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Industry Fears Overreach From Gas Pipeline Safety Advisory

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Natural gas industry groups are decoding a federal agency’s advice for identifying threats to safe pipeline operations and say they are concerned that it may overreach.

The advisory bulletin, published in the Federal Register recently, relays new guidance from the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) on identifying threats to the integrity of gas transmission pipelines.It specifies when corrosion and other sources of pipeline failures should be considered high-priority threats.

Industry groups are concerned that the advisory may have a significant cost, that it goes beyond the limits of a routine advisory and that stakeholders weren’t properly notified. PHMSA has not provided any details or comments about the advisory.

Regulation by Guidance

One consultant said the industry generally agrees that threat assessments and periodic reviews are essential for pipeline integrity, but PHMSA’s intent is unclear in this bulletin. Josie Long is a consultant at Process Performance Improvement Consultants LLC, which advises gas pipeline operators.

“Instead of attempting to regulate via advisories, we should focus on advancing practices and technologies that truly boost safety,” she said in an email.

The National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives does not think the bulletin imposes an “excessive burden” on operators. They should already have integrity management plans that address those threats, association national chairman Peter Chace said in a statement.

Beyond Advice

Bryn Karaus, an associate in the Washington office of Van Ness Feldman LLP who specializes in pipeline safety, said PHMSA may be exceeding what can be done in a bulletin. An advisory bulletin can’t impose new requirements, Karaus said. This isn’t the first time PHMSA has pushed new ideas via bulletin.

In 2011, the agency issued an advisory bulletin about certain records operators keep: saying they need to be “traceable, verifiable and complete.” An advisory bulletin doesn’t carry the weight of a rule, and is not enforceable, but operators will have to decide if and how to act.

“Operators might choose to make those changes, in order to avoid raising any flags for PHMSA’s inspectors, but this is an advisory bulletin—it’s guidance,” Karaus said. Rebecca Craven, program director at the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group in Washington state, said this advisory isn’t unusual, and may be an effective way to get safety recommendations to pipeline operators.

“Dealing with it in an advisory bulletin rather than in individual enforcement proceedings seems a more efficient way to get the message to a lot of operators, and does so more quickly, without having to bring enforcement actions following individual inspections,” she said in an email. 

It’s difficult for the trust to tell how operators are currently handling threats to pipeline integrity because those risk assessments aren’t made available, Craven said.

Identifying Risks

In the bulletin, PHMSA expands on the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ industry standard that identifies nine types of pipeline integrity failure. The first type, for example, is pipeline corrosion that happens over time.

In the advisory bulletin, PHMSA adds that external corrosion over time is always a threat for steel pipelines, and should be considered an active threat within an operator’s integrity management plan. 

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America is still reviewing the bulletin, but agrees with PHMSA’s determination that pipeline operators must continually consider potential threats to pipeline integrity and conduct periodic reviews, said Cathy Landry, spokesperson for the association.