Recent Tragedies Highlight Need to Reform Regulations for 500,000 Miles of Oil and Gas Pipelines in U.S.
What’s going on with pipelines? Has there been a high number of major pipeline tragedies recently, or are such incidents just more in the news with widespread attention to potential federal approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline?
As someone who has worked on pipeline safety and associated environmental protection issues since I began serving on a pipeline federal advisory committee in the mid-1990s, I can say confidently that the period from 2010-2013 has had a very large number of serious transmission pipeline tragedies compared to the previous decade (serious in the lay-person’s sense of the term, i.e., not the relatively narrow definition developed by federal pipeline regulators).
The worst of these incidents—Pacific Gas & Electric’s San Bruno, CA, natural gas explosion in 2010 which killed eight and injured many; Enbridge’s Marshall, MI, tar sands oil spill in 2010 that closed 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River for two years with the cleanup still ongoing; ExxonMobil’s Mayflower, AR, tar sands oil spill in 2013 when oil flowed through a neighborhood; and Tesoro Logistics’ giant oil spill into a North Dakota wheat field with no leak detection mechanism in place—compare in scale to the biggest pipeline incidents of the past. At a time of technology improvements including advances in leak detection and with a pro-government administration in place, why are we still experiencing preventable transmission pipeline tragedies of this size and scale?
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, oversees pipeline safety and environmental protection nationwide. PHMSA performs this job through regulations and their enforcement, advisory bulletins, education, safety research, permit approvals and partnerships with many state pipeline regulators. Congress guides PHMSA’s work, with the most recent pipeline safety law reauthorization signed by President Obama on Jan. 3, 2012.
According to PHMSA, in 2012 there were more than 185,000 miles of hazardous liquid transmission pipelines (generally crude oil and its products like gasoline and diesel) and nearly 303,000 miles of natural gas transmission pipelines in the U.S. The map shows the locations of these transmission pipelines. The map does not show federally-unregulated pipelines including extensive rural “gathering” line mileage–likely an up-and-coming problem in terms of safety and the environment as unregulated shale gas and oil gathering lines age and corrode.
Early in the Obama administration, PHMSA began a review of its hazardous liquid (49 Code of Federal Regulations Part 195) and natural gas (49 Code of Federal Regulations Part 192) transmission pipeline regulations, and requested public comments on what changes should be made to improve those regulations. These “advanced notices of proposed rulemaking” (ANPRM) were issued on Oct. 18, 2010, for hazardous liquid transmission pipelines and on Aug. 25, 2011, for natural gas transmission pipelines. Commenters included industry, state and local governments, public interest organizations, and individuals.
Despite extensive and broad interest in updating and streamlining these regulations, PHMSA has not issued the necessary follow-up rulemaking proposals. These regulations are needed reforms that have not progressed at all during the five years of the Obama administration. PHMSA’s regulatory paralysis is unacceptable to those who lived through past transmission pipeline tragedies and to everyone who lives near or cares about pipeline safety.
These federal regulatory reforms, which have been under development since well before the ANPRMs were issued, include:
- Providing upgraded regulatory coverage for unregulated or minimally-regulated pipelines especially rural gathering lines, “produced water” lines which contain briny subsurface fluids, multi-phase pipelines containing oil, gas and produced water, and pipeline segments not likely to affect “high consequence areas” (currently, integrity management requirements apply only to pipeline segments likely to affect high consequence areas).
- Leak detection requirements for oil and natural gas transmission pipelines. There are no federal leak detection performance standards at present (some states have such standards) so—if operators have leak detection at all—there are no standards for how well these mechanisms must perform, e.g., what their detection levels must be and the speed of detection. At the request of Congress, PHMSA has developed several studies on leak detection, however the report findings have gone nowhere (much to the dismay of leak detection equipment manufacturers).
- Instituting shut-off valve requirements for both natural gas and oil pipelines to minimize the sizes of releases. These regulations would include shut-off valve location requirements.
What will it take to get the Obama administration to move forward on these important regulatory initiatives? Sadly, relatively frequent, major pipeline tragedies do not appear to be enough. Congress should be concerned about this and may need to hold hearings on why there have been regulatory development delays, especially after it did its job in 2011 reviewing and passing the pipeline safety statute reauthorization with bi-partisan votes in both the House and Senate. The new Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, also needs to be aware of, and to take action on, the unacceptable regulatory paralysis that currently prevents pipeline safety improvements.
This post originally appeared on SkyTruth.org.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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