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To find gaps in pipeline safety, regulators advised to slow rule flow

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To find gaps in pipeline safety, regulators advised to slow rule flow

Regulators should resist formalizing into law one of the latestmajor recommended practices for the pipeline industry, safety experts saidSept. 27.

Even as the federal pipeline safety administrator intimated thatpipeline safety management systems — comprehensive business programsdesigned to help entities understand and mitigate risk — may have tobe codified if the industry does not voluntarily implement them, other gastransportation experts at the National Association of Pipeline SafetyRepresentatives annual meeting highlighted reasons that near-term codificationmay do nothing to advance safety.

Allowing companies the non-punitive, trial-and-error timethat a voluntary period affords enables industry participants to appropriatelyprioritize their risks, figure out how to account for their gaps and devise aniterative process for checking and rechecking their actions, Robert Hall,the National Transportation Safety Board's director at the Office of Railroad,Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations, said.

"The voluntary period is very important, because itallows the program to mature before it becomes, in some case, regulatory,"Hall said at the NAPSR meeting in Indianapolis.

About a quarter of the industry is looking at voluntarilyimplementing safety management systems, Marie Therese Dominguez, administratorat the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety AdministrationAdministrator, said during the NAPSR meeting. It may be a step in the rightdirection, but "it's not enough," she emphasized. 

"A number of operators have adopted it, but thechallenge moving forward is for all operators to adopt it. ... Everybody needsto be looking at an SMS framework. It really is the next critical level ofsafety that we need to be looking at," Dominguez said. "How quicklythat rate of [adoption] moves is something we all should keep an eye on ... andI would actually say, if it's nothappening, we need to look at [regulation] ." 

Hall cautioned that the NTSB has seen how overeagerregulation of safety management systems can be counterproductive, though.Canada's transportation regulator attempted to implement process safetymanagement systems about a decade before the deadly Lac-Mégantic, Québec,oil train derailmentin 2013, but without a proper voluntary period before formal regulation, theprogram failed to prevent the incident, Hall said.

Knowing that, the NTSB asked the American PetroleumInstitute, in partnership with a host of other stakeholders, to put out arecommended practice that tells pipeline operators how to implement a safetymanagement system. The NTSB's decision to ask API, rather than a regulator, was"very deliberate," Hall said. 

API in 2015 released recommended practice 1173, or RP 1173,which has pushed some operatorsto begin dipping their toes in the safety management systems waters. TheAmerican Gas Association has a 10-company pilot program for gas utilities totry out RP 1173, and the organization has upward of 50 gas utility parentcompanies participating in a related discussion group, according to ChristinaSames, AGA's vice president of operations and engineering. 

The voluntary program may allow the industry to sort out thekinks, but relying on industry to decide whether and how to improve safety isan unsettling position for some regulators.

"If it's 20 years that it takes to build that in,you've got 20 years of problems that [possibly] could have been avoided. That'snot easy for a regulator to accept," Randy Knepper, director of safety andsecurity at the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, said during theSept. 27 meeting. 

Enforcement ability should not be conflated with positiveoutcomes, Hall responded, adding that while he sees Knepper's point, theCanadian transportation agency saw "10 years of lost time because of theway they approached" safety management system oversight. 

The voluntary nature of the program does not precluderegulator involvement, emphasized Massoud Tahamtani, the Virginia StateCorporation Commission's director of utility and railroad safety. Seven out ofthe eight natural gas companies that the Virginia SCC regulates have started towork toward safety management systems, often in collaboration with Tahamtaniand his department, he said. 

"In a couple days, two of my companies will submittheir gap analysis to me, and I've already seen the drafts," Tahamtanisaid. "In one case, they have 35 gaps that they've determined, and theywant a five-year period to deal with this. ... You sit across the table andsay, 'Really? Five years to fix some of these things?' You can't be pushy, youcan't say '[Federal code] says this and you have to do it by this date.' Youcan negotiate back and forth."

"In another case, a large company, they've got 200gaps," he continued. "When they presented it to me, I said, 'Doesthis surprise you?' They said, 'Yes, we didn't know we had these gaps.' Sowhere do you go from here? Do you continue to rely on [federal code], whichhasn't given us the absolute safety we're looking for, or do you make them findthese ... cracks and gaps? You know about it, they know about it, and togetheryou begin to mend those gaps and fill those cracks."