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Repeal of Seven-Year Reinspection Rule Gets Chilly House Reception

Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA) of the House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee last Wednesday indicated he was on the fence about a proposal that calls on Congress to repeal the mandatory requirement for natural gas pipelines to reinspect their systems every seven years.

"I'm undecided about what, if anything, we should do about this," said Boucher during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that was called to explore a Government Accountability Office (GAO) proposal to change the current law for gas pipeline reinspections.

In a September 2006 report, the GAO urged Congress to consider revising the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 to allow gas pipelines to reassess their systems for safety threats at intervals based on the risks of individual pipelines rather than at a fixed interval of seven years for the entire industry, as was required by the 2002 pipe safety law (see NGI, Sept. 18, 2006). Initial pipeline inspections are to be completed within 10 years of the 2002 law, with reinspections to be carried out every seven years thereafter.

Both Carl T. Johnson, administrator of the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and Stacey Gerard, assistant administrator and chief safety officer at PHMSA, expressed support for the GAO proposal during the House hearing.

"We believe that basically a scientific basis is the best way to make those [reinspection] decisions," and "we're prepared to make these decisions on a segment-by-segment basis, one operator at a time," Johnson told House lawmakers.

If the seven-year reinspection requirement is repealed, the PHMSA would issue a rule requiring "notification by the operator that they intended to exercise some different interval [other] than seven years. And we would on a case-by-case basis look at the design of the pipeline, how it was built, what kind of materials [were used], what age, the operating history [of the pipeline], the performance of the operator and the environment in which it operates" to determine whether an operator could reinspect his system at an interval greater than seven years, Gerard said.

Boucher said he was concerned that repealing the seven-year reinspection interval would jeopardize the safety of the public. Before even considering the issue, he said he wanted to be confident that the PHMSA has a "process in place...that when a pipeline is beginning to encounter problems or that a reinspection otherwise would be called for that that fact would in some way in your process come to your attention."

Boucher called on the PHMSA officials to "submit to us in writing a detailed statement of the process that you would undertake and the criteria you would use to assure that inspections of pipelines take place in a way that guarantees safety" of the public.

"This is an area that requires constant vigilance. And if we're going to get away from the rigid seven-year schedule, I'd like to know in detail what's going to take its place and what your intentions as an agency are to make sure we could repeal that requirement consistently with safety," he said.

"I'm very reluctant to move away from the mandatory requirement" for pipeline reinspections, said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA), whose district was the site of the fatal Olympic products pipeline explosion in June 1999.

"Seven years gives them [the public] some degree of confidence" in the safe operation of pipelines, he said. "I'm not going to trade confidence for a little bit of organizational simplicity."

Congress passed the strict 2002 pipeline safety law requiring the seven-year reinspection intervals following the fatal Olympic pipeline explosion in 1999 and the blast on El Paso Natural Gas pipeline in New Mexico in August 2000, which killed 12 people.

"It's our preference that you [Congress] would give us the flexibility" to move away from the one-size-fits-all reinspection interval for gas pipelines, Gerard told the House subcommittee. In its place, the PHMSA would conduct a "a very rigorous assessment" of the risks facing operators who would seek a more relaxed time frame for conducting reinspections, she noted.

Asked if the mandated reinspections intervals were affecting the reliability of the gas pipeline grid, Gerard said, "We know that it's the position of the gas industry that it could affect deliverability."

Phil Wright, chairman of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and president of Williams Gas Pipeline, testified that the rigid time line for reinspections had the potential to affect pipeline deliverability. "The ability to meet the required volume of inspections [and reinspections] 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," he said.

"Some assume that we are focusing on the reassessment interval only because of the costs to industry. In fact, our costs 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 due to the level of simultaneous inspection activity," Wright noted.

Some regions, such as Chicago and the Gulf Coast, could handle frequent capacity interruptions, but other regions, including the Northeast, New England, Florida, California and the Pacific Northwest, face a greater risk, he said,

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