The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has advocated for the use of natural gas pipeline operator reports and other information in helping FERC identify, assess and respond to risks to reliability.

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GAO was tapped by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), who is a ranking member of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to review federal oversight of service interruptions involving interstate natural gas transmission pipelines. In January 2019, a weeklong outage affected 7,000 homes and businesses in Rhode Island. At the time, utility National Grid plc said it cut gas service to customers on Aquidneck Island “out of an abundance of caution” after “experiencing a low gas pressure situation” with supplier Algonquin Gas Transmission Co., an Enbridge Inc. subsidiary.

GAO found that although gas transportation by interstate pipelines is generally reliable, interstate transmission pipeline operators interrupted service to customers with firm contracts 140 times from 2015-2019. The number of reported interruptions each year ranged from 15 to 35, with an average of 28/year. Meanwhile, the geographical distribution of reported interruptions varied, with 29% of reported interruptions occurring in Kansas and Texas.

Using reports submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, GAO found that gas interruptions usually did not result in a complete loss of service to affected consumers.

Nevertheless, pipeline reliability has been increasingly scrutinized as several gas systems have experienced major disruptions. California’s gas service has mostly remained intact during this year’s fire season, but Pacific Gas & Electric Co. cut service to localized areas in Northern California in 2017 because of wildfires. Meanwhile, major flooding in Colorado in 2013 led to more than 4,000 customers temporarily having their gas service cut.

The GAO analyzed data and interviewed officials from relevant federal agencies, state public utility commissions, interstate transmission pipeline operators, natural gas/electric industry associations and standards-setting associations. It also surveyed a random sample of gas distribution companies.

“Representatives of natural gas industry sectors including gas distribution companies, which typically rely on interstate transmission pipelines for access to natural gas, agreed that the transportation of natural gas via pipelines is generally reliable,” GAO said.

However, industry and state officials told GAO that risks to the reliability of gas service on interstate pipelines could increase in the future because of more intensive use, driven by higher domestic production and use by electric power plants. 

Because gas service has consistently been reliable, GAO said “FERC does not routinely use all available information,” which includes reports provided by pipeline operators on the frequency and effects of service interruptions to identify, assess and respond to risks.

“Maintaining the reliable transportation of natural gas, which is integral to ensuring reliable energy service, involves understanding and being prepared to respond to risks as they emerge,” GAO said. “By not routinely using all available information to identify and assess potential risks to the reliability of service on interstate transmission pipelines, FERC is not well positioned to respond, if necessary, to changes in the natural gas industry in order to ensure consumers continue to have reliable service.”

GAO recommended that FERC use available information, such as operator reports on service interruptions, to identify and assess risks to the reliability of this service. It also urged FERC to develop an approach to respond, as appropriate, to any identified risks.

“Demands on the pipeline system are increasing, and our recommendations will help the Commission ensure service continues to be reliable,” GAO said.

FERC agreed to establish a process to incorporate such information into its ongoing efforts to monitor and address reliability of interstate pipeline service, according to GAO. The federal watchdog plans to provide updated information once it confirms what actions the agency has taken in response to the recommendations.