Given recent incidents involving old cast iron distribution pipeline failures, the odds are growing that some form of pipeline safety legislation could emerge from Congress later this year, some industry sources told NGI Monday. Following the Allentown tragedy last week (see related story), the Pennsylvania State Senate is also looking into ways to improve pipeline safety as Marcellus Shale development within the state continues to ramp up.

What the national legislation will be, and when, are still far from certain, but a bill (S 275) introduced early in February in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Jay Rockefeller (D-VA) is the clear front-runner, sources said.

The spotlight on pipeline safety has never been brighter following a string of pipeline incidents over the past year, which claimed the lives of 13 people. Last September an explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric pipeline killed eight people and destroyed 35 homes in San Bruno, CA (see Daily GPI, Nov. 2, 2010; Sept. 13, 2010). Last week five people were killed in the explosion of an underground gas line in Allentown, PA, owned by utility UGI Corp. (see Daily GPI, Feb. 14; Feb. 11). Also last week a segment of the 36-inch diameter Tennessee Gas Pipeline, owned and operated by El Paso Corp., exploded and caused a fire near Dungannon, OH. No injuries were reported (see Daily GPI, Feb. 14).

The overall age of the U.S. natural gas pipeline infrastructure is of growing concern among some sectors, although various industry sources for the interstate transmission pipeline industry downplay the threat.

The last time significant pipeline safety legislation was enacted was following two deadly pipeline blasts in two years (see Daily GPI, Nov. 18, 2002). A bill was introduced by the Clinton administration in April 2000 (see Daily GPI, April 14, 2000), following calls for action after the explosion of a gasoline pipeline in Bellingham, WA, killed three people in 1999. It got a boost from the August 2000 explosion of the El Paso Natural Gas mainline near Carlsbad, NM, which killed 12 members of two extended families (see Daily GPI, Aug. 22, 2000).

"Overall we don't think age is a major factor in pipeline failure; it is more of an indicator," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Bellingham, WA-based Pipeline Safety Trust, which was formed by the courts in the wake of a 1999 gas pipeline rupture that killed three people in Bellingham. "Vintage [rather than old] is probably a better word, and if you do have vintage pipelines, then there are additional risks that an operator needs to pay attention to."

The older pipe is likely made of weaker steel that does not have the advantages of modern coatings or corrosion protection, Weimer said.

According to federal government statistics on onshore natural gas transmission pipelines, a little more than 60% of the lines still operating were installed before 1970 with the bulk (47.82%) built between 1950 and 1970 when 141,000 miles of new gas transmission pipeline was installed, nearly half of the 296,017 total miles of pipe in operation at the end of 2009.

"I don't know if it's a fair assessment [calling the U.S. pipelines aging] since we still add new transmission pipelines every year," said Cathy Landry, the spokesperson for the Washington, DC-based Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA). "Some transmission pipelines are getting older but that in and of itself is not a concern. Interstate pipelines are required to be made with high-strength carbon steel, a high-quality niche product that isn't the same steel that is used in your car or your refrigerator.

"This is top-of-the-line construction-grade steel that only a few mills in North America made. With proper maintenance, the steel should last 100 years or more."

For the most part, the key for most transmission pipelines is how well they are taken care of, maintained and inspected, as opposed to just their age, Weimer said.

With the recent rupture and deaths in Pennsylvania giving congressional advocates more ammunition for an updated pipeline safety law, industry players such as INGAA and the safety trust are advocating a balanced approach. INGAA calls it "holistic" with an approach to added pipeline safety that recognizes causes of accidents and seeks to address the causes.

"Congress should set signals in terms of priorities, but it should be the regulators to prescribe the solution based on sound engineering, data analysis and input from all stakeholders," Landry said.

INGAA CEO Don Santa called the Lautenberg-Rockefeller proposal a "reasoned and balanced approach," although he noted that the desire for "strong aspirational goals" for pipeline safety need to be tempered by "technical expertise" that ultimately needs to be applied by regulators throughout the industry.

On Monday legislation sponsored by Pennsylvania State Senator Lisa Baker (R-20th district) to improve gas pipeline safety in the state was approved by the Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee.

"County planners, emergency responders and area residents are pushing for more extensive oversight of production pipelines, gathering pipelines and intrastate transmission lines in response to expanded natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale," Baker said. "This bill gives the state some crucial oversight power that will help improve community protection."

While the federal Office of Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has jurisdiction over all pipeline facilities, it relies on agreements with each individual state to inspect and enforce federal pipeline safety regulations. Currently, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) is only authorized to enforce regulations for pipeline operators with public utility status. Additionally, PHMSA does not regulate gathering lines in many rural areas, where most of the Marcellus Shale gathering lines will be located.

Baker said her bill, (S 325), would give the PUC authority to conduct safety inspections and investigations, respond to complaints, assess fines or penalties, and address service quality issues for all gas and hazardous liquid pipeline operators." Under the proposal, these operators will be charged registration and renewal fees so taxpayers are not forced to cover the cost of providing increased inspections and enforcement.

Baker added that she is developing an amendment to prevent gas compressor stations from being located too near schools, hospitals and critical infrastructure.

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