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ATEX Service Still Limited After Rupture, Unclear When Fix Could Happen

Ethane deliveries on Enterprise Products Partners LP's (EPP) Appalachia-to-Texas Express (ATEX) pipeline are still limited days after a stretch of the line ruptured and exploded, according to a company representative.

EPP spokesman Rick Rainey said there's not "really much new to report," as federal regulators with the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) were on site working with company personnel trying to determine what went wrong. Rainey didn't say when the pipeline, which runs from Washington County, PA to EPP's Mont Belvieu, TX, complex, would be fully operational again.

"We do not have an estimate yet as to when the line will be returned to service," he said. "Crews and equipment are standing by and are ready to begin the repair process once we receive regulatory approval to move forward."

It's unclear how long PHMSA's investigation will take; officials at the agency could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The incident occurred at about 10:40 a.m. EST Monday on a 20-inch diameter section of the pipeline in Brooke County, WV (see Shale DailyJan. 26). EPP said its controllers detected an abnormal pressure drop at a pump station there and later confirmed a rupture. A fire burned for most of Monday and extinguished itself after emergency responders and EPP were able to cut the flow of ethane.

The 1,265 mile ATEX is a critical outlet for ethane produced in the Marcellus and Utica shales. The pipeline has four injection points in the region and two were impacted by the blast, limiting takeaway from a liquids-rich section of the Marcellus Shale in southwest Pennsylvania. Rainey said deliveries are still being made downstream of the rupture.

ATEX entered commercial service in January 2014 and the segment that ruptured was part of a new 369-mile stretch. The company reported a record gross operating margin of $5.3 billion when it released 4Q2014 earnings Thursday, thanks in large part to new projects such as ATEX. EPP made no mention of the incident in its earnings release, but said the pipeline, which has a capacity of 125,000 b/d, transported 72,000 b/d last quarter.

The incident has garnered significant attention in the region, where ethane takeaway is somewhat limited already. Fielding an audience question at an industry conference in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Richard Hoffman, executive director of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, called the rupture "unfortunate."

"Everybody is working so hard to make sure that kind of thing doesn't happen, those accidents are still very infrequent," Hoffman said. "They certainly can be hazardous and do a lot of damage. And you know, companies are out there all the time testing, doing integrity verification on their pipelines. Under federal law, they're required to do that, but they're doing it under their own business practices because nobody wants that to happen. I call accidents like that unfortunate.”

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