Journalism in the Public Interest

After Michigan Spill, Familiar Concerns Are Raised About Pipeline Regulators


Workers in Battle Creek, Mich., using suction hoses, clean up oil from the Kalamazoo River on July 28. Approximately 800,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into a creek that feeds into the river. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Emergency cleanup operations following an oil spill in Michigan wrapped up last week, but some are still voicing concerns about the adequacy of the nation’s pipeline regulators—an issue that, unlike the regulation of offshore drilling before the Gulf disaster, has largely escaped national attention.

The Washington Independent notes that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates 2.3 million 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 the American Gas Association. And perhaps more troubling is the lack of transparency about those standards.

From the Independent:

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.

The pipeline regulatory agency is plagued with some of the same problems faced by the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service—now the Bureau of Ocean Energy—which oversees offshore drilling.

Inspectors are lacking. (By the Independent’s count, the agency has 94 pipeline inspectors; by the Houston Chronicle’s count, it has 135.) The agency’s head, prior to her appointment as administrator of the agency, worked for Enbridge Energy Partners, the same Canadian pipeline company responsible for the Michigan spill.

But unlike its offshore drilling counterparts, it seems that by law, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also has a more limited mandate. Here’s the Independent:

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 areas 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.

The agency told the Independent that “every U.S. government technical regulatory agency” uses standards written by other organizations, and that it encourages the rule-writers to “provide better access to standards they have authored." The American Petroleum Institute said the standards it writes are “an appropriate set of guidelines for the industry to follow,” and defended regulators for adopting them.

I suppose we’re all doomed.  Why do we elect people tp represent us in congress, who have large staffs to do their work, then let industry write the rules for them? Of course, if these same people leave office, they go to work for the industry in one way shape or form. The madness in this country today, is overpowering. When industry writes the rules that they play by on the peoples dime, yet refuse to show any transparency, then that’s criminal. When they bribe any government person, be it with a contribution of any sort, that’s criminal. If the industry wants to write the rules, then they should also be required to put up 10% - 20% of the daily cash value of what ever commodity they push through through each & every pipeline that they use. If at the end of its use, there isn’t any “Accidents”, then they can get a refund. If on the other hand, any accident exceeds the fund held in escrow, then they will be fined the total damages, the line shut down, along with being banned from doing business anywhere. If we don’t get tough & demand industry stop their way of doing things, then there won’t be much of a country left. It’s becoming more difficult as well as costly to continue living in the past. Time to take advantage of the open Science & redo the Energy infrastructure in the U.S.

Before the naysayers jump in here, Toyota has introduced a gas/hybrid in Brittan that gets 70 miles to the gallon. Granted it’s not a hot rod, but it does the job, can travel on the hyway, and can be linked @ daily mail auto section.

Hydrocarbon pipelines come into being within an extroardinarily byzantine mass of semi-secret rules and regulations and exceptions administered by a whole bunch of state and federal agencies.

  I have been suggesting that citizens can begin involvement in all of this and thus be in a position to exert some local and rational control by participating in local planning boards. These typically get a heads up when pipelines are headed your way.

  Also, getting hooked into the Federal Energy Regulatory Comission (FERC) for info about large interstate pipelines and facilities is a good idea.

Attending hearings and going on site visits can be very educational - often there are opportunities to discuss with the Feds, the Co people and consultants. The same deal holds for the state agencies that permit pipelines.

  It is a lot like going to graduate school and dont expect a lot of insights right away. However, if we stay at the level of the “view from 30,000 feet,” mired in ideology, the industry and the big money will win every single time. However, they can be challenged on the details where they can tend to get sloppy.

Stan Scobie, Binghamton, NY

Broken Gov’t. Gov’t allowing the Fox in the hen house. A despicable greedy industry. All spells looming disasters in our future.

BILLINGS, Mont. ? Three weeks after a broken Exxon Mobil pipeline spilled 1,000 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River, federal officials remain unsure how many pipelines carrying hazardous fuels cross the nation’s rivers and streams, nor can they say how deeply those pipelines are buried.

The spill into the Montana river amid historic flooding this month drew attention to what had long been an overlooked part of the nation’s energy infrastructure: the presence of pipelines underneath rivers coursing throughout the country. The spill raised concern that other underwater pipelines may have been exposed to debris by high and fast-moving waters that swept much of the U.S. in recent months.

Commenting is not available in this section entry.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories