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GAO Calls for Pipeline Risk Assessment Changes

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

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Federal auditors are recommending changes to the way the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration gauges the risk of corrosion in pipelines, calling in a recently released report for the agency to evaluate the effectiveness of its current Risk Ranking Index Model.

The Government Accountability Office, the U.S. government’s top auditing and evaluation service, issued its report on pipeline safety earlier this month. The main point: that “additional actions could improve federal use of data on pipeline materials and corrosion.”

US pipeline
Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The PHMSA developed its Risk Ranking Index Model in 2012 to help determine what pipelines should be prioritized for inspection; the Government Accountability Office has requested that the agency improve its documentation and data collection.

The current Risk Ranking Index Model, developed in 2012 and currently used to prioritize inspections of oil and gas pipelines, has not been subject to data-based evaluation since it was implemented, according to the report.

Threat Factors

The RRIM, the report notes, is based on pipeline data collected from pipeline operators. The “threat factors” taken into account in the system include uncoated steel pipe, steel pipe that was coated ineffectively and steel pipe constructed using low frequency electric-resistance welding, a method common from the 1920s through the 1970s that the GAO says “is susceptible to catastrophic failure and certain types of corrosion.”

The model also includes factors like the commodity being conveyed, recent “significant incidents” and recent enforcement actions.

According to the GAO, in 2016 the PHMSA oversaw 655 inspection systems, and prioritized 79 of those systems for inspection in 2017. The agency’s system requires that low-risk pipelines be inspected every seven years, medium-risk pipelines every five and high-risk pipelines every three years.

View from the Ground

The report says regional inspectors are given the opportunity to raise or lower the priority of pipelines that have been identified using RRIM, because in some cases, the inspectors on the ground are able to take additional factors into consideration. Management experience of the operator and public concerns about a given pipeline are examples of other factors cited in the report.

Lindsey G, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

PHMSA officials would prefer to use certain data in prioritizing pipelines for inspection, but that data such as maximum allowable operating pressure is not collected at the unit level, and therefore can’t be factored in.

Regional inspectors called the RRIM “generally effective” in prioritizing inspections, but said it might not capture every factor needed to determine whether a pipeline should be inspected.

According to the report, PHMSA officials would prefer to use certain data in prioritizing pipelines for inspection, but that data such as maximum allowable operating pressure is not collected at the unit level, and therefore can’t be factored in. The agency has been working to collect additional information at the unit level, the report says, but new data collection will take years based on the current inspection schedule.

'Professional Judgment'

The GAO’s major takeaway is that the PHMSA, which is a division of the Department of Transportation, has not documented the effectiveness of the RRIM during the five years it has been operational, and has not documented its decisionmaking as relates to the model. The report repeatedly notes that PHMSA officials have used “their professional judgment” in making adjustments to the model, but that they have not documented specific reasons for changes, making it difficult to assess whether the changes were effective.

Ultimately, the GAO says, “it is unclear how effectively the model has helped the PHMSA manage its inspection resources or maximize safety benefits for the public.”

The agency recommends the PHMSA institute a system for documenting its decisionmaking with regard to the RRIM and the threat factors it takes into consideration. The report also calls on the PHMSA to establish periodic reviews of the data collection model to determine if risk assessment can be performed more effectively.

In a letter included as an appendix to the report, Bryan Slater, Assistant Secretary for the PHMSA, says his administration concurs with the recommendations and will provide a detailed response by early October.


Tagged categories: Coating inspection; Corrosion; Department of Transportation (DOT); NA; North America; PHMSA; Pipeline; Quality Control

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