The United States has millions of miles of oil and gas pipelines. (Creative Commons)
The United States has millions of miles of oil and gas pipelines. (Creative Commons)

Oil and Gas Industry Writes Its Own Pipeline Standards

By
Friday, August 13, 2010 at 12:25 pm

The United States has millions of miles of oil and gas pipelines. (Creative Commons)

This story is the third in a series on federal oversight of the nation’s 2.3 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines. You can read the first story here and the second story here.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency that oversees the country’s 2.3 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines, has adopted as part of its regulations all or parts of at least 29 standards written by the oil and natural gas industry.

[Environment1] The revelation, which comes to light as part of an investigation into pipeline safety by The Washington Independent, raises significant questions about the relationship between PHMSA and the industry that it regulates. It also feeds into comparisons between the agency and the now-defunct Minerals Management Service, which was in charge of permitting and licensing offshore drilling projects in the run-up to the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill.

PHMSA has come under increased scrutiny in the aftermath of a July 26 pipeline break near Battle Creek, Mich., that bled nearly 1 million gallons of oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. While an investigation into the cause of the spill is ongoing, environmentalists and advocacy groups have been quick to criticize PHMSA, arguing that the agency doesn’t require adequate inspections of the nation’s pipeline system and it has a too-cozy relationship with industry.

For her part, PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman, who took over the agency in Nov. 2009, has promised to reform the agency. But Quarterman herself has close ties to the oil industry, working as legal counsel for Enbridge Energy, the very company that owns the pipeline that burst in Michigan.

Now, TWI has learned, PHMSA has adopted a series of industry standards by reference in its Pipeline Safety Regulations. At least 29 standards were written by two powerful industry trade groups: the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the American Gas Association (AGA). API, which represents both the oil and natural gas industries and is a powerful lobbying force in Washington, authored 27 of the standards. AGA, which represents 195 natural gas companies around the country, has authored two standards, according to a list provided by PHMSA.

“There’s kind of a basic conflict of interest there if you’re letting industry develop part of things and then you adopt them as regulations,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit group that advocates for fuel transportation safety.

The industry standards touch on a number of issues key to ensuring pipeline safety, including pipeline welding, monitoring for liquid pipelines, evaluating the strength of corroded pipelines and testing pipeline pressure.

But even though these standards have been adopted as federal regulations, they continue to be the property of the oil and gas industry. As a result, public access to these standards is severely restricted. If a member of the public wants to see one of the standards, they must travel to the PHMSA headquarters in Washington or purchase the standard from API or AGA. Industry groups see the standards as proprietary information and therefore will not allow PHMSA to publish them on its web site.

“What makes this worse is that those standards are still the property of industry,” Weimer said.

Weimer has focused much of his scrutiny on a 2003 API standard that has been adopted by PHMSA. The standard outlines a process for oil and natural gas companies to alert nearby residents to the presence of a pipeline in their area. Weimer argues that API has no business writing such a standard. The standard should be written by an outside group with experience communicating important information to people, he said.

“The American Petroleum Institute is clearly a group that lobbies on behalf of industry, and sometimes they are developing standards that they really don’t have expertise in. API doesn’t have some deep understanding of how you communicate with the public about a pipeline,” Weimer said.

API’s public awareness standard, a read-only version of which has been published online by API after prodding from Weimer and others, says, “A more informed public along pipeline routes should supplement an operator’s pipeline safety measures and should contribute to reduce the likelihood and potential impact of pipeline emergencies and releases.” But the standard also stresses that “pipelines are a relatively safe mode of transportation, that pipeline operators undertake a variety of measures to prevent pipeline accidents, and that pipeline operators anticipate and plan for management of accidents if they occur.”

While pipeline accidents are rare, they can be deadly. According to PHMSA records, there were 265 “significant incidents” in the U.S. pipeline system last year, resulting in 14 deaths, 63 injuries and more than $152 million in property damage.

Incidents involving natural gas resulted in 10 deaths and 59 injuries — most commonly caused by equipment failure and corrosion. But, a previous TWI story found, PHMSA does not have the mandate, or the staff, to oversee the millions of miles of pipelines crossing the country. Federal law mandates that PHMSA require only seven percent of the country’s natural gas pipelines and just 44 percent of the country’s liquid pipelines to be inspected.

PHMSA, responding to questions about the standards in a written statement, said it is bound by law to incorporate by reference acceptable standards into its regulations. The agency cited the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995, which directs federal agencies to adopt standards set by “voluntary consensus standard bodies” when possible, rather than writing their own standards.

The Office of Management and Budget defines voluntary consensus standards as “technical standards developed or adopted by voluntary consensus standards bodies, both domestic and international,” PHMSA said, noting that “every U.S. government technical regulatory agency uses consensus standards.”

The public has access to the standards at the Department of Transportation’s headquarters in Washington or at the Government Printing Office, PHMSA noted. “PHMSA is actively working with standards organizations to urge them to provide better access to standards they have authored,” the statement said.

While federal law requires federal agencies to consider adopting standards, Weimer said PHMSA should take more precautions with the standards it adopts. PHMSA had adopted a total of 69 standards. Beyond the 29 written by the oil and natural gas industry, the others were written by more technical groups like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers or the National Fire Protection Association.

“Some of these standards are developed by groups like National Association of Corrosion Engineers. So, some of these groups really do have lots of expertise in the area and it makes sense,” Weimer said. But groups like API, Weimer argued, should not be developing standards because they have too much of an interest in the outcome of regulations.

Peter Lidiak, pipeline director at API, said PHMSA is not doing anything wrong in adotping industry standards as regulations. “They’re doing what they are supposed to be doing. We wouldn’t put out a standard if we didn’t think it was an appropriate set of guidelines for the industry to follow,” he said, adding, “We do often suggest to them that they might look at a standard that we have put in place rather than writing all new regulations if they address the same thing.”

On the issue of public access to the standards, Lidiak stresses that the standards are proprietary information, but notes that industry groups provide copies to PHMSA for public inspection. “If somebody wanted a bound copy, they’d have to pay to see them. But we provide a copy of all of our pipeline related standards to PHMSA,” Lidiak said. “And I will grant you, it’s not convenient for somebody living in Kansas City to come to PHMSA’s office.”

Lidiak also stressed that PHMSA reviews all industry standards before adopting them and can choose to adopt them in part if necessary. PHMSA also allows public comment on the standards, he said. A spokesperson for AGA did not return a request for comment.

Ultimately though, Weimer isn’t satisfied with the the standards and the lack of public access to them. “We believe in transparency. The more information that’s available to the public, the better,” he said.

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Comment posted August 13, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

With the “millions of miles” of pipelines that crisscross North America, the track record looks very good to me. While no number of casualties are good, those caused by pipelines when compared to any other transportation means are increadibly low. It is by far the safest means of transporting the energy every one of us needs for our jobs and our daily lives.


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Comment posted August 14, 2010 @ 12:11 am

I think your comment is “incredibly” industry driven—same “safest means of transporting the energy” argument that is standard oil and gas rhetoric. The unstated and obvious conclusion is get of of fossil fuels!


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AntiGreed
Comment posted August 14, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

Pipelines will never be 100% 'safe'. However, to dramatically reduce the number of preventable pipeline incidents a few things can be done if the political will to enact them exists (which to date does not exist). Legislators and Federal, State and Local inspectors will need Titanium ones initially, but that goes with the territory.

1. Increase the 'hammer' (fines) applicable to preventable pipeline incidents by 10,000 fold, or more, and if that doesn't work, shut the pipeline down until required assessments of condition and repairs are made, or, put a cadre of Federal engineers (Corps of Engineers?) on the Board of Directors of the errant pipeline company to take the necessary actions using the pipeline company's money with no charge back to the customer allowed.
2. Remove all personnel from PHMSA who worked previously for a pipeline owner/operator (which would be a large number of folks using the 'revolving door' of self policing – what better place to self-police than from within the very organization that 'enforces' the policing regulations that you wrote!!!!! Replace these people with units as interested in public safety as the public being served.
3. Insist on the use of the best technologies available to protect public safety. Currently, and in a number of cases, the technologies employed are politically selected using a 'consensus' of opinion. Consensus is definable as the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. This philosophy of regulation adoption suits the bottom line of the pipeline industry. The National Association of Corrosion Engineers proudly states it uses the philosophy of consensus in the development and publishing of its industry standards on corrosion control – standards not only used by the pipeline industry but which are included in the Code of Federal Regulations relating to pipeline safety (CFR 49 Part 192 e.g.). And BTW – the NACE committees that prepare these 'standards' are largely composed of pipeline personnel, and others who work with companies servicing the pipeline industry (who have NO interest in biting the hand that feeds them). The Federal government employees charged with 'approving' these standards, and their use in Federal regulations, also come in large part from the pipeline industry, with the same interests as the pipeline industry. A pattern is clear and it is not one conducive to promoting safety in pipelines.

4. Pipeline preventative maintenance would conservatively cost $1.50/foot of pipe/year. 10,000 miles of pipe would take close to $80 million of annual expenditure to maintain. One 'incident' may cost $5 million in reparations (civil costs) plus a fine (maybe a $1million) plus the repair to the pipeline (maybe another $1 million). With one 'incident' of this magnitude every 5 years (maybe), the pipeline operator pays out $7 million instead of preventing the incident which would have cost $400 million over the five years. The bottom line wins and the dead people and their families lose.
5. Insist that the CEO's, CFO's, Legal officers, maintenance managers and other important (to themselves, at least) live in houses built on top of their pipeline(s). They will understand pucker factor and will fell obliged to reduce it to a minimum by ensuring proper maintenance is conducted REGULARLY.
6. The Administration must only employ people in high places who either know their industry personally, or who staff their offices with people who actually know what they are talking about. Putting attorneys in positions of approving what pipeline valve works, or what tool should be approved for use in detecting corrosion leaves one shaking one's head in wonder.
To improve pipeline public safety requires knowledge, guts, foresight, use of hindsight, and, above all, (engineering) integrity. Integrity of any sort is not evident in those who would make money at no risk to themselves while permitting others to risk everything, up to and including their lives, literally.

If anyone is wondering what a 'preventable' pipeline incident is:

If it is determined by the NTSB and/or PHMSA and/or OSHA that the incident would not have occurred if current regulations regarding preventative maintenance had been followed – the incident should be classified as preventable. For example, if a gas pipeline ruptures and causes death and/or property destruction, and the cause of the rupture is determined to be external corrosion which should have been detected prior to the incident, or which was detected but no action was taken prior to the incident – that would be classified as preventable and the company officers, involved managers and operating personnel should be subject to huge fines and jail time. If a drunk driver who kills an innocent bystander can go to jail for manslaughter, why not an unconcerned owner/operator of a potentially dangerous underground facility which explodes and kills an innocent bystander or two, or three, or twelve (El Paso rupture, Carlsbad, NM).

Of course, the 'current regulations' mentioned above must be of sufficient strength to produce a high probability of positive result upon which action can be taken. And on that matter, the legal point of view is that if a condition which can causes a pipeline failure is not known about, the failure is an “Act of God”. However, if the condition is known about, and no action is taken, and failure occurs, it becomes 'gross negligence'. Since it is cheaper by far to pay for the consequences of an Act of God than it is to expend financial and other resources to prevent one (perhaps 60:1) – it seems that pipeline owner/operators would much rather NOT KNOW the condition of their facilities than spend the money to find out. The bottom line wins – public safety loses.


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Comment posted August 14, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

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Comment posted August 14, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

And BTW – there is technology available to the pipeline industry which can monitor the environment surrounding a pipeline 24/7/52, and which can alarm any change in that environment straight into a control room, complete with GPS coordinates. Might be a good idea for PHMSA to require the use of 21st century technology instead of lat 19th century tech.


AntiGreed
Comment posted August 14, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

Apologies – That should be late 19th Century


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Miriam
Comment posted August 15, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

The first thing I learned as a Test Engineer is NEVER trust a Test Procedure made by the Design Engineers. It is vital that the Tester comes at the system from a perspective as little tainted by the Designers as possible if you want the most reliable system possible.

For Standards, both Testers and Designers should have input. In the case of these Pipelines it seems that only the Designers (oil industry) have input, which is total folly.

Even more foolish is many of these Pipelines travel over Public land, therefor the public should have full rights to know the Standards that are used for those Pipelines. That access to these standards is so painful is a major risk to the public.


Miriam
Comment posted August 15, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

The first thing I learned as a Test Engineer is NEVER trust a Test Procedure made by the Design Engineers. It is vital that the Tester comes at the system from a perspective as little tainted by the Designers as possible if you want the most reliable system possible.

For Standards, both Testers and Designers should have input. In the case of these Pipelines it seems that only the Designers (oil industry) have input, which is total folly.

Even more foolish is many of these Pipelines travel over Public land, therefor the public should have full rights to know the Standards that are used for those Pipelines. That access to these standards is so painful is a major risk to the public.


Irish_Wake
Comment posted August 15, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

Excellent points.

Especially interesting since we have seen no root cause analysis of either the BP spill or the recent pipeline break in Michigan, yet we are assured that there will be no recurrence.


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[...] miles of oil and natural gas pipelines, has adopted “all or parts of at least 29 standards written by the oil and gas industry.” Specifically, the rules were written by two trade groups—the American Petroleum Institute and [...]


Oil and Gas Industry Writes Its Own Pipeline Standards… |
Pingback posted August 21, 2010 @ 11:40 am

[...] Gas Industry Writes Its Own Pipeline Standards… Posted on August 21, 2010 by ben1001 http://washingtonindependent.com/94743/oil-and-gas-industry-writes-its-own-pipeline-standards This entry was posted in Energy, Gas Lobby, Legislation, Lobbying, Special interests, loopholes [...]


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Defying Disaster » The San Bruno Inferno: We Must Reclaim Our Sense of Danger
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Key Federal Agency Proposes Potential Pipeline Safety Regulations North Capitol Street
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