Many hazards from natural gas gathering lines remain, despite new pipeline safety law

This guest blog was researched and written by NRDC Legal Fellow Matthew McFeeley, and updated on December 22 with a clarification:

Recent developments in our natural gas system have shown serious gaps in the country's pipeline safety standards. Although, in a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, Congress recently sent a pipeline safety bill to the President, the bill does not address all issues related to pipeline safety.

In transporting natural gas, there are three kinds of pipelines: (a) “gathering lines” transport the gas from the wellpads to a larger pipeline system; (b) “transmission” lines then deliver the gas to distribution companies, frequently traveling long distances; (c) finally, “distribution” lines are the small lines that carry the gas to consumers and businesses.*

As noted in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article, gathering lines in a defined rural area** are completely unregulated; there are no rules for pipe thickness or strength, welding, burial depth, or inspections. Gathering lines in other areas are subject to regulations, but they are much weaker than those for transmission lines. This may be because, historically, gathering lines were smaller and thought to be less risky.  But many gathering lines today are as big as, or bigger than, many transmission lines and may operate at the same extremely high pressures. New gathering lines can be more than 24 inches in diameter and operate at pressures upwards of 1400 pounds per square inch. 

This is bad news when it comes to the safety of gathering lines. Compounding the problem, it gives companies an incentive to classify pipelines as gathering lines even when they travel long distances at high pressure.   The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has allowed this to happen by failing to create strong regulations.  Instead, the agency refers companies to a manual on classification produced by an industry group.  Not surprisingly, the industry manual allows pipeline operators to interpret the rules such that many of their lines remain unregulated. 

In 2010, 240 reported natural gas pipeline safety incidents in the United States killed 21 people and injured 105 others.  These numbers are sobering.  But the statistics do not include accidents along gathering lines in rural areas.  Because those gathering lines are unregulated, the operators of gathering lines aren’t required to report accidents.  So there is no reliable information concerning how many more accidents are occurring on lines where there is no oversight. 

The Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving the safety of our nation’s pipeline system, recently outlined a number of recommendations to address the many dangers that pipelines continue to pose.  The recommendations include:

  • Requiring PHMSA to regulate all pipelines including gathering lines
  • Mandating remote or automatic shutoff valves on transmission pipelines
  • Requiring more pipelines to accommodate and use “smart pigs” (inspection devices which can be inserted in a pipeline and can travel along the length of the pipe in order to assess structural integrity and flow restrictions)
  • Requiring operators to have tools to recognize and pinpoint locations of leaks and line breaks

The new pipeline safety bill is a small step forward, but it does not include these priorities. Among other things, the bill will double the maximum fine for safety violations and very modestly increase the number of safety inspectors. The country still has a long way to go when it comes to improving pipeline safety. A year of major accidents and missteps by pipeline operators and regulators alike has revealed serious flaws in the safety of our nation's pipelines. In addition to the problem of an aging pipeline system, pipelines are transporting increasing volumes of corrosive products like raw tar sands

* It's important to note that there are other lines which PHMSA doesn't even consider "pipelines" and, as a result, are completely unregulated by PHMSA. The pipes, called "flow lines" or "production piping," transport a mixture of oil, gas and/or water that emerges from the well through the production process (which includes separation, dehydration, and metering). It's not until after this production process that gathering lines begin. In natural gas production these activities often occur on the wellpad. However, when these activities occur far from a well, long unregulated flow lines may pose a significant risk of breakage, spills or even explosions. For a more detailed article on where gathering lines begin and end, go here

** Ten or fewer homes within a quarter-mile right-of-way of the pipeline in any mile-long stretch of pipe.