400,000 Miles of Unregulated, Deadly Pipelines Traverse the US
From 1999 to 2018, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration PHMSA reported 11,992 pipeline ‘incidents,’ with 600 in 2018 alone.
The U.S. has an estimated 439,000 miles of unregulated pipelines, enough to circle the earth 17 times, and unsuspecting people like three-year-old Delaney Tercero, who lost her life to a pipeline explosion in 2018, are the ones being put at risk. A House hearing on Tuesday shed more light on the size of that risk.
Pipeline Problem Explained
The 439,000 miles of unregulated pipelines are “gathering pipelines” which are smaller pipelines that transport gas and liquids from its source (like a drilling site) to a processing facility, refinery or a larger transmission line.
While the PHMSA website estimates the number of gathering pipelines is actually 240,000, agencies like Pipeline Safety Trust (PST) say the PHMSA number is inaccurate as most gathering lines are exempted from federal regulation; thus, making any federal data incomplete.
Some pipelines are regulated by the government. Large long-distance pipelines are closely regulated by the federal government and utility pipelines are regulated by state agencies but only about five to ten percent of gathering pipelines are regulated.
The federal government regulates gathering pipelines in “high-consequence areas,” but most gathering pipelines are in rural areas. A high consequence area is a densely populated area or area near vulnerable ecosystems. As the U.S. population has grown over the years more people are moving into areas populated by unregulated gathering pipelines.
Additionally, as the oil and gas industry has developed new technology like fracking to reach previously inaccessible fuel reserves the need for gathering lines has boomed in recent years. E&E reported that Texas alone has built 14,000 miles of new rural gathering lines since 2014.
What is PHMSA Doing About Pipeline Safety?
For eight years now, if not longer, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has been urgently working on establishing more pipeline regulations which would ideally decrease the number of unregulated pipelines.
However, PHMSA has failed to progress on establishing new safety regulations – the scope of the problem was outlined in a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure meeting on Tuesday.
The meeting was opened by its chairman Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois who expressed the urgent need to address pipeline safety and the regulatory capacity of PHMSA.
“Explosions and pipeline failures just in the past couple of years in Merrimack Valley, Dallas, Minneapolis, and locally here in Silver Springs have tragically killed many people and caused severe property damage.
“From 1999 to 2018, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration PHMSA reported 11,992 pipeline incidents which resulted in 317 deaths, 1,302 injuries, and more than $8.1 billion in damages. Incidents increased nearly twofold from 1999 to 2018,” Lipinski said.
But a closer look at the data may paint an even worse picture. According to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, there were 600 pipeline incidents in the U.S. in 2018 alone.
Alarmingly, a report by FracTracker, which analyzed reported pipeline incidents from January 2010 to November 2018, found that pipelines less than ten years old are experiencing the greatest frequency of incidents.
After analyzing the data, FracTracker also found that a pipeline catches fire every four days and results in an explosion every 11 days, causing an injury every five days and a fatality every 26 days.
Why Can’t PHMSA Pass New Regulations on Gathering Pipelines?
So what has PHMSA done about the growing pipeline problem? It’s been working on making new rules to regulate more pipelines since 2011, but it is stuck on drafting the new rules or regulations. PHMSA can’t agree to what the new rules should be. Meanwhile, thousands of pipelines continue to be built and laid down regulation free.
“First and foremost on the safety front is the expeditious completion of outstanding rulemaking from the 2011 and 2016 Pipeline Safety Reauthorizations.
“It remains unacceptable that critical rules like the Hazardous Liquids Rule, Gas Transmission Line Rule, and the Valve and Rupture Detection Rule have not been implemented,” Lipinski said in Tuesday’s hearing.
One possible explanation for the roadblock is the required cost-benefit standard that PHMSA must meet before implementing any new regulations, a subject that Lipinski brought up at the start of the meeting.
“Given the delay in completing these important rulemakings, we need to examine PHMSA’s rulemaking process to determine if there are obstacles to more swift promulgation to regulations, including the unique benefit-cost analysis that PHMSA’s required to undertake as part of a rulemaking,” he said.
All new major federal regulations must be run by the Office of Management and Budget to determine if the regulation is cost-effective at achieving its goal.
As SPG Global explained, “PHMSA also has an extra statutory cost-benefit analysis obligation in a law stating that the agency can only issue a standard after making ‘a reasoned determination that the benefits of the intended standard justify its costs,’ among other similar statements.”
In more simple terms, PHMSA must prove that the benefit of establishing new pipeline regulations outweighs the costs of implementing the regulations. But if the benefit is saving human lives and the cost is millions of dollars to implement new safety regulations, how do you place a value on a human life?
“With a large pipeline system where the probability of a failure is low, but the consequence can be huge, it is nearly impossible to pass regulations under the current cost-benefit rules,” Carl Weimer, executive director at safety advocacy group the Pipeline Safety Trust, said during the hearing. “If you are really interested in long-standing issues … then the cost-benefit language in the statute needs to be fixed.”
Richard Kuprewicz, President of Accufacts Inc. and someone who has authored numerous reports on pipeline safety, backed Weimer’s assertion that the PHMSA’s cost-benefit language was a roadblock.
“The analysis is all wrong. The nature of the failures is such that cost-benefit does not set itself up. Its primary objective from where I stand is to deregulate. So let’s call it what it is.”
In a February 2019 interview with Rolling Stone Kuprewicz also spoke of the influence of lobbyists on reducing the power of PHMSA and impeding the ability to establish new regulatory guidelines and safety measures,
“I don’t want to point fingers here but a lot of this has to do with lobbying efforts to reduce the power of PHMSA.
“Every time the agency trains someone, the industry pays them more money and they leave,” said Kuprewicz.
So while PHMSA is debating the cost-benefit of establishing new regulatory guidelines unknowing Americans are left to live totally unaware that thousands of miles of pipelines are being laid under their feet without any regulatory oversite.
Who’s Left Out to Dry?
Three-year-old Delaney Tercero was at home in Texas while her mother was doing laundry, and when her mother opened the dryer the house blew up. Delaney lost her life because a nearby gathering pipeline was filling the house with gas from a dime-sized hole which caused the explosion.
According to a report by E&E, Texas inspectors found that the anti-corrosion coating on the pipeline near the Tercero home had been compromised. The inspectors ultimately determined the company that owned the pipeline, Targa Resources Corp., was not liable and would face no penalty because there were no rules governing the pipeline to be broken.
A 2015 survey obtained in an open records request by E&E revealed that in Texas more than a third of 598 operators responding to a state agency’s request for information on their safety procedures didn’t conduct leak surveys on their pipelines. More than one-fifth of the systems had never been pressure tested, and more than half didn’t have corrosion control or monitoring.
So while PHMSA hems and haws over the cost-benefit analysis of any new pipeline regulations, thousands of pipelines with zero safety oversight continue to be laid down under the feet of unsuspecting Americans.