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Gas Pipes Urged to Learn from Bellingham

Gas Pipes Urged to Learn from Bellingham

Electric generation's growing appetite for natural gas is propelling rapid changes in the gas industry's traditional business practices that will pose greater challenges to pipeline safety, says the chairman of the INGAA Pipeline Safety Task Force.

"Now it's the growth in this particular market segment that is going to dramatically impact how interstate pipelines are going to be used and how capacity additions will be made in the future," said Fred Fowler, also head of Duke Energy's transmission group, at the INGAA Foundation's third annual North American Pipeline Safety Summit in Washington D.C. last Wednesday

At Duke Energy, for example, the company is seeing "the need for higher pressure requirements at the end of the [pipeline] system" to feed electric generation plants, which potentially raises new safety concerns. "We're also seeing much higher swings as those generation [plants] trip on and off multiple times over the [course of a] day. We're seeing storage systems that are being dispatched on an economic basis year-round.....rather than the old traditional approach of injection in storage over the summer period to meet the high demand in heating load for the following winter." Also, he said the bulk of the electric load is a summer peak, which means pipelines are going to have a lot more throughput during the traditional off-peak period for gas.

"The good news is [these] anticipated changes in that growth throughput opens up a lot of opportunities for efficiency, and that will drive lower costs for pipelines and customers alike," Fowler said. On the flip side, however, "there's obviously going to be more public pressure to regulate our industry because of [greater] environmental, safety concerns" posed by year-round demand for natural gas.

The public's interest in natural gas pipelines is "unprecedented" largely due to the Internet, which allows landowners to better organize, he noted. Although gas pipelines are the "safest means" of transportation, Fowler reminded pipeline executives at the INGAA summit that there is no "silver bullet" when it comes to pipeline safety.

While interstate natural gas pipelines last week suffered a major setback in the Senate on safety legislation, a key pipeline safety official with the Department of Transportation (DOT) commended gas pipes for the advances they have made in protecting the public and environment from the potential safety threats posed by their systems. But, she noted, there's much more to do.

"...I'm here to tell you that we're not there yet," said Kelley Coyner, administrator for DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) at the summit. The RSPA oversees the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS).

"Before us is the challenge of finishing our work. We must take all the information operators have about risks to natural gas pipelines and address them comprehensively. We must also continue to improve our communication with the public and with state and local officials about what those risks are and how they're being addressed," she told a crowd of gas pipeline executives.

"Our best opportunity to do both effectively is to ensure that Congress passes comprehensive, balanced, common sense pipeline safety legislation this year. Right now you have the opportunity to pass the most comprehensive pipeline safety legislation in our nation's history, and we must seize that opportunity." A day after Coyner spoke the Senate Commerce Committee voted out a pipeline safety bill that gas pipelines contend was far from "balanced" (see related story this issue).

In the wake of the explosion of a Texas Eastern Transmission line in New Jersey in 1994, DOT learned that its inspections and enforcement actions weren't enough to guarantee safety, she said. "Together, we have made much progress" since then. "Unfortunately, we were reminded by tragedy [in June 1999} that we need to continue those efforts." Coyner, of course, was referring to the explosion along the system of Olympic Pipe Line, a products pipeline, that killed three last year in Bellingham, WA.

"That catastrophic event underlined the importance of comprehensive integrity management, of public communication, of damage prevention and research." DOT earlier this month said it would impose a $3.05 million civil penalty against the products pipeline - the largest ever proposed for a pipeline operator. "...[W]hat we cited them for is instructive to all of us," Coyner said, enumerating the violations:

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