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Decade that opened with pipeline disasters closes with mixed progress on safety

The 2010s began with devastating pipeline accidents, followed closely by efforts to expand new pipeline safety practices to drive down major incident counts. But the decade is coming to a close with the acknowledgement that there is much work left to be done to prevent disasters.

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Several major pipeline accidents punctuated the decade, but pipeline safety stakeholders agree that two failures in 2010 set the course for the next decade: an Enbridge Inc. oil pipeline spill in Marshall, Mich., that flowed into the Kalamazoo River and a deadly Pacific Gas and Electric Co. gas transmission line explosion that leveled parts of a neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif.

Those devastating accidents and several others ultimately marshaled support for major regulatory action, Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said in a recent interview. "When I look back, it was kind of a strange, almost schizophrenic decade," Weimer said.

Federal pipeline safety rulemaking in the wake of disasters has been chronically behind schedule, but in recent years, some new regulations have come into effect, alongside acknowledgements that rules alone are unlikely to bring down incident counts enough to satisfy regulators, operators and the public.

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The 2010 gas pipeline rupture in San Bruno, Calif., killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes, sparking regulatory reform.
Source: AP Photo

"There are a lot of other big system changes that have been in the works that are starting to hopefully show fruit," Weimer said. He has helmed the trust since its inception in 2004, after the 1999 Olympic Pipeline explosion in Bellingham, Wash., catalyzed a national safety movement.

The promise of integrity management

The National Transportation Safety Board traced both the Michigan and California incidents to inadequate integrity management — safety programs that revolve around running diagnostic tests on pipelines.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, began enforcing integrity management regulations for crude oil pipelines in the early 2000s. Long-haul gas transmission lines came under that type of oversight next, followed by the distribution lines that deliver gas to homes and businesses.

"The San Bruno tragedy was, I think, a wake-up call for the industry," said Don Santa, president and CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. "I think that it encouraged us to really redouble that commitment to integrity management."

Those efforts included establishing voluntary standards to implement integrity management beyond regulated areas and to adopt safety management systems, according to Jeff Wiese, former associate administrator for pipeline safety at PHMSA. These initiatives reflected the industry's realization that it must do more than merely comply with regulations, Santa said.

"The reason I think it was probably one of the biggest changes in pipeline safety is that it broke the barrier from people saying 'How much is enough?' to 'We're never done,'" Wiese, who is now a consultant with TRC Cos., said in a recent interview.

Pipeline safety numbers show sustained challenges

Despite changes at the operator and regulator levels, pipeline safety headline statistics showed little evidence of clear progress over the past 20 years.

The U.S. averaged almost 292 significant pipeline, liquefied natural gas and gas storage facility incidents annually between 2010 and 2019, compared with nearly 280 per year during the previous decade. PHMSA classifies an incident as "significant" if it results in death or hospitalization; causes at least $50,000 in damages; or, in the case of hazardous liquids, sparks a fire or explosion or spills five to 50 barrels or more, depending on the substance.

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Average fatalities per year linked to the incidents fell from the first decade to the next, while injuries ticked up and the costs of accidents ballooned.

That fueled another major trend for the decade: a heavy slate of mandatory rulemaking that PHMSA struggled to fulfill. Congress tasked the relatively small agency with 43 mandates in 2011 and another 19 in 2016, several of which are still outstanding.

The delays made PHMSA a target of criticism among stakeholders, though former and current officials said interagency processes were a major impediment to rulemaking. Cynthia Quarterman, who led PHMSA from 2009 to 2014, said a "whack-a-mole" approach to pipeline safety left the agency with little time to implement new, innovative programs.

"I think it's important not to just go from emergency to emergency," Quarterman said. "Yes, we need to respond to [these incidents] on a case-by-case basis, but we also need to have in parallel a proactive safety program where the agency sits back and looks at data closely" to identify priorities.

Big issues loom in the next decade

Quarterman would like to see PHMSA facilitate long-discussed information-sharing among companies and apply machine learning to the dataset to anticipate pipeline accidents before they happen. Santa shares that view and sees an opportunity for big data applications to analyze information generated by a new generation of diagnostic tools that scan pipelines for cracks, corrosion and other issues.

Meanwhile, PHMSA is poised to begin extending integrity management standards to the nation's growing network of gathering lines that shuttle gas from production fields to transmission systems. The Pipeline Safety Trust dubbed it "the next big thing" at the group's annual conference.

Pipeline replacement and integrity management on distribution systems have also taken on greater urgency among gas utilities following deadly blasts in New York City, Dallas, Massachusetts' Merrimack Valley and elsewhere. The largest U.S. gas leak on record at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon storage facility near Los Angeles in 2015 has also placed the nation's gas stockpile infrastructure under scrutiny.

At the same time, pipeline safety is becoming increasingly contentious on Capitol Hill. The historically bipartisan process of reauthorizing PHMSA's oversight authority has broken down in the House of Representatives, where Democrats have begun to fight for long-sought reforms after taking control of the chamber.

Democrats have also recently sought to tackle climate change through more stringent rules on methane emissions from pipelines, arguing that PHMSA's mandate includes protecting the environment. Republicans pushed back on that view, but stakeholders said overlap between pipeline safety and climate policy appears inevitable given the rise of global warming as a top Democratic issue.

"I think that that will continue to be a push in the next decade — maybe the highest push," Weimer said.