Feds: Unregulated Natural Gas Pipelines Pose Significant Public Safety RiskMar 23rd, 2012 | By fjgallagher | Category: Lead Articles, Natural Gas Leaks
A report released yesterday by the federal General Accountability Office states that thousands of miles of unregulated natural gas pipelines pose a significant safety risk to the general public.
“According to pipeline industry officials and representatives we interviewed, the increased extraction of oil and natural gas from shale deposits poses an increased risk to the public, partly because of the development of new and larger gathering pipeline infrastructure,” the GAO report says.
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The problem, the GAO report notes, is that federal regulatory agencies have no idea whether or not thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines that bring the fuel from the field to processing plants are structurally sound, in large part because the so-called gathering lines are exempt from regulations that apply to natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines. In addition, the operators of these gas-gathering pipelines are not required to report on the risk factors that affect the natural gas pipelines that are under their management.
From the GAO report:
Under the current regulatory system, PHMSA does not regulate most gathering pipelines in the United States based on their location. For example, out of the more than 200,000 estimated miles of natural gas gathering pipelines, PHMSA regulates roughly 20,000 miles. Similarly, of the 30,000 to 40,000 estimated miles of hazardous liquid gathering pipelines, PHMSA regulates about 4,000 miles.
Operators of unregulated gathering pipelines are not required by federal law to report information on such risk factors. Consequently, federal and state pipeline safety officials do not know the extent to which individual operators collect such information and use it to monitor the safety of their pipelines.
Part of the problem, as the GAO report makes abundantly clear, is that the boom in natural gas drilling activity and the subsequent build-out that accompanied it, led to the construction of thousands of miles of gas-gathering pipeline. Moreover, many of the natural gas pipelines that were laid years ago in areas that were relatively undeveloped are now heavily populated, posing a significant risk to nearby population centers.
But the increased risk to the public safety is not limited to older lines. Much of the risk can be directly linked to the thousands of miles of new gas-gathering pipelines.
This risk, the report notes, relates directly to the fact that the many of the new pipelines are larger and operate at significantly higher pressures than the older lines — but without the regulatory oversight that applies to natural gas transmission and distribution lines.
From the GAO report:
For instance, an October 2010 report15 on pipeline issues and concerns in Fort Worth stated that some gathering pipelines were as large as 24 inches in diameter with maximum allowable operating pressures similar to those for transmission pipelines. Those gathering pipelines were currently exempt from federal integrity management rules, which require some form of pipeline integrity assessment at least once every 7 years, and clearly define how and when problems found during these assessments are to be reported and repaired.
So what does the GAO recommend be done to protect the public safety, which the agency’s report so clearly demonstrates is at risk from the unregulated natural gas pipelines that now criss-cross our nation, often through highly populated areas, and the thousands of miles of unregulated natural gas pipelines that are even now being built, often within a few yards of homes, schools, churches and libraries?
Toward the end of the 41-page document, the GAO recommends that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency (PHMSA), the federal agency that regulates natural gas pipelines, start collecting information about gas-gathering lines and create some sort of mechanism to share it with states and other interested stakeholders.
Which leaves at least one major question unanswered: Where is the Accountability in this document that has been put forward by the General Accountability Office?