Enbridge’s Lakehead Pipeline System, failed in Talmadge Creek, near Marshall, Michigan. It wasn’t until six years ago tomorrow, July 26 and three work shifts later that Enbridge’s control center and on-site staff figured out that what they had hoped was a column separation causing a pressure change in the pipe was in fact a rupture of the pipe that resulted in the country’s largest onshore oil spill, requiring a billion dollar multiyear clean-up effort, a record-setting pipeline safety penalty, a Corrective Action Order, including appointment of a third party auditor, being imposed on the entire Lakehead system, and now, a second-largest-ever Clean Water Act penalty being levied in a proposed consent decree between the Environmental Protection Agency and Enbridge (in all its many personalities: Enbridge Inc., Enbridge Energy Partners, etc.). The proposed Consent Decree also includes a number of operational constraints on the Lakehead system, including a permanent injunction from ever using “old” line 6b again, and a series of other measures to improve the system and the organization’s response capacity, like the production of a leak response report following the testing of a set of leak response methods.

Two years ago, we wrote another edition of the Smart Pig, describing the spill, including an excerpt from the NTSB report, describing the clean up, the replacement of Line 6b, and the continuing upheaval in the lives of everyone affected by the spill. We also pointed out that of the many recommendations and shortcomings that the NTSB identified in its report, precious few have been resolved.

Unfortunately, very little appears to have changed in these past two years. Fully six years after the spill and four years after the NTSB issued the recommendations, several critical recommendations remain to be resolved:

1) While a proposed rule on the safety of hazardous liquid pipelines has been proposed, it is not yet final, and there is no certainty about what any final rule will contain and the extent to which it will be responsive to the NTSB recommendations about cracks and their management and repair, about leak detection, about discovery of anomalies, and the like.

2) An audit of PHMSA’s implementation of spill response planning requirements by the Secretary’s office began in 2014, two years after the recommendation was made. As of the spring of 2016, the audit is “complete but undergoing internal administrative review”, as it has been for several months now. There have been changes in the program in staffing and review procedures, but almost entirely out of the view of the public: no changes to the spill planning rules have been proposed, no public announcements or advisory bulletins about changes in agency expectations for spill plans, no indication that the coordination recommended by the NTSB between PHMSA and EPA and the Coast Guard to more closely align PHMSA’s rules and processes with the other agencies’ has occurred, and little, if any, public discussion about assigning more resources to the spill planning section and what that might mean for the public or operators.  

3) The public still has no inkling about any follow-up on the assignment of a third party auditor on the Lakehead System under the PHMSA Corrective Action Order. We don’t know who it is/was, what they found, whether any changes were made in Enbridge’s governing plans and policies or behavior as a result of the auditor’s presence. And because of that lack of information, we also can’t know how many, if any, of the provisions in the Consent Decree are complete duplications of what may be required of Enbridge under the CAO. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for tying things up in the nice box with a pretty bow that is a consent decree, but the public deserves to know how much of the decree imposes new obligations on Enbridge and how much is existing obligations Enbridge is under elsewhere that are just being listed in this decree.

4) In a recommendation the Board reiterated from the investigation into PG&E’s rupture and explosion in San Bruno, CA, they recommended that PHMSA require operators to provide system specific information to local governments and first responders. PHMSA has yet to put forward any regulatory proposal to respond to this recommendation.

PHMSA and the industry still have significant work to do to accomplish the changes recommended by the NTSB as a result of this failure.

In an Inside Climate News article covering the announcement of the Consent Decree, I was quoted as saying that no fine would be big enough to un-do the damage that was done by the spill: to the river and its environment, to its neighbors, to their health and well being.   Our Executive Director, Carl Weimer added that the Trust would have liked the fine to be substantially larger. Like any monetary award for a non-monetary loss, whether the destruction of a river or the loss of a family member, financial penalties are by their nature always insufficient, whether as recompense or punishment. They are, however, what our legal system allows injured individuals, families and society to extract from wrong-doers. The exception to that is in the context of negotiated settlements like consent decrees where the parties can agree to certain changed behaviors or to pay for things that aren’t really the subject of the legal dispute.

And that’s where the Enbridge consent decree gets mixed reviews, as far as I’m concerned. On the positive side, it includes some testing and reporting obligations on the part of Enbridge with respect to Line 5 – a pair of hazardous liquid pipelines running under the Straits of Mackinac in the Great Lakes – that may otherwise not have been accomplished for many months or years, if at all. (The existence of those lines in that location is the poster child for a massive improvement in the pipeline siting legal scheme for hazardous liquid pipelines – because who thought that was a good idea? Two Great Lakes, both heavily used for recreation, drinking water and transportation; ice covered in the winter and terrific currents in the Straits all year long.) See today’s blog by our board member Jeff Insko for concerns about these Line 5 provisions specifically along with others that he shares with us.

The decree also prohibits the future use of the “old” Line 6b, a resolution that lays to rest a nagging concern of hundreds of landowners along that route who have lived through the spill, the integrity digs, the new installation of a second, larger pipe, and the reclamation of their properties, many times in an unsatisfactory manner. It is a good thing for them and for the environment to ensure that the old line is not used again.

The decree also requires some leak detection testing and reporting, that if done correctly and with sufficient public access to the results, has the potential to move forward the creation of performance standards for leak detection in PHMSA’s administrative rules, a process that seems otherwise at a standstill.  Without public access to the reports and results, this provision loses significant value.

The decree falls short in three areas in particular:

1). At some point, the Department of Justice and EPA chose not to file criminal charges under the Clean Water Act, a decision likely based on some assessment of the cost of litigation, but one that has not been explained by either agency. According to EPA’s website, the elements of a criminal act under the CWA are met when a someone negligently or knowingly discharges oil or a hazardous substance into a water of the United States/upon adjoining shorelines/into the contiguous zone in a harmful quantity. The largest inland oil spill in the country surely qualifies as a harmful quantity. The spill into the waters of the U.S. is not in doubt, as both Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River qualify. And so the only other element to be proven is “negligently or knowingly.” Let me remind you how the Chairwoman of the NTSB described the failure:

This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge. Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “Despite multiple alarms and a loss of pressure in the pipeline, for more than 17 hours and through three shifts they failed to follow their own shutdown procedures.”

So how knowing or negligent does the next operator have to be before EPA and Justice decide to file criminal charges? Sometimes decisions are made not to criminally prosecute and there are good reasons. Perhaps there are good reasons in this case. If so, EPA and Justice owe it to the public to tell us what they are, because otherwise the message to the next operator is clear that no behavior, no decision, no failure to act is bad enough to warrant a criminal charge under the Clean Water Act.

2) The decree “requires” the replacement of Line 3, a capital project that Enbridge has planned for several/many years, and that is the subject of significant controversy in Minnesota as to whether and where it should be built. The decree gives no background information to the public on why this requirement is included, but it certainly increases the nominal value of the total “penalties” to be paid by Enbridge under the decree, making it appear at first blush as if many tens of millions of dollars more is being required of Enbridge as a penalty than is the case. It is possible that the line is in such condition that it can no longer be safely operated, in which case the public and Enbridge shareholders should be informed and the line taken out of service. The administrative processes underway in Minnesota to permit and site the proposed replacement should go on without interference or influence by the federal government except as a party to those proceedings. The inclusion of the replacement of Line 3 in the Decree implies that the federal agencies have an interest in seeing it replaced. If that is the case, they should become parties to the proceedings in Minnesota and not appear to provide support for Enbridge’s proposed replacement in the context of this consent decree. If there is some other explanation for this provision, the EPA should provide it publicly so that the public can weigh that information in making their comments to the court on the proposed decree.

3) The third major failure of the decree is the failure to include any Supplemental Environmental Projects to benefit the community, the region or the river. All of the penalty money – all 60+ million dollars – goes into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund of the federal treasury. It is inexplicable that the agencies and Enbridge could not identify a single project that might spend some of that money to benefit the community or the ecosystem most damaged.

The Consent Decree is open for 30 days of public comments to be filed with the Department of Justice by August 24, 2016. You can find the commenting process here.  After six years, EPA and Justice should be able to provide answers to these concerns in time for the public to consider their reasoning in making their own comments on the decree.

Federal Pipeline Safety Program Reauthorization

Since the federal government in the United States is responsible for setting the minimum safety standards for all pipelines in this country, that puts the U.S. Congress in charge of these efforts. Congress writes the statutes which then PHMSA needs to turn into rules to G.W._Bush_delivers_State_of_the_Union_Addressimplement the wishes of Congress. Every four years Congress reviews and then reauthorizes the national pipeline safety program, which is normally their main effort at reviewing the statutes. That began last year, and is set to finish up in 2016. The U.S. Senate Commerce and Science Committee held hearings and produced a reauthorization bill in late 2015. That bill with some amendments passed in the full Senate in early March and can be found here.

There are two committees in the U.S. House that have jurisdiction over pipeline safety. Both the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I), and the House Energy and Commerce Committee (E&C) held hearings on reauthorization in late February and early March. A subcommittee of E&C held a mark up on a proposed bill in March which was passed on to the full committee, and that proposed bill can be found here. In early April the House T&I Committee released a draft bill, which can be found here.

The Pipeline Safety Trust pays close attention to reauthorization and has been involved with all the bills mentioned, and have been invited to testify to these committee. Our testimony can be found here.

We have put together a document that compares what is included in the three different bills, talks briefly about our concerns, and shows which version of different efforts we think are the best for moving pipeline safety forward. This Bill Comparison document can be found here, and it will be updated as the different bills get amended and voted on. At some point this year the bill that was passed by the Senate, and the bills working their way through the House Committees, will have to be consolidated and agreed on as a single bill. Check this page for updates on that process.

Congressional efforts such as this reauthorization are difficult processes for the public to weigh in on, because they are constantly changing and there is not a clear timeline or contact for where to send comments. If your Congressional Representatives are on any of the committees mentioned above it makes sense to weigh in with them early in the process before bills get passed by those committees. After the committees pass bills, or if your representatives are not on those committees it is good to let your representatives know how you feel about any provisions of the bills you feel are really good, or that you have concerns with.

UPDATE 4/28/2016:  Both House Committees have marked up bills and have passed out Manager’s amendments.  The two committees will now try to reconcile their differences before the bills go to the House floor for a vote.  If the House succeeds in passing out a bill, it will then be sent to conference committee with the Senate to reconcile any differences with the Senate bill.  You can find our updated comparison chart at the link in the fourth paragraph of the original blog above. 

PHMSA announces oil spill planning program workshop

In July 2011, when the NTSB issued its report on the Enbridge Line 6b spill, it recommended that the Secretary of Transportation audit the spill response plan review program at PHMSA, as it noted some shortcomings in the program.  That audit began approximately 2 years after the report was issued, and has yet to be released, as it has been undergoing “internal review” for at least a year.  

Last year, when the National Academies of Science issued its second report on the fate and effects of diluted bitumen when spilled into the environment, they made specific recommendations for improvements to PHMSA’s spill response planning program, some of which could have much broader effect beyond spill plans for pipelines carrying dilbit.  

Perhaps this is the beginning of PHMSA’s effort to undertake those regulatory changes?  Although if so, the announcement gives no indication of any causal relationship between published concerns with the existing program and this workshop.  

Published in the Federal Register today is a notice of a workshop on oil spill response planning to be held in Washington DC on APRIL 12 – Yes, that’s right, 2 whole entire weeks notice.  As of today, neither the notice nor the public meeting entry on PHMSA’s website contain any indication who will be presenting information at the meeting nor is there any background document included or referenced for the public to learn from or react to, although we are reassured that public comments are welcome before or after the workshop.  

You can register to attend in person or to watch the webcast on the PHMSA website here:  (Don’t be put off by the extensive list of nearby restaurants at the top of this meeting page.  There is a schedule of topics for the meeting (no names attached) at the bottom.)

From the Federal Register notice: 

PHMSA wishes to gather information about the efficacy of the oil spill response plan regulations. PHMSA is aware that regulated entities and members of the public have requested greater direction and regulatory interpretation. PHMSA is also aware that its oil spill response plan regulations do not fully align with the regulations of other federal agencies that have been delegated jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. 1321(j)(5). PHMSA is exploring ways to reduce redundancy, clarify language and improve efficacy of its oil spill response plan regulations.

PHMSA believes improving the response plan preparation and submission process is important for improving response actions, ensuring response capabilities, and minimizing harm to the environment. In particular, PHMSA is interested in collaboration with other jurisdictional federal agencies, operators, and oil spill response organizations.

Here’s the Federal Register notice: Federal Register | Oil Spill Response Planning Workshop
So, any of you who went through the Santa Barbara spill last year, watching the barefoot volunteer Home Depot bucket brigade clean oil off beaches where there were no operator or agency staff around because they spent the first day after the spill “planning” their response; from Montana, where the available valves were not closed to prevent much of the oil that spilled into the Yellowstone from reaching the river near Laurel; from Montana, where the town of Glendive wasn’t notified to shut down its drinking water supply until after the oil had reached its intakes, and most of the spill was unrecoverable under the ice of the Yellowstone; from Mayflower, Arkansas, where significant drainage into the lake was prevented by local public works employees building a makeshift dam at a culvert and no one was monitoring for air quality impacts in much of the affected area; or in Michigan, where Enbridge’s Line 6b ruptured and pumped dlibit into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River for 17 hours before being shut down, where cleanup has taken more than 5 years.  Or those of you in the upper midwest, worried about additional spills into your lakes, rivers, wetlands and muskeg where there aren’t access roads for response equipment.  Tune in to the webcast and comment.  I’m guessing your view of the “efficacy of the oil spill response planning regulations”  is a bit different than the voices PHMSA has invited to the workshop.  
If by the off chance someone feels strongly about this subject, has the time to attend, and has some expertise that would be beneficial for other workshop participants, the Pipeline Safety Trust has a fund to help pay for the travel costs associated with getting there and attending. Send Carl ( a short note telling him why you want to go, and perhaps we can help cover the costs.

Community Technical Assistance Grants Get Axed

Over the years the Pipeline Safety Trust has let people know when the opportunity to apply for the Community Technical Assistance Grants administered by PHMSA opens up. These grants are the only funding source that has been reliably available to help community groups and local governments hire their own experts to help them understand and possibly get more involved in pipeline safety issues in their communities. It was one of the early wins the Pipeline Safety Trust had with Congress getting this program put into law and eventually funded years ago.

Normally these grants open up for applications in late January. Today we received the note below from PHMSA notifying us that Congress in their supreme wisdom pulled the funding for this grant program late last year. We have inquired as to why Congress made this decision since there could be lots of reasons, such as:
•  Concern that the grant program was not functioning as Congress intended (unlikely since to our knowledge there has been no inquiries by Congress)
•  Lobbying from oil and gas industry to kill the program since they don’t always like local communities sticking their noses in what some in the industry thinks is their business. (quite possible)
•  General Tea Party thinking that government is bad so cut whatever you can get away with anytime you have a chance. (quite possible)
•  PHMSA quietly asked for program to go away out of concerns with implementation or resources necessary to administer (unlikely and denied by PHMSA)
•  The conspiracy theory of your choice.

Anyway, the Community Technical Assistance Grant program is dead for at least this year, which from our point of view is too bad. We will be pushing Congress to reinstate this ASAP. In the bill that the Senate passed in December reauthorizing PHMSA’s pipeline safety program the Community Technical Assistance Grant program was contained and authorized in that bill. The House has not yet taken up that legislation. Beyond that we also need champions in Congress that deal with the actual appropriation of money to ensure that this program gets funded in the future. If you have thoughts, ideas, or want to be notified how you can help get this program funded in the future send me a note.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, but are interested, you can see what types of projects have been funded in the past at:

Anyway, we thought you would like to know



Good morning.  Please note that the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 (P.L. 114-113) did not appropriate funding for the Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) program.  Accordingly, PHMSA will not be soliciting applications or making TAG awards in FY 2016.  Future funding for the TAG program is contingent upon reauthorization of the program and an enacted appropriation providing funds.  Thank you for your commitment to pipeline safety and for your work advancing pipeline safety through the TAG.  If you have any questions or concerns, please let me know.
Warm regards,
Karen Lynch
Senior Program Manager
Office of Pipeline Safety
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration