After decades of industry resistance, federal safety officials are finally starting to regulate a huge part of the nation’s pipeline system.
With little attention from the mainstream media, the Biden administration has begun imposing new rules on some 400,000 miles of gas pipes. Many are bigger and more dangerous lines laid since the boom in fracking.
Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said the move is way overdue. Explosions on the lines, he said, “have killed people and injured people and it’s high time these lines were regulated.”
Erin Murphy, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, called it “a significant step forward.”
At issue are what the gas industry refers to as “gathering lines.” These are pipelines that carry gas directly from drilling sites. They run mostly through rural areas and tie into processing plants, which, in turn, pump the gas in big interstate lines to population areas.
The failure to impose any safety standards on the lines or even to know where they are has long been a big hole in safety oversight.
But that hole has grown far larger as operators have laid thousands of miles of new pipe to accommodate fracking. Those lines have been wider in diameter and operate at higher pressures than older pipelines, undermining a regulatory system reflecting earlier technology.
The first part of the new rules kicked in earlier this year when the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for the first time required operators to file basic reports about these pipelines, including their total miles, ages, widths — and any leaks the firms had become aware of. Such reports must be filed now for every gathering line in the United States.
The reports cover about 400,000 miles of pipe—and the first round of reports filed this year showed that the industry, even while acting only on a voluntary basis, found and fixed more than 5,000 leaks last year.
More stringent rules are to take effect next year for the biggest of the gathering lines, those more than 16 inches in width or near residential buildings and more than 8.6 inches. For the first time, operators will be required to carry out regular surveys for leaks and repair them.
For these bigger lines, they will also have to install above-ground markers and new anti-corrosion controls and conduct public-awareness campaigns to alert nearby residents to the lines. These rules will apply to about 20,000 existing miles of the total 400,000 gathering-line mileage.
Even as it implemented the new rules, the agency this year proposed a major expansion of the requirement for surveys and repairs. It wants to extend this regulation to cover about another 80,000 miles of the larger gathering lines. It would also require firms to provide geocoding information charting the paths of these lines to the National Pipeline Mapping System, closing what critics call another big regulatory gap.
The new rules for reporting and testing are a win for regulators after decades of defeat. Efforts to regulate the lines failed in 1974, 1986, 1991 and 2006. The rules taking effect now were first officially proposed a dozen years ago.
The industry fought back. The trade group GPA Midstream, formerly the Gas Producers Association, argued against the regulations and filed a lengthy appeal after PHMSA enacted them in November 2021. The trade organization complained that the agency had overestimated the regulations’ benefits and underestimated their cost.
While regulators had said the safety measures would cost about $13 million yearly, the trade group’s expert put it at $1.8 billion. PHMSA responded bluntly, saying in an official statement that the industry analysis was “riddled with flaws.”
In the end, the trade group agreed it would drop its appeal after the Pipeline Administration relented a bit by pushing back the effective date for the new testing requirements until May 2024.
However, GPA Midstream still opposes the proposed extension of the tests to another 80,000 miles. The trade group declined comment for this article.
In a critical statement filed with PHMSA, GPA Midstream said, among other criticisms, that the proposal was based on flawed science and would needlessly require repairs of minor leaks that pose no danger.
Advocates have been particularly intent on these new regulations because of the role of gathering lines in the leakage of methane, known to be an especially potent contributor to global warming. They say that the lines, carrying newly drilled unprocessed gas, are more subject to corrosive damage and thus methane emissions.
Leaks aside, the pipes have periodically been subject to explosions.
In 2010, a bulldozer struck a 14-inch gas gathering line in Darrouzett in northern Texas, and the resulting explosion killed two workers and injured three others. Days later, in August 2018 in Midland, Texas, a failure in a six-inch gathering line triggered an explosion in a nearby 12-inch transmission pipeline, killing one worker and injuring seven others. That same month, a corroded 10-inch gas gathering line blew up 15 miles away, killing a three-year-old girl inside her home.
The following month, a new gathering line in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, ruptured, sending a massive fireball skyward and destroying a house.
Last year, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer LP, a big Texas-based pipeline company, pleaded no contest to environmental crimes after state prosecutors in Pennsylvania determined negligent construction had permitted the pipe to come apart. Energy Transfer paid more than $30 million in fines and settlement payments to resolve the criminal case and complaints from regulators.
Over the years, the most serious accidents have taken place when larger transmission lines have blown up. PHMSA itself was founded after a 32-inch transmission line fractured in Louisiana in 1965, killing 17 people.
The Pipeline Safety Trust, based in Bellingham, Washington, was funded as an advocacy organization out of proceeds from $4 million in fines paid after a 16-inch line exploded there in 1999, killing a man and two 10-year-old boys.
In the years since then, with the increased output from fracking, the distinction between transmission lines and gathering lines has been disappearing.
“Modern gas gathering lines often bear a closer resemblance to large interstate transmission lines than the diffuse network of small, low-pressure lines that previously characterized gathering lines,” federal regulators said in imposing the new rules.
They summed up: “These changes are placing unprecedented demands and increasing safety risks on the nation’s pipeline system.”
In an August analysis of the new data now flowing in from pipeline operators, the Environmental Defense Fund detailed the trend. For much of the late 1900s, the industry laid down about 14,000 miles of gathering line per decade.
Since 2000, production has tripled, according to a report by Kate Roberts, a senior research analyst at EDF.
Her report also identified more than 200,000 miles of gathering lines that were more than eight inches in diameter, including more than 3,000 miles of behemoth lines more than 30 inches wide.
Another aspect of the new data was disquieting: PHMSA has estimated that more than 435,000 miles of gathering lines cross the United States, while an industry data organization puts the figure at 440,000 miles.
But pipe firms reported a total of only 344,000 miles in their first-ever disclosure, filed in March. In Pennsylvania, for instance, operators reported less than half the mileage than the figure listed by the industry data organization, Texas-based Drillinginfo.
As Murphy, the lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund, said, it raises “a concern that operators may be underreporting their mileage to PHMSA.”
Karen Gdula lives in Center Township in Beaver County, three houses from where the 40-mile gathering line went up in flames in 2018 at nearly 5 a.m. “What woke me was the earth was vibrating. I could feel it shaking our house,” she recalled recently. “My first words to my husband were, ‘Get dressed. Get your medicine. We’re going to evacuate.’
“When we went outside, the flames were shooting as high as the ancient pine trees in the region,” she said. “And the sky was lit up like it was mid-afternoon.”
Gdula said she welcomed the new rules, but said the price paid for them over the years has been too high. “Until there are more injuries and death,” she said, “the regulations in most cases are not forthcoming.”
This article originally appeared in Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.
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