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Gas industry pushback revives decade-long debate over major gathering line rule


Industry sees smaller diameter lines as less risky

Opponents cite fatal blasts

  • Author
  • Tom DiChristopher    S&P Global Market Intelligence
  • Editor
  • Valarie Jackson
  • Commodity
  • Energy Transition Natural Gas
  • Tags
  • United States

Trade groups representing pipeline operators are asking regulators to walk back key parts of recently finalized US natural gas gathering line regulations, drawing rebukes from pipeline safety advocates.

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Among several proposed changes, the American Petroleum Institute and the GPA Midstream Association have petitioned federal pipeline safety regulators to reduce the requirements placed on medium-diameter gas gathering lines.

The groups Dec. 15 asked the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to stay certain requirements under the rule until the petition is resolved. The request revived one of the most contentious and consequential aspects of the rulemaking, which was hotly debated for more than a decade.

The impetus for the rule was the proliferation of large, high-pressure gathering lines developed during the US shale gas boom. Prior to the surge in gas production, gathering lines were largely unregulated, chiefly because regulators viewed the network of mostly small-diameter lines as low-risk assets.

As PHMSA moved to expand regulation to gathering lines in remote areas, the gas industry argued for setting the floor at lines with a diameter of 12.75 inches or greater. Pipeline safety advocates sought a lower threshold, arguing that the industry-preferred guideline would capture only a small percentage of unregulated gathering lines.

Costs outweigh benefits: Industry

PHMSA's final rule, released in November, applied most of the new requirements to gathering lines of 8.625 inches diameter or greater in Class 1 locations — typically the lowest-risk and least-populated areas in the agency's four-tier risk-ranking system.

In their Dec. 15 petition, API and GPA asked PHMSA to remove several new requirements for gathering lines smaller than 12.75 inches in diameter located near at least one building intended for human occupation. Those requirements include implementing minimum standards for pipeline corrosion control, placing line markers, conducting leak surveys, and establishing a public awareness program.

API and GPA said the "record demonstrates that these small-diameter pipelines do not present sufficient risk to warrant application of the requirements." They alleged PHMSA "completely ignored substantial cost information in reaching a contrary conclusion."

They additionally charged that PHMSA failed to meet its statutory obligations on two fronts — the agency did not adequately consider the industry's concerns about the rules' costs, and it did not conduct a compliant and rational risk assessment during its cost-benefit analysis.

Safety advocates point to fatal accident

The nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust bristled at the assertion that the gathering lines in question present no significant risk to public safety. The organization noted that a 2018 blast on a 10-inch-diameter gathering line — traced to corrosion — killed a three-year-old girl in her home outside Midland, Texas. The group said the line-owner, Targa Resources, could have prevented the incident had it conducted routine leak surveys.

"The industry continues to hamstring progress," Pipeline Safety Trust Executive Director Bill Caram said in a Dec. 16 press release. "The proposed petition by GPA Midstream and API would gut the key parts of the new rule, allowing the industry to continue to get away with negligent practices, which will continue to lead to the loss of life in our rural communities and unconscionable amounts of methane leaks further destabilizing our climate."

In its final rule, PHMSA also cited the fatal 2018 blast and several other gathering line incidents.

API and GPA sought several other revisions to the final rule, chiefly around giving the industry more time to comply with the rules and clarifying or altering requirements for the new category of regulated lines, known as Class C, established by the regulation.

They asked to extend the deadline for classifying Class-C lines from six months after the rule's publication to May 2023 for 12.75-inch diameter or greater gathering lines and May 2026 for smaller lines. They also sought to extend the deadline for complying with Class-C requirements, currently set at one year after the rule's publication, to three years for the larger-diameter lines and six years for the smaller ones.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade organization focused on the Appalachian gas production hub, submitted a letter supporting API and GPA.