Tag Archives: Ray LaHood

PHMSA Proposes New Rule to Increase Enforcement of Pipeline Excavation Programs

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has proposed new procedures geared to strengthen excavation damage prevention programs and increase penalties for violators.

Excavation damage continues to be a leading cause of all U.S. pipeline failures and is the single greatest threat to the safety, reliability, and integrity of the natural gas distribution system. Excavation activities accounted for more than 25 percent of fatalities resulting from pipeline failures in the U.S. between 2002 and 2011.

“Safety is our top priority,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “It is important for states to have strong and effective enforcement programs as we work together to crack down on violators of these important laws.”

The proposed rule will encourage states to strengthen their excavation damage prevention enforcement programs, provide more protection for underground pipelines, and allow for federal enforcement against violators in cases where state enforcement may not occur. Specifically, it would revise and strengthen the federal Pipeline Safety Regulations by establishing:

  • Criteria and an administrative process to determine the adequacy of a state’s excavation damage prevention law enforcement program;
  • Federal requirements that PHMSA will enforce against excavators in states determined to have inadequate damage prevention enforcement programs; and
  • An enforcement process to impose federal fines and penalties for violations.

These new procedures would also address a congressional directive requiring PHMSA to establish procedures to evaluate state damage prevention enforcement programs. By law, PHMSA must establish these criteria prior to any attempt to conduct federal enforcement proceedings in a state where an excavator damages a pipeline.

“Those who violate damage prevention laws must be held accountable,” said PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman. “We will continue to work to strengthen damage prevention laws, partner with states to strengthen their enforcement programs, and impose stiffer fines and penalties for these types of pipeline failures.”

For more details about the proposed rule, including comments received from the agency’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, visit PHMSA’a website at www.phmsa.dot.gov.

SOURCE: http://ohsonline.com/articles/2012/04/10/phmsa-proposes-new-rule-to-increase-enforcement-of-pipeline-excavation-programs.aspx?admgarea=news

Pipeline Spills Put Safeguards Under Scrutiny

This summer, an Exxon Mobil pipeline carrying oil across Montana burst suddenly, soiling the swollen Yellowstone River with an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude just weeks after a company inspection and federal review had found nothing seriously wrong.

Crews in July picked up booms to contain oil in the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich.

And in the Midwest, a 35-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich., once teeming with swimmers and boaters, remains closed nearly 14 months after an Enbridge Energy pipeline hemorrhaged 843,000 gallons of oil that will cost more than $500 million to clean up.

While investigators have yet to determine the cause of either accident, the spills have drawn attention to oversight of the 167,000-mile system of hazardous liquid pipelines crisscrossing the nation.

The little-known federal agency charged with monitoring the system and enforcing safety measures — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — is chronically short of inspectors and lacks the resources needed to hire more, leaving too much of the regulatory control in the hands of pipeline operators themselves, according to federal reports, an examination of agency data and interviews with safety experts.

They portray an agency that rarely levies fines and is not active enough in policing the aging labyrinth of pipelines, which has suffered thousands of significant hazardous liquid spills over the past two decades.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees the pipeline agency, acknowledges weaknesses in the program and is asking Congress to pass legislation that would increase penalties for negligent operators and authorize the hiring of additional inspectors. That may be a tough sell in a Congress averse to new spending and stricter regulation.

“We need to know with great certainty that inspections and replacements have been done in a timely way that will prevent these kinds of spills from happening,” he said.

Federal records show that although the pipeline industry reported 25 percent fewer significant incidents from 2001 through 2010 than in the prior decade, the amount of hazardous liquids being spilled, though down, remains substantial. There are still more than 100 significant spills each year — a trend that dates back more than 20 years. And the percentage of dangerous liquids recovered by pipeline operators after a spill has dropped considerably in recent years.

The industry, however, believes the current system works and points with pride to what it considers a record of improvement.

“Data shows that releases from pipelines have declined over the last decade as the result of stringent regulation and the industry’s continued commitment to safety,” wrote Peter Lidiak, pipeline director for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, in an e-mailed response.

Throwing more resources and money at the problem may not be the answer for the tiny agency, because there remain deeper concerns about how it works, especially its reluctance to mandate safety improvements or to level meaningful fines for wrongdoing.

Such concerns come at a critical time for the agency. The State Department last month gave a provisional green light to a controversial 1,661-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas, called Keystone XL, that will carry a trickier form of crude — and fall under the agency’s purview. And a just-released National Transportation Safety Board report on a natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that last year cost eight people their lives, characterized the agency’s regulatory practices as lax and inadequate. In the report, the safety board urged the Transportation Department to go back and audit many of the pipeline agency’s safety and enforcement policies.

An analysis of federal reports and safety documents by The New York Times suggests that while the agency performs better than it did 10 years ago, it still struggles to safeguard a transport network laced with risks.

For example, the agency requires companies to focus their inspections on only the 44 percent of the nation’s land-based liquid pipelines that could affect high consequence areas — those near population centers or considered environmentally delicate — which leaves thousands of miles of lines loosely regulated and operating essentially on the honor system. Meanwhile, budget limits and attrition have left the agency with 118 inspectors — 17 shy of what federal law authorizes.

Pipeline operators, critics argue, have too much autonomy over their lines, and too much wiggle room when it comes to carrying out important safeguards, like whether to install costly but crucial automated shut-off valves.

“The system as it presently exists, I don’t think it really protects the public,” said Representative Corrine Brown of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the House transportation subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials. “Self-reporting doesn’t work. We need additional rules and regulations to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing to protect communities.”

She and other lawmakers want Congress and the Obama administration to bolster rules, hire more inspectors and reinvest in the pipeline infrastructure, much of which was laid from the 1950s to the 1970s.
New Project, New Risks

The Keystone XL project is different from most other pipelines in that it will carry a gritty mixture that includes bitumen, a crude drawn from Canadian oil sands that environmentalists argue is more corrosive and difficult to clean when spilled. In its report, the State Department cited 57 special conditions designed to keep the Keystone pipeline safe and wrote that it would have little environmental impact if operated according to regulations.

The National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups assailed that conclusion, saying the State Department had not sufficiently accounted for the impacts of a major spill. More than 1,200 people were arrested during two weeks of protests against Keystone XL outside the White House this summer.

Richard Kuprewicz, a former pipeline engineer for the oil company Arco who serves on an advisory committee to the pipeline agency, said the current regulatory system was not fully prepared to monitor a project like Keystone XL, given the number of leaks the agency already contends with.

“We’re seeing too many ruptures,” Mr. Kuprewicz said. “The numbers are too high.”

Since 1990, more than 5,600 incidents were reported involving land-based hazardous liquid pipelines, releasing a total of more than 110 million gallons of mostly crude and petroleum products, according to analysis of federal data. The pipeline safety agency considered more than half — at least 100 spills each year — to be “significant,” meaning they caused a fire, serious injury or fatality or released at least 2,100 gallons, among other factors.

Pipeline operators reported recovering less than half of all hazardous liquids spilled over the last two decades, according to federal records. And the ratio is not improving: after recovering more than 60 percent of liquids spilled in 2005 and 2006, operators recovered less than a third between 2007 and 2010.

Nearly half of all incidents since 2002 arose from malfunctioning equipment, construction flaws and other technical problems with pipelines. Corrosion, which the agency considers to be different from equipment failure, is the second leading cause, and to blame nearly one-quarter of the time.

In written testimony to Congress after the Yellowstone spill, Cynthia L. Quarterman, the pipeline agency’s top official, emphasized oversight upgrades like increased money for state safety agencies and more extensive training for agency employees. She also noted a decline in significant incidents.

Yet a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, while acknowledging progress, also outlined problems, noting that “recent pipeline incidents suggest there continues to be room for improvement.”

The report said the pipeline agency was hampered by a chronic inspector shortage. Fifteen states are certified to perform their own liquid pipeline inspections, but budget problems within state agencies are also a matter of “great concern,” it said.

The National Transportation Safety Board report on San Bruno said the pipeline agency’s monitoring of state oversight programs and its own enforcement program had been “weak.”

And when something goes wrong, very little happens in the way of penalties, The Times found. For every five significant incidents reported at a hazardous liquid pipeline between 2002 and 2010, the agency issued one fine. (The article continues…)

Read More & SOURCE: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/10/business/energy-environment/agency-struggles-to-safeguard-pipeline-system.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&adxnnlx=1315832412-RHYGj9x6NYkG9hdY/N9NnQ

San Bruno one year on…Consumers will be asked to help pay for billions in gas pipeline upgrades needed after Bay Area blast.

Three of California’s largest utilities are asking customers to help pay for nearly $4 billion in pipeline safety projects needed after last year’s deadly San Bruno disaster.

Power companies and private operators across the nation are racing to improve the safety of about 150,000 miles of natural gas pipelines built before 1970about half of all gas transmission lines in the United States.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which just completed a year long investigation of the San Bruno explosion, found that the older pipelines might be particularly vulnerable and in need of immediate inspection and repair.

To help pay for the work, three main gas suppliers in California have requested rate increases from state regulators. Paul Clanon, executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission, estimated that utility customers could see an increase of 5% to 10% in their bills depending on what commissioners decide.

In a joint proposal, the Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric are seeking rate hikes to pay for $1.75 billion in pipeline improvements by 2015, which would steadily increase monthly utility bills by more than $2.80.

Both utilities have yet to seek rate hikes for an additional $1.25 billion in planned pipeline projects to be completed by 2021.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co, which serves the Bay Area and Northern California, wants to spend $2.2 billion by 2014 to test and improve its 6,000-mile network of natural gas pipelines. The monthly bill for a typical household is expected to rise by about $2, and business customers can expect an increase of about $15.

For many Southern California residents, the proposed hikes are coming on top of $3.2 billion in rate increases sought by Southern California Edison to upgrade its aging electrical grid.

If approved, the plan would result in a 9.1% increase in the monthly bill of the average residential Edison customer. Consumer advocates have opposed the plan, which, they claim, is salted with questionable allocations for pensions and pay raises.

The effort to hike rates to finance pipeline projects could become just as controversial.

Consumer groups, such as the Utility Reform Network based in San Francisco, are reviewing the proposals to determine if the costs and new charges are justified. They can lodge responses with the Public Utilities Commission.

“We want to make sure the utilities pay their fair share,” said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for the statewide organization. “We don’t want them to make a profit on deferred maintenance. They also make high profits. Some of the money needs to come out of that.”

Nationally, the improvements will cost utilities and pipeline operators tens of billions of dollars in the next decade — and that will probably mean more efforts to recover the additional expenses.

“It is fair to assume that the cost will get passed through to consumers,” said Don Santa, chief executive of the Interstate Natural Gas Assn. of America, an industry group of pipeline operators, including large power companies.

Helping to drive the improvements are 29 recommendations issued more than a week ago by the NTSB. They are designed to improve the safety, inspections, emergency plans and regulation of the nation’s extensive grid of natural gas transmission lines.

The recommendations were announced almost a year after eight people died and 38 homes were destroyed when a defective natural gas pipeline built in 1956 ruptured and sent a huge pillar of fire into San Bruno, a Bay Area community.

Board members blamed the inferno on a long history of safety problems at PG&E and weak oversight by state and federal agencies. The utility is also under investigation by the Public Utilities Commission and could face substantial fines, Clanon said.

Regulators and gas industry representatives say various initiatives are already underway by the government, private companies and local utilities to more thoroughly inspect pipelines and repair or replace at-risk sections.

Clanon said that earlier this year, the state Public Utilities Commission ordered all pipeline operators to pressure-test their transmission lines built before 1970.

One of the NTSB’s priorities is elimination of a “grandfathering” clause in federal and state law that has exempted utilities and companies from performing high-pressure water tests on natural gas pipelines built before 1970.

Another key recommendation would require operators to modify their lines to accommodate inspection tools that can run inside a pipe and detect flaws, such as bad welds, cracks and corrosion.

The two methods of testing had been previously opposed by industry groups.

Other recommendations call for automatic and remotely controlled shut-off valves, reviews of regulatory agencies and PG&E’s procedures, better emergency management plans and more thorough record-keeping.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), whose district includes San Bruno, are now proposing legislation to make pressure testing mandatory and to give the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration more enforcement power. Other bills are pending in the California Legislature.

Industry representatives say it is too early to determine the total cost of the national effort to improve the pipeline system. They added that the overall price will depend on the timing of the recommendations and how cost-effective they are.

Oliver Moghissi, president of the National Assn. of Corrosion Engineers International, a professional organization with 27,000 members, said, for example, that he would like to see recommendations that require more pressure testing of older pipelines but on a case-by-case basis depending on conditions and available information on the pipeline in question.

Under a broad mandatory rule, Moghissi said, some pipelines could be tested unnecessarily.

“The goals of the NTSB are commonly recognized,” said Santa of the Interstate Natural Gas Assn. “The question is the means you choose to get there and the pace at which you choose to get there. . . . There can be a lot of devil in the details.”

SOURCE: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-san-bruno-20110909,0,648331.story