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Oil And Gas Industry Writes Its Own Pipeline Standards

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In the U.S., the oil and gas industry writes its own pipeline standards.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), 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.

The revelation raises significant questions about the relationship between PHMSA and the industry that it regulates.

The said disclosure comes to light as part of an investigation into pipeline safety by The Washington Independent.

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.

COPYRIGHT_WI: Published on https://washingtonindependent.com/oil-and-gas-industry-writes-its-own-pipeline-standards/ by Landon Morton on 2023-02-10T04:39:21.434Z

Thus, The Washington Independent came up with this article to know the reason behind why the oil and gas industry writes its own pipeline standards.

End of the road for America's oil and gas pipelines? | FT Energy Source

Spotlight On PHMSA

PHMSA has come under increased scrutiny in the aftermath of a July 26 pipeline break near Battle Creek, Michigan, 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.

They are arguing that the agency doesn’t require adequate inspections of the nation’s pipeline system and it has a too-cozy relationship with industry.

The Washington Independent (TWI) also conducts its own investigation on the issue regarding why the oil and gas industry writes its own pipeline standards.

For her part, PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman, who took over the agency in November 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.

What Was Discovered?

Now, TWI has learned, PHMSA has adopted a series of industry standards by reference in its Pipeline Safety Regulations.

Yes, the oil and gas industry writes its own pipeline standards.

At least 29 standards were written by two powerful industry trade groups:

a. American Petroleum Institute (API)

API, which represents both the oil and natural gas industries and is a powerful lobbying force in Washington, authored 27 of the standards.

b. American Gas Association (AGA)

AGA, which represents 195 natural gas companies around the country, has authored two standards, according to a list provided by PHMSA.

Carl Weimer, when he was still the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit group that advocates for fuel transportation safety, said:

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.

- Carl Weimer

Weimer has since been the group’s special projects advisor since September 2020.

A section of the aboveground oil pipeline of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline on a grassy field
A section of the aboveground oil pipeline of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline on a grassy field

Keeping Pipelines Safe

The industry standards touch on a number of issues key to ensuring pipeline safety, including the following:

  • pipeline welding
  • monitoring for liquid pipelines
  • evaluating the strength of corroded pipelines
  • 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.

Weimer said:

What makes this worse is that those standards are still the property of industry.

- Carl Weimer

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.

According to him:

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.

- Carl Weimer

He continued:

API doesn’t have some deep understanding of how you communicate with the public about a pipeline.

- Carl Weimer

That’s one reason why there will be a problem if the oil and gas industry writes its own pipeline standards.

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.

- American Petroleum Institute (API)

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.

- American Petroleum Institute (API)

Preventing Pipeline Accidents

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.

Therefore, as the oil and gas industry writes its own pipeline standards, it should be well informed.

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.

It 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.

PHMSA added:

Every U.S. government technical regulatory agency uses consensus standards.

- Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

The public has access to the standards at the Department of Transportation’s headquarters in Washington or at the Government Printing Office, PHMSA noted.

In a statement, this government agency said:

PHMSA is actively working with standards organizations to urge them to provide better access to standards they have authored.

- Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)

A barge oil rig, with sides painted in light green, with one said showing the word ‘Pinocchio’
A barge oil rig, with sides painted in light green, with one said showing the word ‘Pinocchio’

The Industry Standards

Federal law requires federal agencies to consider adopting standards.

Still, Weimer said that PHMSA should take more precautions with the standards it adopts, particularly now that the oil and gas industry writes its own pipeline standards.

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.

Weimer said:

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.

- Carl Weimer

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 adopting industry standards as regulations.

He said:

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.

- Peter Lidiak

He added:

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.

- Peter Lidiak

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.

Lidiak said:

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.

- Peter Lidiak

Then he gave his assurance:

And I will grant you, it’s not convenient for somebody living in Kansas City to come to PHMSA’s office.

- Peter Lidiak

Final Thoughts

What will happen now that the oil and gas industry writes its own pipeline standards?

Lidiak 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 standards and the lack of public access to them.

He said:

We believe in transparency. The more information that’s available to the public, the better.

- Carl Weimer

As the oil and gas industry writes its own pipeline standards, it should be transparent in doing so to get public trust and to ensure public safety.

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About The Authors

Landon Morton

Landon Morton - Landon is a professional character coach, motivational speaker, and consultant who values commitment, service, and excellence. Landon brings to your company valuable insights gained from his battlefield experience as a decorated combat veteran, enabling you to unleash the untapped potential of your employees. He illustrates how the invaluable talent that each individual brings to your company will positively affect your mission through real-world examples.

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