GAO Setup for Federal Regulation of Gathering Pipelines?

Pipeline Danger Will Robinson!The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report yesterday on the status of natural gas gathering pipelines (a copy of the full 41-page report is embedded below). We should note that the GAO issues a half dozen or more reports per day—i.e., they are a report-generating “mill” for the federal government, usually Congress—your tax dollars at work.

[Begin rant] Two Democrat Senators, Jay Rockefeller from WV and Frank Lautenberg from NJ, requested a report from the GAO on the safety or lack thereof for the estimated 240,000 miles of natural gas gathering pipelines now in use or under construction throughout the country. Sure seems like Congress is nosing around yet another federal takeover of what is properly a state’s Constitutional responsibility, and this report is designed to provide justification to do just that.

The report’s operating assumption is that all pipelines should be federally regulated—even small gathering lines. If a pipeline is not federally regulated, it’s an aberration, not normal, something is wrong—“Danger Will Robinson!” The further arrogant assumption is if pipelines are not regulated in the manner “we” say, they are not safe. Welcome to the nanny state where the federal government uses fear to manipulate public opinion: “Your pipelines will blow up or crack and leak nasty things if we don’t slap strict regulations on them right now.” Question: When was the last time you heard about a pipeline—any pipeline—exploding, breaking or leaking? [End rant]

According to the GAO website summary, here’s what they found in their research of this issue (PHMSA refers to the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration):

While the safety risks of onshore gathering pipelines that are not regulated by PHMSA are generally considered to be lower than for other types of pipelines, PHMSA does not collect comprehensive data to identify the safety risks of unregulated gathering pipelines. In response to a GAO survey, state pipeline safety agencies cited construction quality, maintenance practices, unknown or uncertain locations, and limited or no information on pipeline integrity as among the highest risks for federally unregulated pipelines. Without data on these risk factors, pipeline safety officials are unable to assess and manage safety risks associated with these pipelines. Furthermore, changes in pipeline operational environments cited in response to GAO’s survey and by industry officials could also increase safety risks for federally unregulated gathering pipelines. Specifically, land-use changes are resulting in development encroaching on existing pipelines and the increased extraction of oil and natural gas from shale deposits is resulting in the development of new gathering pipelines, some of which are larger in diameter and operate at higher pressure than older pipelines. PHMSA is considering collecting data on federally unregulated gathering pipelines, but the agency’s plans are preliminary, and the extent to which PHMSA will collect data sufficient to evaluate the potential safety risks associated with these pipelines is uncertain.

A small number of state pipeline safety agencies GAO surveyed reported using at least one of five practices that were most frequently cited to help ensure the safety of federally unregulated pipelines. These practices include (1) damage prevention programs, (2) considering areas of highest risk to target resources, (3) safety inspections, (4) public outreach and communication, and (5) increased regulatory attention on operators with prior spills or leaks. However, the sharing of information among states on the safety practices used appears to be limited. Some state and PHMSA officials GAO interviewed had limited awareness of safety practices used by other states. Increased communication and information sharing about pipeline safety practices could boost the use of such practices for unregulated pipelines. However, information targeted at gathering pipelines on PHMSA’s website, including relevant safety practices and state activities, is limited.*

And here’s GAO’s two recommendations:

Recommendation: To enhance the safety of unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the PHMSA Administrator to collect data from operators of federally unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines, subsequent to an analysis of the benefits and industry burdens associated with such data collection. Data collected should be comparable to what PHMSA 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).

Recommendation: To enhance the safety of unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the PHMSA Administrator to establish an online clearinghouse or other resource for states to share information on practices that can help ensure the safety of federally unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines. This resource could include updates on related PHMSA and industry initiatives, guidance, related PHMSA rulemakings, and other information collected or shared by states.*

MDN’s interpretation: Put onerous new federal reporting requirements on federally unregulated gathering pipeline operators (make them do everything a regulated pipeline has to do) now, so they get used to it for the coming day when we tell them they’re now federally regulated. Welcome to Ameritopia.

What do you think? Has MDN blown another “Tea Party” gasket? Or are we right to be concerned that the federal government is setting up gathering pipelines for an eventual takeover? Should the feds regulate all pipelines? Leave a comment.

*U.S. Government Accountability Office (Mar 22, 2012) – Pipeline Safety: Collecting Data and Sharing Information on Federally Unregulated Gathering Pipelines Could Help Enhance Safety

NOTE: A single, solitary AP “hit piece” story, or portions of it, is being endlessly recycled by hundreds of media outlets. Here’s just one example: