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'While we wait, there's risk': Pipeline experts push for gas safety rule clarity

The federal pipeline safety regulator is considering separating and clarifying one of the most complex sections of the agency's proposed gas transmission safety rule, potentially speeding up the process of finding aging pipes' safe operating pressures.

The sweeping gas transmission safety rule, issued in 2016, would have companies collect data on a wide variety of pipe characteristics if the operators did not have clear records documenting those traits. The requirement was included in a code section intended to make sure companies know the maximum allowable operating pressures, or MAOPs, of all transmission lines, even older pipes that are missing some of their original documents.

Despite those data points, the pipeline industry has contended there is only one test — a hydrostatic pressure test — that can confirm the MAOP. All of the other data collection the rule proposal asked for would slow down the process of figuring out what the safe operating pressures are, some members of the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's gas pipeline advisory committee said June 7.

The committee, which provides input on PHMSA rulemaking, asked agency officials if it was their intention to shift policy, moving away from allowing companies to use the long-accepted pressure test to verify MAOP and instead requiring both the pressure test and the other data collection.

PHMSA officials declined to answer on the spot and said they would take the question under consideration. Alan Mayberry, PHMSA's associate administrator for pipeline safety, said the agency would revisit what information is needed for MAOP verification and consider moving the other records and data requirements into a different part of the code.

"We're going to take a hard look at that," Mayberry told the committee members. "We'll address that and come back to you next time and have something for you."

Some of the data collection that PHMSA has proposed for MAOP verification is more likely to be useful for companies' "integrity management" programs, committee members said. Under integrity management rules, companies need to understand what they have in the ground, stay current on what risks the system faces and prioritize work based on known threats.

"I hope you're not hearing us say we don't want to gather this integrity data. ... We do need some baseline data. It's just not for MAOP confirmation," Andy Drake, committee member and vice president of operations and environment, health and safety at Enbridge Inc., said during the meeting. "There are some things we need to do quickly ... and it isn't squeezing someone's head in a vice about records."

Mixing MAOP verification and integrity management requirements may be delaying safety improvements, Drake said. "Because of this discussion and the convoluted nature of it, a lot of people are very anxious that the hydrostatic test will not be respected if done ... and so they're just waiting. And while we wait, there's risk," he said. "That's absolutely inappropriate when we know what to do."

The MAOP verification section of PHMSA's proposed rule stemmed largely from the deadly 2010 San Bruno, Calif., pipeline explosion. After investigating the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board lambasted the federal code "grandfather clause" that exempted pre-1970 pipes from pressure tests. If the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. line that exploded had been pressure tested, the segment's installation defects would likely have been found before the pipe explosion and fire killed eight people and destroyed a neighborhood.

The gas pipeline advisory committee members were supportive of PHMSA's plans to eliminate the grandfather clause, but they pointed out the records review and data collection PHMSA wanted to require for MAOP verification — covering pipe diameter, wall thickness, strength, chemical composition, seam type, coating type and manufacturing specifications — are not all needed for finding the safe operating pressure.

"That line [in San Bruno] did not have a valid pressure test. You could have collected the data ... on that pipe, and you could have still ended up in the same place," Cheryl Campbell, committee member and Xcel Energy Inc.'s senior vice president for gas, said at the committee meeting. "A pressure test could have stopped that."