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Congress Asked to Relax Reinspection Interval in Pipe Safety Law

As part of the reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 this year, a senior pipeline official last week asked Congress to relax a controversial standard requiring pipelines to reinspect facilities in high-density areas every seven years.

The seven-year interval requires pipe facilities that were initially inspected in 2003 and 2005 to be reinspected in 2010 through 2012 -- "even though baseline [initial] inspections are still being conducted" on other facilities, said Jeryl L. Mohn, senior vice president of operations and engineering for Panhandle Energy, who spoke on behalf of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) at a House subcommittee hearing Thursday.

The pipeline safety law requires natural gas pipeline operators to conclude their initial inspections of facilities located in high-density areas by December 2012 and reassess the pipeline facilities every seven years. INGAA opposes a specific time frame for conducting reinspections. Rather, it would prefer that reinspection intervals be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the risk profile of the facilities, according to Martin Edwards, INGAA's vice president of legislative affairs. The average reinspection interval for large gas transmission lines would be 10 to 12 years.

An official with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), who also testified at the House hearing, "seemed to suggest that the consensus standards are a legitimate alternative" to the seven-year reinspection interval for pipelines, Edwards said. The consensus standards developed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers propose a 10-year reinspection interval for most gas pipelines operating at high pressures, and an even longer interval for low-pressure gas lines, he noted.

"Why are we so concerned about the seven-year reassessment interval? First, there is the 'overlap' in years 2010 through 2012 [between initial inspections and reinspections]. The ability to meet the required volume of inspections is daunting given the limited number of inspection contractors and equipment available. In addition, this stepped-up level of inspection activity would be difficult to accommodate without affecting gas system deliverability," Mohn told the House Energy and Commerce's subcommittee on energy and air quality, which called the hearing to review the industry's progress on complying with the pipe safety law.

"Some assume that we are focusing on the reassessment interval only because of the costs to industry. In fact, our cost will be modest compared to the potential costs to consumers in the form of higher natural gas commodity prices if pipeline capacity becomes too constrained," he said. Mohn noted that some areas of the country -- Chicago and the Gulf Coast -- could handle frequent pipeline capacity interruptions without experiencing a severe hike in gas prices, but other areas -- such as the Northeast and southern California -- would face greater risk.

"We recognize that some lawmakers may be hesitant to change...the seven-year reassessment interval given the heated debate on this issue in 2002...We still urge the Congress to address the reassessment issue in this reauthorization bill, particularly the inspection overlap." INGAA has provided the GAO with data that "clearly shows there would be no compromise of safety either by lengthening the seven-year interval or by eliminating the baseline-reassessment overlap," Mohn said.

Pipeline operators "favored conducting reassessments based on severity of risk rather than applying a one-size-fits all standard," the GAO's Katherine Siggerud told the House subcommittee. "Operators told us that requiring that pipelines be reassessed more frequently than required under industry standards increases costs -- which are ultimately passed to consumers -- but does not increase safety." She said the GAO would submit "additional insights" on the seven-year reinspection requirement in a report to the subcommittee this fall.

Siggerud disputed Mohn's claim that the 'overlap' period from 2010 through 2012 would pose a challenge for pipes. "Operators [told us they] did not expect that the existence of an 'overlap period' from 2010 through 2012...would create problems in finding resources to conduct reassessments."

INGAA urged Congress to pass a five-year reauthorization bill during this session so that the next reauthorization would not come up in an election year, as is occurring now. "We...see no reason why Congress cannot reach consensus and complete a reauthorization bill this year," Mohn noted.

In addition to addressing the seven-year reinspection interval, he called on Congress to emphasize once again in the 2006 reauthorization bill the "importance of excavation damage prevention by including a new program of incentives for state action," such as grant funds. Damage to pipelines caused by excavation equipment continues to be a leading cause of fatalities and injuries, he said.

"We believe that enforcement is the most important element to improve state [excavation damage prevention] programs beyond the progress already made, and we believe Virginia offers a model for other states to adopt. Statistics demonstrate the success of the Virginia program -- the state has experienced a 50% decrease in the excavation damage since implementing its program," Mohn noted. "Not only does Virginia require broad participation by all utilities and excavators, but also it has effective public education programs and effective enforcement of its rules."

Frank Bender of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., who testified on behalf of the American Gas Association, also urged Congress to focus its attention on "more effective state excavation damage programs," which he said would result in "measurable decreases" in the number of accidents on natural gas distribution lines each year. Information collected over the past five years shows that states with strong enforcement programs, such as Virginia and Minnesota, have experienced a much lower rate of excavation damage to pipeline facilities than states without strong programs, he said.

Lastly, Mohn asked Congress to make transmission-owned direct sales laterals, which connect large-diameter pipelines to large end-users, subject to federal safety regulation. "Given the comprehensive federal program, there is no particular reason for small segments of the interstate pipeline system to be subject to differing and potentially inconsistent regulation at the state level...It is, therefore, understandable that interstate pipelines wish to have their direct sales laterals subject to the same federal integrity management requirements as mainline facilities."

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