Natural Gas Compressor Stations – Does PHMSA regulate?

Question of the week

 We got a message through the Pipeline Safety Trust Facebook page (find us and like us there!) with some questions from Howard, who was trying to find some information about the regulation of compressor stations on interstate natural gas pipelines, like the one being proposed near his New England community. He had heard two distinctly different stories: one that compressor stations are “self-regulating”, which is to say not regulated at all; the other was that the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Administration (PHMSA of the US Department of Transportation) regulates them, but the details about exactly what that meant were a bit fuzzy.

Here’s what we told Howard, plus a few more tidbits:

Hi Howard – Compressor stations like the ones on the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline are regulated by PHMSA. Compressor stations are included in the regulatory definition of “pipeline facility” in the PHMSA regulations governing gas transmission lines (49 CFR Part 192). Specifically, that definition is found in 49 CFR 192.5. Compressor stations are specifically called out in several regulations governing design, emergency exits and shutdown, fencing, ventilation, etc. Those specific regs can be found at 49 CFR 192.163, .165, .167, .169, .171, and .173. Compressor stations may also be subject to air quality regulation under the Clean Air Act, requiring a separate permitting process, but that permit is usually dealt with in the context of the FERC certification proceedings, sometimes as a condition on the granting of the certificate. Compressor stations that are not part of an interstate transmission line subject to siting by FERC may also be subject to zoning and permitting by local governments, and to safety inspections by a state if it has been certified to regulate intrastate natural gas facilities.  

PHMSA decides how often to inspect operators and for what purpose. For example, sometimes inspections throughout a region would focus on operator qualification requirements or control room management rules, and PHMSA will check all of the operators in the region for those specific topics. Other times inspections are a more wide-ranging inspection of individual operators or facilities, checking records and the facility for compliance with a wide variety of safety regulations. I’d suggest that for more information on how PHMSA schedules the inspections of facilities and how often they check a specific individual facility, you contact a Community and Technical Assistance (CATS) staff person in the regional office of PHMSA nearest you. You can find contact information for them here. You can also find a flowchart generally describing the inspection and enforcement process here. Records from enforcement actions resulting from previous inspections are included in the PHMSA reports on enforcement actions, but they are mixed in with those relating to incidents, so finding them requires a bit of searching.

Hope that helps. 

Send us your questions, big or little, hot-button or not, we’ll get the pig to root out the answer. 


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.

Another Spill into the Yellowstone – Are we learning anything?


Many rivers to cross
But I can’t seem to find my way over

                                                ~Jimmy Cliff


Dear Readers: An unfortunate deja-vu-all-over-again moment occurred recently: another pipeline ruptured at a crossing of the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana.

First, there was the Silvertip spill….

You may remember that after the ExxonMobil Co.’s Silvertip Pipeline ruptured and spilled 1,500 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River in 2011, I got a letter from my friend King Fisher of Riparian Ranch asking about the rules that govern pipelines crossing rivers. It was clear by then that the Silvertip spill was caused by the pipeline being damaged by riverbed scour and debris and he was understandably confused about the existing rule requiring operators to bury their pipelines a minimum of only four feet when they construct pipelines across rivers of at least 100 feet in width. He wondered whether there were other rules, and what they might be. 

I answered that letter in the Trust’s newsletter in January of 2013 (at pages 4-6). Here are the highlights of that response:

  • The current rules require pipelines crossing rivers that are wider than 100 feet to be buried at least 4 feet at the time of construction. A separate rule requires lines that cross navigable rivers to be checked at least every 5 years “to determine the condition of the crossing”. There is no rule requiring any specific depth of cover to be maintained after installation, unless the pipeline is one where a spill could affect a “high consequence area,” say, for example, the drinking water supply of a small city that takes its water directly from, say, the Yellowstone River.
  • The 2011 amendments to the Pipeline Safety Act included a directive to PHMSA to undertake a study of liquid pipeline incidents at river crossings to determine if depth of cover was a factor, and to make recommendations for any legislative action to improve the safety of buried pipelines at river crossings. No regulatory action was required of PHMSA.
  • PHMSA produced its report describing its data management challenges (it doesn’t have a database, geographic or otherwise that shows the crossings that are subject to the 100 foot crossing/4 feet deep rule); and describing the pipeline failures at crossings in the last 20 or so years (well, at least some of them). In an NTSB document not cited in PHMSA’s report to Congress, a chart shows that 6 of Exxon’s pipelines in the San Jacinto floodplain ruptured or were undermined for up to 120 feet in the 1994 flood event; most of these were not included in the PHMSA analysis.

Then there was the Bridger spill – Another spill into the Yellowstone River last month

The Bridger pipeline failed at its crossing of the Yellowstone River, spilling approximately 1,000 barrels of crude into the river. Complicating response, investigation and recovery is that the river is entirely frozen over, but with ice of varying thickness from day to day, creating safety concerns for responders and physical limitations on recovery operations.

Initial reports were that the pipeline was buried at least 8 feet under the bed of the river. Then we learned that was an assessment from 2011. Then we learned that sonar showed much of the pipeline crossing the river was exposed on the riverbed, and some of it was suspended above the bed, entirely exposed. Although we do not yet know the reason for the pipe’s failure, clearly the lessons of the Silvertip (and a USGS study showing parts of the Missouri River scouring to depths of up to 40 feet) had not been learned – that rivers change all the time and quickly, that riverbeds move a lot of sediment, and quickly.

My 2013 reply to King Fisher was written before PHMSA had fulfilled its second obligation under the 2011 Act: to determine whether the depth of cover requirements are inadequate and if so, to make legislative recommendations. I suggested staying tuned to find out what PHMSA would do, and raised concerns about some of the options open to it:

The risk is that PHMSA either: a) decides to change the depth of cover at installation rule, creating a political sideshow that exhausts safety advocates’ energy arguing over the number of feet or inches it should be raised, completely ignoring the fact that the installation rule makes very little difference over time if there are no maintenance of cover rules or viable, enforceable integrity management rules to require operators to manage for the risk of riverbed scour; or b) decides to argue that the operator’s obligations under integrity management rules to identify and mitigate the risks of riverbed scouring are sufficient, regardless of the 4-foot depth of cover at installation requirement, and therefore the depth of cover rules don’t need to be changed. 

Unless PHMSA opts for: c) an enforceable and enforced maintenance of cover rule for all crossings that is based on a study of the specific location and characteristics of each crossing; and d) actually enforcing integrity management obligations of operators to design for and mitigate against the risk of riverbed scour before an incident occurs, this smart pig is not optimistic about improving the safety of crossings at rivers.

So, how did PHMSA do?

Well, to some extent it remains to be seen, but there is recent reason to hope for improvement.

When PHMSA reported to Congress with the second half of its homework assignment – do you have legislative recommendations? – PHMSA reported that it believed that its existing legislative authority was adequate to protect pipelines at river crossings. PHMSA has yet to publish ANY substantive proposed changes to its safety regulations since the 2011 reauthorization, and until those major proposed rulemakings are released, we won’t know whether PHMSA intends to change the depth-of-cover-at-construction rule or to propose any new rules requiring maintenance of cover to some depth.

But just last week, in the midst of the awful news about the Bridger spill into the Yellowstone, PHMSA released its Final Order on ExxonMobil’s appeal of the fine imposed for its Silvertip spill. In the order, PHMSA responded to the operator’s (EMPCo’s) arguments that they had complied with the regulations relating to adequate risk assessments and integrity management measures to manage the identified risks:

The fact that flooding had not previously caused an integrity issue for Respondent’s pipeline does not mean future flooding could never cause a failure. One of the purposes of the integrity management regulations is to anticipate the possible threats to the pipeline in the future. Given that flooding is a threat in general and that flooding had caused integrity issues for other pipelines at the same location, it was not reasonable for EMPCo to assume seasonal flooding would never impact its own pipeline. At a minimum, the Operator had a duty to evaluate the likelihood of a pipeline release occurring from flooding. [Order at page 9.]

The order continues by analyzing the documents in the record to determine if such a risk analysis had been made, notes that the 2010 Preventive and Mitigative Measures Analysis identified only three risks to the line — third-party damage, manufacturing, and external corrosion — in spite of the fact that the entire line had been identified as one which could affect a high consequence area, and further noting that the presence of the Yellowstone River or the risk of a failure at its crossing was never mentioned.

The good news

The Conclusion of the PHMSA order on this violation is this:

Given the history of flooding and impact to other pipelines at this location, the threat of flooding was relevant to the likelihood of a release occurring on Respondent’s pipeline. Respondent did not evaluate the likelihood of a release caused by flooding of the Yellowstone River and failed to consider risk factors relevant to flooding. Accordingly, PHMSA finds Respondent violated § 195.452(i)(2) by failing to conduct a risk analysis of the Silvertip Pipeline that considered all risk factors relevant to the likelihood of a release on the Silvertip Pipeline and potential consequences affecting the Yellowstone River. [Order at page 12.]

This suggests that PHMSA may, in fact, be choosing Option D from my response to my friend King Fisher: d) actually enforcing integrity management obligations of operators to design for and mitigate against the risk of riverbed scour before an incident occurs.

Well, okay, technically, they haven’t yet enforced those obligations before an incident occurs as far as we know, but this is at least a start. Most importantly, it should certainly put every other operator on notice, whether they’ve had a flooding/riverbed scour/earth movement failure or not, that PHMSA will enforce the operators’ obligation to adequately assess those risks and to integrate sufficient preventive and mitigative measures into their integrity management programs to protect against failures. Unfortunately, PHMSA didn’t do that when they inspected the Silvertip a year or so before the Yellowstone rupture. When regulators enforce those obligations in routine inspections of integrity management programs independent of (and hopefully before) any incidents, that will indeed be good news.