The Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) has taken a number of “steps in the right direction” to improve its oversight of the safety of natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines, but it still has a long way to go, a General Accounting Office (GAO) official told Congress last week.

The OPS, which oversees the safety of 2.2 million miles of pipelines, “has the lowest implementation rate of any transportation agency for recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB),” and has been slow to implement statutory requirements for pipeline safety, the GAO’s Peter F. Guerrero testified before a House subcommittee last Tuesday. The Department of Transportation agency, however, has made some progress in these areas over the past couple of years, he said.

Since May 2000, the OPS “has…improved its responsiveness to the Safety Board’s recommendations and taken action on eight statutory requirements,” he noted. “However, some recommendations and requirements dealing with issues that are critical for pipeline safety — such as requiring pipeline operators to periodically inspect their pipelines — are more than a decade old and OPS still has not implemented them.”

As of February, the OPS still had not implemented 42 NTSB safety recommendations, “several of which date from the late 1980s and deal with issues considered critical to pipeline safety,” Guerrero said. Similarly, nine statutory requirements designed to improve pipeline safety remain unfulfilled. These, too, date from the late 1980s and early 1990s, he noted.

Meanwhile, the number of major pipeline incidents (resulting in a fatality, injury or property damage of $50,000 or more) per 10,000 miles of pipeline rose 2.2 annually between 1989 and 2000, while the total number of incidents per 10,000 miles of pipeline fell by 2.9% annually, according to Guerrero.

In dealing with safety violators, the OPS is increasing its use of fines, rather than simply issuing warning letters and letters of concern to pipelines, he said. The DOT agency “concluded that its decreased reliance on fines was perceived negatively by the public and Congress, and that the letters of concern did not allow OPS to adequately address safety concerns.”

Responding to a prior GAO recommendation, the OPS also is allowing more states to help oversee a “broader range” of interstate pipeline safety activities, the report noted. As of January, “11 states — up from 8 in 2000 — have been approved to participate in all oversight activities, and an additional four states have been approved to participate on short-term projects,” such as new pipeline construction projects.

In addition, the OPS is seeking to improve its information on pipeline incidents and infrastructure, which historically has been “limited and sometimes inaccurate,” according to the GAO official. “OPS is taking action to collect data that will allow it to more accurately determine the causes of incidents, analyze industry trends, and compare the safety performance of operators.”

The GAO is “encouraged by OPS’ recent efforts to improve its oversight of pipeline safety,” Guerrero told the House panel. However, he said OPS still faces a number of challenges: 1) developing performance measures for integrity management programs to assess pipeline risks; 2) ensuring sufficient resources and expertise to oversee operators’ integrity management programs; 3) providing consistent and effective enforcement of integrity management program requirements; and 4) issuing requirements for integrity management programs for operators of natural gas pipelines.

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