After A Pipeline Spill, A Look At Federal Safety Regulations

Mar 5, 2019

When the Santa Fe Pacific Pipeline burst in southern New Mexico late last year, it wasn't the first time a pipeline ruptured in the state. Across the country, hundreds of pipelines transporting liquid and gas fail each year, sometimes causing significant damage and even claiming lives. So what is the process for regulating these pipelines?

If there's one thing Richard Kuprewicz knows, it's pipelines. He's spent almost half a century investigating pipeline failures; he runs a pipeline safety consulting firm called Accufacts Inc.

"In over 45 years of investigations, I've never seen a pipeline accident," Kuprewicz says. "There's usually a series of breakdowns."

Take the San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people in California in 2010. Investigators found that everything from shoddy construction to poor record keeping to insufficient testing contributed to the blast.

In New Mexico, there have been 150 pipeline incidents in the last 20 years, according to federal data. More than 80% were caused by things within operators' control: corrosion, incorrect operation, or metal, weld and equipment failures.

Kuprewicz attributes a lot of failures to mismanagement. Interstate pipelines, like the one that ruptured in Doña Ana County, are regulated by the federal goverment - specifically, the Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA). But the oil and gas companies operating those pipelines are mostly left in charge of making sure they run safely.

"The primary objective of PHMSA is to ensure compliance with the minimum federal regulations," Kuprewicz says. "They are not the pipeline operator. That responsibility falls to the pipeline operator."

Those operators have a lot of leeway in how they identify and deal with safety risks. The federal goverment requires them to perform risk assessments, but doesn't spell out exactly what those assessments should look like.

Carl Weimer is Executive Director of the non-profit Pipeline Safety Trust. He worries pipeline operators have too much wiggle room when it comes to assessing and addressing risks. 

"The regulations aren't very specific about how to do any of that," Weimer says. "So each company does it differently. And some companies do it really well and don't have many failures on their pipelines and other companies don't do it so well and have failures. So that kind of nebulousness about the regulations really causes us some concern."

Richard Kuprewicz says one issue he's seen is companies over-relying on a particular tool to check the safety of their pipelines. In reality, he says, no one tool can necessarily detect every vulnerability; companies are searching for a holy grail that doesn't yet exist. That, combined with improper use of the tools, can lead to pipeline failures.

Take something called a smart pig, a multi-million dollar robot that runs through pipelines looking for damage.

"Running them and using them appropriately is a different animal," Kuprewicz says. "I've investigated too many liquid pipeline failures that failured just after an in-line inspection tool has been run. So you can pick the right tool and use it wrong," or pick the wrong tool in the first place. "What I call smart pig, dumb people or dumb pig, smart people. The outcome's still the same: wrong outcome."

Some safety experts would like to see stronger, more specific regulations when it comes to safety assessments, and other measures like regulating where shut off valves should be located. They point out that PHMSA has just around 200 inspeectors to oversee millions of miles of pipeline nationwide and could use more resources.

Robert Bea founded the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley. He says strong industries, like the companies operating pipelines, need strong governance.

"It's kind of like a strong family," he says. "If the parents are strong, capable then the children have a much better chance of doing what's needed, what's right. On the other side, if the governance is not strong and capable, then the commercial industrial enterprises tend to do what they want to do. In the family context, the kids run wild."

PHMSA can fine companies when a pipeline failures. But Richard Kuprewicz says it can also reduce those fines, if the operator makes change to prevent future failures.

"PHMSA's objective is not to punish," he says. "It's to ensure compliance with the regulations, to correct the action so that they don't repeat the mistake."

Safety advocates say it's especially critical to bolster federal regulations now, with oil and natural gas extraction from shale deposits on the rise, and more pipelines being built to transport those products.

They're hopeful some changes may come this year, when Congress revisits and reauthorizes the Pipeline Safety Act. But they also note that the Trump administration has advocated for rolling back, rather than increasing, regulations.

Some environmental activits would like to focus on transitioning away from fossil fuels altogether.

"Fossil fuels are a dirty source of energy," says Kevin Bixby with the Southwest Environmental Center. "And it's not just when they're burned and produce greenhouse gases, but it's also the contamination when they spill."

Bixby would like to see a transition to cleaner, alternative sources of energy.