New study: No one knows how many accidents happen with unregulated oil and gas pipelines

The following is a guest post from NRDC Legal Fellow Matthew McFeeley:

In a previous guest blog, I wrote about the risks posed by the lack of oversight of natural gas “gathering lines” in rural areas. Gathering lines transport oil and gas from wellpads to larger transmission pipelines, which then deliver the oil or gas to distributors. But there is a huge regulatory gap. Gathering lines in most rural areas are not regulated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) at the federal level* and most states choose not to impose their own rules.    

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that not only are these gathering lines unregulated, but there is not even basic information on where they are, or whether any safety procedures are being observed.  Without the necessary data, “pipeline safety officials are unable to assess and manage safety risks” from unregulated gathering lines, the report concludes. The GAO recommends that PHMSA begin to collect this information in order to allow regulators and pipeline operators to understand the risks and to develop strategies to address them.  

How much of a problem is the lack of data on unregulated gathering lines?  PHMSA estimates that there are now more than 200,000 miles of natural gas gathering lines in the country and an additional 30,000-40,000 miles of hazardous liquid gathering lines that carry mostly petroleum products, but only about 10% of these lines are regulated.  In 2010, the report found that the average incident on a regulated gas gathering pipeline caused $1.8 million in property damage,** a number that keeps rising. 

How does the average incident on unregulated lines compare to those on regulated lines? No one knows. There are no data on how many incidents occur on these lines.  How much property damage did unregulated gathering lines do? Don’t know – no data.  How many injuries and fatalities were there related to those lines? Again, there is no reporting. 

The report found that gathering lines are increasing in number and many are larger and operating at higher pressures than before, which may increase the risks. In addition, increasing urbanization in previously rural areas has meant that people live closer to these pipelines, and some lines may now be mis-classified as rural and should no longer be exempt from regulation. 

GAO identified four common problems with unregulated gathering lines:

  • No requirements exist to ensure that the gathering lines are resistant to corrosion, installed properly, or damage-free after installation.
  • Periodic maintenance, which helps to prevent leaks and ruptures, is not required.
  • With no reporting of the location of gathering lines to state and local agencies, gathering lines may be damaged when residents or businesses involved in digging or construction unexpectedly encounter these lines, causing harm to those involved and property damage.
  • Without knowledge on the current condition on unregulated gathering lines, the agencies cannot assess the risks they pose or take steps to ensure public safety.

It is outrageous that there are no standards to ensure that unregulated gathering lines are properly constructed, maintained, or inspected. But it is even more outrageous that PHMSA does not require reporting, which is very easy, so the public could at least know whether accidents are causing injuries or deaths. PHMSA should take immediate steps to collect information on unregulated gathering lines so that the risks they pose can be understood and addressed. If they don’t, Congress should require it as soon as possible.

Thanks go to Senators Rockefeller and Lautenberg for requesting this study from GAO.

* Gas gathering lines are unregulated if they fall in a “Class I” area, an area with ten or fewer homes within a quarter-mile of the pipeline in each mile-long stretch of pipe.  Hazardous liquid gathering lines are generally unregulated if they are small in diameter (less than 6 5/8”) or operate at low pressures. 

** Unfortunately, PHMSA collects only aggregate data on incidents on hazardous liquid lines, so information concerning incidents on hazardous liquid gathering lines is no

About the Authors

Amy Mall

Senior Advocate, Dirty Energy, Lands Division, Nature Program

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