US Tightens Oil Pipeline Safety Rules


Federal regulators have announced new rules to improve oil pipeline safety, increasing requirements related to testing and internal inspections in an effort to prevent pipeline breaches and related environmental damage.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, announced the new package of rules Friday (Jan. 13), amid some controversy on both sides of the regulatory issue.

Data-Informed Approach

The new regulations, the PHMSA says, requires hazardous-liquid pipeline operators to have a system for detecting leaks, and a timeline for inspecting potentially affected stretches of pipeline after a weather event or natural disaster. They constitute an “increased focus on a data- and risk-informed approach to pipeline safety,” requiring operators to take advantage of data that might point to failure risks.

The rule package also requires pipeline operators to concentrate efforts on so-called “High Consequence Areas,” locations where major environmental or human damage could result from a breach. Operators are now required to reevaluate their plans for HCAs annually, and the new rules set a deadline for internal inspection of new and replaced pipelines in HCAs.

HCAs, the agency says, include pipelines near populated areas, “treasured landscapes” and major bodies of water, including rivers.

Also included in the package is an expansion of the list of conditions that require immediate repair per the agency’s risk-based management framework.

Critics Speak

Environmentalists have criticized the PHMSA for “weakening” the new rule package after appeals from the industry. According to the Associated Press, provisions that would have required the immediate repair of cracks and other problems were removed after industry representatives told the DOT the requirement would have been cost-prohibitive.

pipeline construction
© / vasiliki

The new rules set a deadline for internal inspection of new and replaced pipelines in "High Consequence Areas."

The American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing companies in all facets of the U.S. oil and gas industry, said Friday (Jan. 13) that the rule, “while improved,” still threatens to weaken pipeline safety by requiring operators to divert attention from what they believe to be top priorities.

“We appreciate PHMSA taking into account our comments during the rulemaking process,” said API Midstream Group Director Robin Rorick in a statement, “and while this rule is an improvement over previous versions, the agency’s ‘one size fits all’ approach in portions of the final pipeline rule creates situations where industry will be forced to redirect its attention away from areas that present higher risks to those that are lower in risk.”

'Forward-Looking Rule'

The PHMSA said the new rule package will help to improve overall safety and prevent and mitigate disasters in the future.

"The changing energy environment in the United States requires that we all become increasingly anticipatory, predictive, and prepared for emerging risks," said PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez. "This is a forward-looking rule—it pushes operators to invest in increased data capabilities, to continuously improve their processes to assess and mitigate risk, and strengthens our framework for strong prescriptive regulations."

The PHMSA says the new rule has been submitted for publication in the Federal Register; it will become effective six months after it is published. Read the entire rule here.


Tagged categories: Department of Transportation (DOT); Environmental Protection; North America; Oil and Gas; PHMSA; Pipeline; Program/Project Management; Safety

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