The pipeline industry is being buffeted by calls for increased safety from a number of directions. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has taken a number of steps to reduce pipeline incidents, but Congressional pressure to do more is growing and frustration with both the agency and the industry is obvious.
The last two weeks have seen a flurry of Congressional hearings and bills aimed at increasing pipeline safety. K&L Gates law firm did a very good recap of the bills and the general mood of Congress concerning pipelines. Anyone in the pipeline business needs to keep up on this issue because it is likely to result in broad changes in the way the industry approaches safety.
For PHMSA’s part, the agency has already made a number of changes, the most visible one being that it has doubled the size of its pipeline safety program and hired nearly 100 new field operatives to keep an eye on pipeline projects. The agency has also launched a reorganization, called PHMSA 2021, designed to help it adapt to changes. One other measure is that it has worked with industry to create a safety management program. Right now the safety management system is voluntary. the head of PHMSA testified before Congress that, “PHMSA fully supports the implementation of RP 1173 and plans to promote industry-wide conformance to this voluntary standard…Moving forward, PHMSA will leverage the powerful working relationships we have with states and other stakeholders to encourage the widespread adoption of SMS.”
A word of caution to industry – we have seen the “voluntary” safety management approach play out before. If industry doesn’t start using it “voluntarily,” regulations generally follow.
Why the big push? For one thing, pipeline safety statistics appear to be stuck in place. Here is PHMSA’s overview of incident in the last 20 years:
It doesn’t show the type of progressive reduction that other industries have seen in the past few years. One note on this – the statistics do not seem to have been normalized to reflect increased construction or maintenance activities. On the other hand, the pipeline infrastructure is aging and that can boost incidents.
However, two very important drivers are public outcry over some very high-profile pipeline and, most recently, storage incidents and the future growth of natural gas. The first driver, public outcry, is guaranteed to get the politicians on their soap boxes. However, it is the second one that has the experts in government looking to the future. The country is embracing natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil. The transportation system needs to be able to ensure that all that gas gets to its destination safely.