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Federal pipeline safety regulator proposes more flexibility to close rule gaps

The federal pipeline safety regulator, up for congressional review, wants lawmakers to give the agency a clearer role in new-project development, more flexibility in oversight and the go-ahead to regulate key issues that have contributed to major incidents.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, on June 3 sent Congress a proposal for the agency's upcoming reauthorization, laying out its priorities and requests. PHMSA depends on periodic congressional reauthorization to keep its safety oversight authority over the nation's pipeline systems.

PHMSA's relationship to new construction for energy infrastructure repeatedly came up in the proposal.

"While PHMSA does not issue any permits needed to construct a pipeline or liquefied natural gas facility, many federal, state, and local agencies that are responsible for doing so lack expertise in pipeline systems, which can lead to construction permitting delays," the agency wrote.

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Some of the rule changes in PHMSA's proposal to Congress relate to issues that contributed to a series of gas fires and explosions in Massachusetts in 2018.
Source: Associated Press

PHMSA asked to be able to participate more in public meetings and other proceedings, in part to "better educate the public on how safety oversight will be conducted."

Public concerns over pipeline safety have been among the stumbling blocks that new-build pipes have faced in recent years.

Pipeline projects have also increasingly been the target of protests, and PHMSA asked for Congress to specify that pipeline facilities that are under construction are protected assets and that interfering with them or damaging existing pipelines is "punishable by criminal fines and imprisonment."

Pipeline industry representatives, including the American Gas Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Natural Gas Supply Association, welcomed PHMSA's proposal, calling it a "positive step in achieving a timely reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Act."

The agency's proposal focused on potential rule changes that would address problems that have likely played a role in major incidents. Under the proposal, PHMSA would require gas distribution pipeline operators, mainly utilities, to install backup equipment to prevent high-pressure gas from flowing into low-pressure lines. A deadly 2018 series of gas explosions and fires in Massachusetts has been tied to overpressurization on a low-pressure system.

Repair, replacement and construction projects are also key junctures for preventing incidents. PHMSA said it would like to require companies to have detailed procedures for managing changing conditions when doing work on their systems. One issue at the heart of the Massachusetts disaster was that important information about the location of pressure sensors on the system did not get relayed to the crew doing the work in the field, causing a critical miscommunication that sent high-pressure gas into homes and buildings.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has proposed pipeline safety legislation since the explosions and fires in his state. While he welcomed some of PHMSA's recommendations, he argued that the proposal does not go far enough to address safety holistically.

"The legislative proposal released today by PHMSA includes some commonsense provisions that would help avoid disasters like what happened in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts, but fails to address all the key issues around safety and accountability," Markey said in a June 3 statement. "We need a robust safety culture at every single pipeline company. We need companies to have reliable records and effective emergency response plans. ... I will continue to work with PHMSA and my colleagues on the Commerce Committee as it prepares to reauthorize the pipeline safety program."

PHMSA's June 3 proposal also asked for more flexibility in its oversight. One provision would let the agency provide nonfinancial incentives to companies for voluntarily going above and beyond minimum federal pipeline safety rules. Another would let PHMSA use pilot programs to test new technologies or processes.

The agency also asked to be able to help reimburse states that use their own resources to help another state during an emergency. For instance, when NiSource Inc. was rapidly overhauling its system in the wake of the 2018 explosions and fires in Massachusetts, state safety inspectors and staff from across the country went to Massachusetts to help oversee the work. Federal reimbursement for these kinds of expenses, however, is not as clearly defined as PHMSA wants it to be.