Federal pipeline regulators need to do a better job tracking powerful new pipelines being built in Pennsylvania and other shale-gas states, a new federal audit says.
With some pipelines subject to no safety regulation in parts of rural America, many state regulators think the public could be at risk from faulty construction or haphazard maintenance, according to the study by the Government Accountability Office.
But in most states, agencies still do not know even basic information about these pipelines, not even their location, the GAO says. Up to 25,000 miles of pipelines are projected to be built in Pennsylvania to deliver shale gas to market, according to industry estimates.
The GAO, the research arm of Congress, last week released its study on the safety of so-called gathering pipelines, the ones that connect gas wells to the interstate pipeline system.
These wells often require big-diameter, high-pressure pipelines. Even so, because they are classed as "gathering lines," running from the wells, no safety rules or construction standards apply when these lines cross into rural regions.
An Inquirer series last year found that the industry has fought for decades to preserve this regulatory loophole, which dates to the beginning of pipeline regulation in 1968.
There have been deadly accidents on gathering lines. In 2010, two workers were killed in Texas when their crew's bulldozer hit an unmarked gathering line near Amarillo. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration blamed the accident on the failure of the victims' employer to check for buried lines.
Daniel Horowitz III, a lawyer suing the pipeline company on behalf of the victims' families, said the line was far bigger than traditional gathering lines - 14 inches in diameter, operating at 500 pounds of pressure.
New lines in Pennsylvania can be 30 inches in diameter and operate at 1,000 pounds of pressure.
"Higher pressure, higher diameter; at the very least, they should be required to have permanent markers on them and should be required to report any incidents," he said.
Under current federal law, he said, there was no requirement that the deaths be reported to U.S. regulators.
The federal agency responsible for pipeline safety, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, has the authority to track the locations and safety records of these gathering pipelines, the GAO said.
But it has not done so, instead focusing on improving safety on transmission pipelines, the audit found.
The GAO audit stopped short of calling for new rules to close the rural exemption. The agency "didn't find overwhelming evidence that unregulated gathering pipelines pose a critical safety hazard," Matthew T. Cail, a GAO analyst, said on Monday.
He said it was "reasonable" for the U.S. Department of Transportation to "gather some basic data on these pipelines to figure out exactly where they are and whether they do pose a safety risk."
One safety advocate - Lynda Farrell, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition in Pennsylvania - said the GAO audit left her "extremely disappointed."
She said she had hoped the agency would advocate tougher rules, not simply more study.
"Frankly, we have over 3,000 wells already drilled that require gathering lines, and most of them are going to be in Class 1 rural areas," she said.
Some in the industry are resisting any new rules, even reporting requirements, the GAO said. And officials from PHMSA said they would put no new rules in place before reviewing whether they would place an undue burden on industry.
In an interview Monday, Jeff Applekamp, the in-house government lobbyist with the Gas Processors Association, the main trade group for gathering-line companies, warned against "intrusive" regulation out of line with the real risks.
Restrictive rules imposed on pipelines in urban areas make little sense in the "far hinterland," he said.
As part of its study, the GAO surveyed pipeline safety regulators in 39 states. In 18, regulators said they worried about construction quality in unregulated pipelines. Maintenance also was a big concern, as was the lack of information about their location.
In Pennsylvania, regulators told the GAO that the biggest safety risk is the potential of excavators' hitting unmarked buried pipelines, said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for the Public Utility Commission.
"With the Marcellus lines, we haven't gotten into the construction concerns too far yet," she said.
This year, the Pennsylvania legislature adopted a rule that requires drilling companies to participate in the One Call system, which is supposed to prevent digging accidents.
The PUC is still gearing up to take over regulation of these gathering pipelines. The PUC is close to hiring inspectors, Kocher said.
But there may be further delays; the only training academy in the United States for pipeline inspectors, in Oklahoma City, has a two-year waiting list.
Contact staff writer Joseph Tanfani at 215-854-2684 or email@example.com.
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