The fallout from a June products pipeline explosion in thePacific Northwest is spilling over into the realm of natural gas,with renewed calls for greater regulation, inspection and morelocal control of pipelines.

In the wake of such incidents, “sometimes it’s hard [for people]to differentiate between the pipelines” so they focus on all typesof lines, said Terry Boss, vice president of environment, safetyand operations at the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America(INGAA), who testified last week at a hearing in Bellevue, WA.

It was the fourth public hearing held by a task force that wasset up by Washington Gov. Gary Locke following the explosion inBellingham, WA, which killed three. It occurred when nearly 300,000gallons of gasoline leaked from Olympic Pipe Line into a nearbystream and ignited. The group has been exploring a number ofissues, such as potential gaps in federal and state jurisdictionover pipelines, states’ roles in imposing environmental standards,an overhaul of the state process for siting new pipes, assessmentof fees on pipes to pay for emergency-response training, tighteroperator qualifications and periodic inspections of interstatelines in sensitive areas. It has been asked to submit a report andrecommendations by the end of the year.

On Capitol Hill, the House Transportation and InfrastructureCommittee is considering holding a hearing on pipeline safety thisfall, but has not scheduled it yet. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)successfully has convinced Transportation Secretary Rodney Slaterto hire a new pipeline inspector for Washington. Previously, thestate had none. In the state Legislature, “I know…there’s allkinds of legislation being proposed,” said one observer, who added”who knows where it’s all going to end up.” The recommendationsthat come out of Gov. Locke’s task force are expected to find theirway into legislation.

“I would probably classify this one as the Edison of the liquidsindustry,” INGAA’s Boss said, referring to the 1994 explosion ofTexas Eastern Transmission’s line in Edison, NJ, which caused onefatality and lead to numerous calls for greater pipeline safetymeasures and tighter oversight of pipeline facilities. “When Italked to the [Office of] Pipeline Safety, I think they feel thatthe environment is as focused and intense now as it was then[following Edison], if not more so,” agreed Beverly Chipman, aspokeswoman for Williams Gas Pipeline West, which includesNorthwest Pipeline that runs through Washington.

“I think the impact is there’s a tremendous amount of pressurebeing put on the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) because of thisincident, primarily through some local groups there” and by theNational Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Boss noted. Partly inresponse to the Olympic incident, the Department ofTransportation’s OPS has adopted a final rule requiring liquids andnatural gas pipelines to develop a written qualification programfor operator employees and contractors. It’s been estimated thatthe cost for the pipeline industry to comply with the rule will beabout $59 million a year. The rule, whose aim is to provide an”additional level of safety,” would take effect in three years.

And pipelines are feeling the heat. “I think all the pipelinesin the Pacific Northwest, if not the entire United States, becauseof what’s going on in Washington and the criticism of OPS and suchare fielding questions and are having to be more diligent withtheir education efforts in the communities they serve,” Chipmansaid.

“I would say that overall for everybody in the pipeline[industry] and even the local utility companies are feeling a realsensitivity to the importance of reassuring people about how safepipelines are,” she noted. During the first task force hearing inJuly, it was noted that Northwest Pipeline has had four pipeliinefailures in Washington due to landslides since 1995, as well as aleak due to human error and a rupture caused by a weld defect.

At the task-force level, “what they are doing is bringing up[issues] like operator qualifications…because there was somequestion about the performance of the personnel. They’re talkingabout integrity management. Olympic has just made an agreement withthe city of Bellingham to do some extraordinary measures, whichraises questions about franchises and local control. There’s a lotof issues about local control versus state [or] federal control,”Boss said.

A number of towns in Washington have franchise agreements withOlympic and other pipelines. Under the agreements, pipes get tocross public property, and local governments, in return, can chargefees and make other demands. Some localities are using theirfranchise agreements to extract strict safety precautions thatOlympic previously had asserted was beyond the control of localgovernments. They see the franchises as the “magic bullet” forexerting greater leverage over pipelines, which are subject toeither state or federal regulation, and are using them to demandtougher pipeline-safety requirements – possibly even tougher thanthe federal government’s standards.

How will this affect natural gas pipelines? “There’s alwayspossibilities out there, and that’s why we’re monitoring this soclosely,” Boss said.

Susan Parker

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