Given Natural Gas’ Dangers, Worries About Pipeline Regulation and Oversight Abound

August 10, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Pipelines 0806 480x320 (Norbert Fellechner/Action Press/ZUMA Press)

*This story is the second 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. *

Next week marks the 10-year anniversary of one of the country’s most horrific pipeline disasters. On Aug. 19, 2000, a break in a natural gas pipeline owned by El Paso Natural Gas emitted a fireball so massive observers saw it 20 miles away. The explosion near Carlsbad, N.M., instantly killed six people camping near the pipeline. Six more desperately sought relief from the flames in the nearby Pecos River and died from severe burns and smoke inhalation soon after. Among the victims were three children under the age of two, found by emergency responders next to the melted remains of their playpen. According to a report on the explosion, the victims were so burned they “looked like mummies.”

[Environment1] Natural gas explosions are rare, but very deadly. Thus, in the decade since the Carlsbad disaster, federal regulators and lawmakers have passed a number of laws to address pipeline safety. Most significantly, in 2005, Congress established the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, or PHMSA, to replace the Research and Special Programs Administration and bolster regulation and safety.

But an investigation by The Washington Independent shows that oversight of the nation’s 2.3 million miles of pipelines is still severely lacking. PHMSA is underfunded, with a pipeline safety budget of just $105 million this year. It is understaffed, with only 94 pipeline inspectors. It maintains an oftentimes too cozy relationship with industry. And it operates under outdated and, in many cases, inadequate regulations.

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 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.

A 2002 law mandates the inspection of pipes in “high consequence areas” — regions near natural resources like rivers, or populated ares like towns or cities. But because only portions of pipeline in the high consequence areas must undergo safety inspections, companies are under no federal regulatory obligation to adequately or consistently inspect thousands of miles of pipeline outside of those areas.

Carl Weimer — executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit group that advocates for fuel transportation safety — said that the 2002 law requiring integrity management assessments was a “huge step” toward better oversight. But he said the high consequence area-designation ought to have been broadened over time to account for more miles of pipeline.

Moreover, there are no federal laws or regulations to ensure that houses and commercial buildings are constructed a safe distance away from pipelines. This lack of a so-called “setback” regulation raises particular concerns when it comes to natural gas pipelines, which, if broken, can burst into flames causing huge fireballs.

“There aren’t any regulations at all about setbacks. You can build a house right next to a pipeline,” Weimer says. The only rule regarding setbacks is that a landowner cannot build on the right of way easement used to build the pipeline, Julia Piscitelli, a PHMSA spokesperson says. “Generally, pipeline burial locations are determined by local, county and state ordinances,” she said.

Many easements are only 50 feet wide. That’s not enough to ensure safety, Weimer says. For example, a 30-inch pipeline operating at 1,000 pounds per square inch of pressure — a common pipe — would have an “impact radius” of about 660 feet on each side of the pipeline, according to an Oct. 2000 report by the Gas Research Institute.

If a home is located in a rural area with a population density below the PHMSA standard, there is likely no federal requirement for the pipeline to be inspected. “The vast majority of these big pipelines are in rural areas,” Weimer says. “It’s not very reassuring if you live in Nebraska and your farmhouse is only 30 feet from a pipeline and just because you’re the only house there, the pipeline is not required to be inspected….If you’re in a rural area, you’re out of luck.”

Weimer also underscores the potential danger of a natural gas break. “The gas comes out with such force that it usually creates its own ignition source. It’s not uncommon for them to ignite,” he says, pointing to massive explosions like the one in Carlsbad in 2000.

Paul Blackburn — staff attorney at Plains Justice, a public interest law and policy center that has focused much of its attention on pipelines — echoes Weimer’s concerns. “If a company wanted to bury dynamite underground, people would probably insist on more safety, more controls and everything like that to make sure that it never exploded,” he says. “But because it’s natural gas, people tend to think, ‘Well, it’s the stuff that comes out of my stove. It’s not that dangerous.’ But it really is.”

Blackburn also raises a larger criticism of PHMSA. He says the agency isn’t proactive enough. “They just sort of say, ‘OK, we caught you, don’t do that again.’ Then they leave the industry to decide what went wrong,” he says. “Perhaps if they were a little more systematic, more aggressive and more open about their efforts, they would have fewer problems like the Michigan oil spill. They wouldn’t be so reactive to what the industry is up to.”

Another critic of PHMSA, Ryan Salmon, policy coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, says it is time for Congress to strengthen the agency. “I think it’s pretty clear that additional oversight is needed,” he said, arguing that PHMSA needs to have more staff and more stringent requirements for inspections.

But industry, for its part, downplays concerns about a lack of federal oversight over pipelines. Peter Lidiak, pipeline director at the American Petroleum Institute, does not dispute that the majority of liquid and natural gas pipelines are not required under law to be inspected, but he says every company has its own independent inspection system in place. In addition, he noted that all pipelines are required to follow broad rules, like disclosing potential risk factors to nearby residents.

“Almost every pipeline that I’m aware of inspects much more than just their miles within the high consequence areas,” he says. “There’s absolutely no incentive for a company to have a release of any sort. Ultimately, it costs them more than it would cost to take care of their assets.”

Cynthia Quarterman, the current administrator of PHMSA, has come under fire for representing Enbridge Energy — the company responsible for the massive oil spill into a Michigan river — as legal counsel before accepting President Obama’s nomination to head the agency. Some environmentalists have pointed to Quarterman’s work history as evidence of a too cozy relationship between the agency and the industry it regulates.

Despite the criticism, Quarterman has called for reform at PHMSA. In April testimony to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Quarterman said, “We inherited a program that suffered from almost a decade of neglect and was seriously adrift. We have set a new course.”

Congress is currently working to reauthorize funding for PHMSA — a process that happens every four years. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has in recent months held a number of hearings on pipeline safety and PHMSA in particular.

In light of a massive pipeline break in Michigan and the resulting oil spill, which some have called the largest in Midwestern history, Oberstar has requested information from PHMSA and Enbridge Energy, the owner of the pipeline. While a spokesperson for Oberstar has said there are no plans for a hearing on the incident, Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Mich.) has said he will look into the spill and the broader pipeline safety implications after the August recess.