Automated shut-off valves, which enable natural gas pipeline operators to quickly shut off gas that escapes during ruptures, are not required in all cases, according to a new report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“Automated valves, which can be closed automatically or remotely, can shorten incident response time compared to manual valves, which require that personnel travel to the valve site and turn a wheel crank, or activate a push-button actuator to close the valve. However, if affected valves happen to be located at or close to facilities where [response] personnel are permanently stationed, the type of valve could be less critical in influencing incident response time,” said the report to congressional lawmakers.

“The primary advantage of installing automated valves [which use sensors] is that operators can respond quickly to isolate the affected pipeline segment and reduce the amount of product released; however, automated vales can have disadvantages, including the potential for accidental closures, which can lead to loss of service to customers or even cause a rupture.

“Because the advantages and disadvantages of installing an automated valve are closely related to the specifics of the valve’s location, it is appropriate to decide whether to install automated valves on a case-by-case basis,” the GAO told Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee; Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), ranking member of the House panel.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the Department of Transportation (DOT) develop standards and requirements for automated shut-off valves following the deadly pipeline rupture in 2010 in San Bruno, CA (see Daily GPI, Sept. 17, 2010). President Obama in early 2012 signed into law the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011, which mandated that the GAO review the ability of pipeline operators to respond to releases from existing pipelines (see Daily GPI, Jan. 4, 2012).

According to the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), responding to either a natural gas or hazardous liquid pipeline incident typically includes coordinating with emergency local responders and shutting down the affected pipeline segment. Under the PHMSA’s minimum safety standards, operators are required to have a plan that covers these steps for all of their pipeline segments and to follow that plan during an incident. Officials from PHMSA and state pipeline safety officers perform relatively minor roles, with local responders and operators taking the lead.

“We identified five variables that can influence incident response time and that are within an operator’s control: how quickly a leak is detected affects how soon an operator can initiate a response; location of qualified operator response personnel; type of valves; control room management [clear operating policies and shutdown protocols for control room personnel can influence response time to incidents]; and relationships with local first responders,” the report noted.

Four other factors also were identified that impact a pipeline operator’s ability to respond to an incident, which are beyond an operator’s control: type of release [whether it’s a slow leak or rupture]; time of day; weather conditions; and other operators’ pipeline systems in the same area.

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