August 26, 2014

New Pipelines Evade Federal Regulation

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Segments of the "Double H" crude pipeline ready to be laid outside of Douglas, Wyoming.

Stephanie Joyce/WPM

Segments of the "Double H" crude pipeline ready to be laid outside of Douglas, Wyoming.

Pipelines waiting to be installed outside a well pad in North Dakota.

Flickr user Lindsey G via Creative Commons

Pipelines waiting to be installed outside a well pad in North Dakota.

Inside Energy and Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce has been reporting on pipelines for the past few months, with a series of stories that outlined the planned expansion of pipelines, the history, and testing of the lines. We have more stories to come on this issue, looking at the financing of this “midstream” part of the oil and gas industry and how landowners are compensated for new pipelines.

In the meantime, this story from NBC News caught my eye.  There are three main types of pipeline that carry oil and gas across the country:  gathering lines, transmission lines, and distribution lines.  Transmission lines – which carry fuel to refineries – and distribution lines – which carry gas to homes and businesses – are larger and operate at a higher pressure.  These two types of lines are regulated by the federal government’s Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

Gathering lines, on the other hand, were traditionally smaller and used a lower pressure to transport oil and gas from wells to processing facilities.  Because they were considered safer, and ran through relatively unpopulated areas, gathering lines do not fall under federal safety and construction guidelines.

Here’s the problem (as originally reported by InsideClimateNews in 2013): the country’s oil and gas boom has led to an explosion in pipeline construction across the country, mostly in gathering lines from wells in new shale plays like the Marcellus in Pennsylvania, or the Bakken in North Dakota.

 By 2020, the number of miles of gathering lines is expected to almost double, to 405,000. By 2035 about 654,000 miles are expected to be in place, according to the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, an industry group.

And these gathering lines will be different from those of the past. Again, from ICN:

To accommodate the volume and pressure of the gas coming out of fracked wells, gathering lines are now 12 to 36 inches in diameter, instead of 2 to 12 inches. They operate at much higher pressures, too.

Whether or not a gathering line is regulated depends on how close that line comes to homes and businesses.  Currently only 10 percent of the country’s 240,000 miles of gathering pipeline is regulated.  Here’s what happens when a pipeline is regulated:

Operators of regulated lines must give state or federal regulators details about their operations, including pipeline diameter, exact location and maximum operating pressure. They must also inspect and maintain their lines and report details of any accidents, including fatalities, injuries and property damages.

In 2011, a PHMSA advisory committee urged the regulator to consider new safety requirements for gathering lines.  In 2012, the Government Accountability Office recommended the same.  PHMSA is still gathering comments and has yet to take action on these reports.  Meanwhile, a few states – Ohio, Texas and North Dakota – have moved to regulate new gathering lines on their own.