NTSB Head Pushes Expansion Of Transmission IM Program, Pipeline Accidents Raise Questions, EPA Improves GHG Reporting For Pipelines

August 2010 Vol. 65 No. 8

The BP Deepwater Horizon spill continues to have ramifications for pipeline safety even though pipelines -- neither gas nor oil -- had nothing to do with that Gulf of Mexico disaster. Nonetheless, "BP" is an entry point for Congress and others to show renewed concern about potential environmental accidents from all sorts of energy activities.

Onshore natural gas pipelines aren't escaping scrutiny. In this hyper-sensitive safety environment, a number of new concerns seem to be coming to the fore, making it increasingly unlikely the transmission industry will get an integrity management reform it has been ardently seeking for two years. That reform would allow pipelines to re-inspect segments in high consequence areas based on a risk assessment rather than the current IM program requirement of every seven years. INGAA and its member companies have been hoping that a congressional reauthorization of the pipeline safety law, which has been the subject of recent hearings, would include a "risk based" re-inspection standard. That now seems like a remote possibility.

Instead, pressure is mounting to tighten the PHMSA's transmission IM program, not loosen it. At a June 24 hearing held by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman, National Transportation Safety Board, reeled off a string of gas pipeline accidents including one on May 4, 2009, when an 18-inch diameter gas transmission pipeline with an operating pressure of 850 psi ruptured near Palm City, FL. There were no fatalities. Hersman made the point that the operator of the pipeline had not inspected the segment per the PHMSA IM program because the company didn't believe it was located in a high consequence area. PHMSA determined otherwise after the fact.

As a result of this, Hersman said, "The NTSB is concerned that the level of self-evaluation and oversight currently being exercised is not uniformly applied by some pipeline operators and PHMSA to ensure that the risk-based safety programs are effective. PHMSA must establish an aggressive oversight program that thoroughly examines each operator’s decision-making process for each element of its integrity management program."