Pipeline safety officials need to get a grip on the fast-spreading network of unregulated lines that is springing up around the nation’s oil shale boom, a new Government Accountability Office report advises.
As things stand, federal and state regulators currently lack enough information to determine the safety of more than 200,000 miles of so-called “gathering” pipelines that carry natural gas and oil extracted from shale by hydraulic fracturing, GAO reports in a new audit.
|The new report targets more than 200,000 miles of federal unregulated gas gathering pipelines that carry gas from wells to processing facilities and larger, higher-pressure transmission pipelines.|
At least 16 states concede that they don’t know where all of their gathering pipelines are, and few states have safety practices in place for the network, creating a “new infrastructure” that carries unknown risks, GAO says.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which regulates the pipeline industry, “does not collect comprehensive data to identify the safety risks of unregulated gathering pipelines,” according to Collecting Data and Sharing Information on Federally Unregulated Gathering Pipelines Could Help Enhance Safety, just released by GAO.
“In recent years, shale oil and gas exploration and related development has led to the construction of new infrastructure, including gathering pipelines,” GAO notes.
Gathering pipelines connect wells to processing facilities and to the nation’s 2.5 million-mile network of larger, high-pressure transmission pipelines.
|The Pennsylvania Utilities Commission (PUC) gained authority only last month to conduct safety inspections and investigations of that state’s thousands of new gas gathering pipelines from Marcellus Shale wells.|
Gathering lines typically range from two to 12 inches in diameter and operate at pressures ranging from 5 to 800 pounds psi. PHMSA estimates there are 200,000 miles of gas gathering pipelines and 30,000 to 40,000 miles of hazardous liquid gathering pipelines nationwide.
Pipelines are the safest mode for transporting hazardous liquid and natural gas, and gathering pipelines are believed to be safer than transmission lines, GAO notes. Yet, the agency adds, even smaller, lower-pressure lines remain vulnerable to corrosion, excavation damage and other hazards.
Among the highest risks are “construction quality, maintenance practices, unknown or uncertain locations, and limited or no information on pipeline integrity,” state pipeline agencies told GAO auditors.
“Without data on these risk factors, pipeline safety officials are unable to assess and manage safety risks associated with these pipelines.”
GAO notes that incidents involving regulated gathering pipelines “have resulted in millions of dollars in property damage in recent years.” Comparable statistics for unregulated pipelines are unknown, GAO said.
“PHMSA is not currently able to determine the performance and safety of these gathering pipelines because it does not collect the necessary pipeline operator data,” the report says.
States’ Most Frequently Used Safety Practices for Gathering Pipelines
GAO urged PHMSA to move forward on data collection, in order to begin establishing quantitative safety risks for the unregulated pipelines.
“Furthermore,” GAO says, “these data would be critical in helping PHMSA to evaluate the sufficiency of safety regulations for gathering pipelines,” as Congress requires and the booming shale development “may necessitate.”
The GAO surveyed state pipeline regulators in all 50 states and the District of Columbia about their safety practices and the risks they perceived with gathering pipelines. The agency also surveyed PHMSA.
Among the findings:
• PHMSA has little knowledge of state safety practices or regulations regarding gathering pipelines.
• States tend not to share safety data, even with adjoining states on shared risks like corrosion or excavation damage.
• PHMSA posts little information on gathering pipeline safety and has no single web page or resource dedicated to these lines, regulated or unregulated.
• Only a small number of states reported using any of five safety practices regarding federally unregulated pipelines. Only 13 states used a damage prevention program, the most common practice. Nine states said they conducted inspections. Six said they had a system of escalated enforcement. Seven said they conducted public outreach to raise awareness of the presence of the lines in communities.
To enhance the safety of federally unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines, GAO recommended that PHMSA:
• Collect data from pipeline operators comparable to what the agency collects annually from operators of regulated gathering pipelines (e.g., fatalities, injuries, property damage, location, mileage, size, operating pressure, maintenance history, and the causes of incidents and consequences).
• Establish an online clearinghouse or other resource for states to share safety information. This resource could include updates on related PHMSA and industry initiatives, guidance, related PHMSA rulemakings, and other information collected or shared by states.
The agency said it would provide updated information after the agencies respond.