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Questar CEO Urges Congress to Stay Clear of Pipe Safety Mandates

The outcry from Congress following the rash of pipeline accidents in recent months is to be expected, but legislative mandates are not the solution, said the head of Questar Pipeline Monday.

"It is understandable that members of Congress want solutions that will prevent a repeat of the pipeline accidents we have witnessed in recent months. Still it is important that this not result in legislative mandates based on incomplete information," said Questar Pipeline CEO Allan Bradley at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's (PHMSA) Pipeline Safety Forum in Washington, DC.

"Congress should set out clear, strong aspirational goals, but they need to let regulators apply technical expertise to develop and implement the guidelines needed to achieve those goals," he said.

In legislation this year reauthorizing the Pipeline Safety Act, "we need a balanced approach to pipeline safety legislation, in which the Congress signals its priorities and the regulators prescribe the solution based on sound engineering, data analysis and input from all stakeholders," said Bradley, who is also chairman of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA).

Moreover, "we need stronger state and federal excavation damage-prevention measures...As it stands now, local governments and state highway departments often get exemptions from one-call laws. We need to remove exemptions from state one-call program participation, improve the enforcement of these programs and increase penalties for failure to call 811," he said.

The leading risk to natural gas pipelines continues to be excavation damage, which accounted for 47% of reported incidents between 2002 and 2009, according to Christopher Helms, executive vice president of NiSource Gas Transmission & Storage. He noted that seven incidents resulted in a fatality between 2001 and 2009, with only one of those due to a cause other than excavation damage.

An excavation worker from Georgia said excavators are almost always seen as the "bad guys." But the truth of the matter, he said, is that some distributors and pipelines either fail to properly mark where their lines are located, or don't mark them at all.

Next to excavation damage, Helms said corrosion and material flaws are the most common causes of pipeline incidents. "While data shows our current efforts are driving down these risks, we know that we must do more," he noted.

"The pipeline transmission industry must continue to invest in technology that can reduce risk, like new in-line inspection tools or 'smarter pigs' that detect loss of metal in pipeline walls caused by construction flaws or corrosion," said Questar's Bradley. "Our industry's R&D [research and development] efforts have been characterized as anemic...I recommend that the industry, research organizations and government create a pipeline safety technology road map that identifies and prioritizes our research needs.

"Our best work is done through collaboration. We must do more as an industry to share lessons learned when we have an incident or a near-miss. We need to share best practices. And we need to invest in and train the next generation of pipeline workers to ensure that safety is a core value in their work each and every day."

J. Andrew Drake, vice president of Spectra Energy, said the industry has taken significant steps to improve the safety of its pipelines that operate in high consequence areas (HCA), usually densely populated areas. While only 4.5% of INGAA members pipeline miles are classified as operating in HCAs, making them subject to the PHMSA Integrity Management Program, a full 53% of INGAA member-operated transmission lines have been baseline tested using an integrity management process based on consensus engineering standards and 77% of transmission pipeline have been pressure tested at least once, he said.

"Pipeline safety is a complex issue. Simple solutions or a one-size-fits-all approach will distract our focus and not yield sustainable improvements...It is [also] important to recognize there are differences between oil and gas pipelines as well as between gas distribution, transmission and gathering," said Drake, who is also chairman of INGAA's Integrity Management Continuous Improvement effort.

Moreover, he said it was important that critics don't jump to conclusions about pipelines. "There's been a lot of talk in recent months about the age of pipelines. One of the conclusions seems to be that old pipelines are the problems -- and that we just need to get rid of the old pipelines and put in new pipelines. The facts, though, aren't so simple.

"Age, in and of itself, should not be the focus of our safety efforts. The focus should be on the pipeline's fitness for service. Any pipelines -- regardless of its age -- that is not fit for service should be repaired, replaced or retired. That's not to say we can ignore the age of a pipeline."

The forum, as well as a pipeline safety campaign launched by the Department of Transportation, follow a series of headline-grabbing oil and natural gas pipeline explosions in recent months. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood earlier this month kicked off a national pipeline safety initiative aimed at repairing and replacing aging pipelines to avert potentially catastrophic incidents (see Daily GPI, April 5).

There were two deadly pipeline explosions in Allentown, PA, and San Bruno, CA. In February the pipeline explosion in Allentown killed five people, including a four-month-old child (see Daily GPI, Feb. 11). The blast, which was apparently triggered by a "break" in UGI Corp.'s underground natural gas pipeline, affected a total of 47 properties, including 10 businesses, and forced more than 750 people to evacuate over a three-block area.

In September eight people were killed, dozens were wounded and parts of the suburban neighborhood of San Bruno, CA, were leveled when a pipeline owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. exploded (see Daily GPI, Sept. 13, 2010). The National Transportation Safety Board is still working to determine the cause of the blast. And in July 2010 a failure occurred in a 30-inch diameter Enbridge oil pipeline, releasing approximately 19,500 bbl of crude oil into a tributary creek of the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, MI.

The PHMSA oversees the safety of more than 2.5 million miles of oil, hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines, which are operated by approximately 3,000 companies.

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