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PHMSA chief touts flexible rules, drawing pushback at pipeline safety conference

The Trump administration's top pipeline safety official made a case for more flexible federal rules, wading into a longstanding dispute among safety advocates, regulators and industry groups at an annual gathering of the stakeholders.

On one side of the debate are supporters of prescriptive rules that establish explicit, measurable safety goals for pipeline operators and pathways to achieving them. On the other side are advocates of performance-based standards, which give pipeline operators more latitude to prevent accidents.

The chief of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said a "purely prescriptive" approach to regulation will never achieve the goal of reducing pipeline accidents to zero.

"I don't think this should surprise anyone because, by definition, regulations create and then enforce minimum standards. But zero incidents is a maximum goal that cannot be reached by even perfect conception or enforcement of minimum standards," PHMSA Administrator Skip Elliott told the Pipeline Safety Trust conference in New Orleans on Nov 7.

Elliott said there is no magic bullet to achieving that goal, but he believes the path to zero accidents has three elements: developing technological advancements, building a culture of safety and persistence. Creating a pervasive safety culture requires the help of all stakeholders and begins with finding common ground, he said.

But comments from safety advocates and other stakeholders at the conference show there is not yet consensus that performance-based rules are more effective than prescriptive regulations.

'Laggards' need specific rules, safety advocates say

The Pipeline Safety Trust believes there is a need for both flexible and rigid rules, but federal regulations too often take the performance-based approach, the group's executive director, Carl Weimer, told S&P Global Market Intelligence. He said certain issues like gas leak detection should be subject to prescriptive rules that spell out the risks companies need to identify, how often they should conduct pipeline tests and which inspection methods are acceptable.

"Some companies do that performance-based stuff very well, but other companies, the laggards, the ones that are having a lot of the incidents, need to be told more specific rules," he said.

SNL Image

A series of gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley on Sept. 12, 2018, killed one person and damaged or destroyed 131 structures.
Source: AP Photo

In his view, companies and regulators often do not pursue prescriptive regulations until accidents happen, revealing failures that could have been avoided, Weimer added. He said that trend goes back to the fatal Olympic Pipeline explosion in Bellingham, Wash., in 1999, which catalyzed the pipeline safety movement and set in motion the formation of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Now, much of the prescriptive rule-making under consideration in new pipeline safety bills addresses the failures that caused the 2018 Merrimack Valley disaster. The series of fatal explosions and fires on Columbia Gas of Massachusetts gas distribution system killed one person and displaced thousands of residents in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence, Mass.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera recounted his city's struggle to respond to the disaster during a panel directly after Elliott's speech. He told S&P Global Market Intelligence it would be a mistake to deviate from imposing prescriptive rules on pipeline operators.

"I like black-and-white, letter-of-the-law rules," he said. "If left to their own devices, they're going to do the lowest common denominator."

Complex failures need nuanced solutions, industry counters

Industry groups have long argued that overly prescriptive rules prevent the sector from innovating and adopting new technologies because highly detailed regulation may not allow them to consider alternate approaches.

Another problem is that operators do not experience as many simple failures as they did in the past, said CJ Osman, director of operations, safety and integrity at the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. As regulations have gotten better, they have reduced simple, preventable failures, he said.

"When we have failures it involves a complicated set of things that went wrong, usually. That's harder to predict in something like a specific regulation. It really takes a focus on safety culture, a focus on putting the processes and people in the right place to identify more complicated issues and more complicated problems before they occur in order to continue to drive that incident rate down," he said.

In recent years, proactive approaches to pipeline safety enshrined in integrity management programs and safety management systems have augmented regulation to help drive down accidents, said Alan Mayberry, associate administrator for PHMSA's Office of Pipeline Safety.

"We can regulate ... until the cows come home, and we will continue to do that — update regulations as needed to address things that happen that we see out there," he said. "But we really need to be focused on preventing tomorrow's accident."