Pipeline Safety:

The Office of Pipeline Safety Is Changing How It Oversees the Pipeline Industry

RCED-00-128: Published: May 15, 2000. Publicly Released: Jun 15, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Transportation Office of Pipeline Safety's (OPS) performance in regulating pipeline safety, focusing on: (1) the extent of major pipeline accidents from 1989 through 1998; (2) OPS' implementation of the 1996 Accountable Pipeline Safety and Partnership Act's risk management demonstration program; (3) OPS' inspection and enforcement efforts since the act's implementation; and (4) OPS' responsiveness to recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and to statutory requirements designed to improve pipeline safety.

GAO noted that: (1) from 1989 through 1998, pipeline accidents resulted in an average of about 22 fatalities per year; (2) the total number of major pipeline accidents (those resulting in a fatality, an injury, or property damage of $50,000 or more) increased by about 4 percent annually over this 10-year period; (3) most fatalities and injuries occurred as a result of accidents on pipelines that transport natural gas to homes and businesses, while most property damage occurred as a result of accidents on pipelines transporting hazardous liquids; (4) OPS' data indicate that damage from outside forces, such as excavation, is the primary cause of such accidents; (5) OPS has implemented a risk management demonstration program and has approved six demonstration projects; (6) OPS issued guidance on performance measures for the overall program and for individual projects but has not established specific measures of the program's impact on safety, as the act requires; (7) even though the projects are not complete and their safety benefits have not been quantified, OPS is moving ahead with a risk-based approach to safety regulation based partially on preliminary qualitative results of the program; (8) specifically, OPS has proposed a rule that would require some companies that operate hazardous liquid pipelines that run through high-risk areas to implement a program to comprehensively examine pipelines in these areas to identify and address potential risks, including assessing the current condition of their pipelines; (9) OPS also plans to take several actions that are necessary to implement the new approach, such as devising a method to review the companies' programs and hiring and training additional staff to conduct the reviews; (10) since the act's implementation, OPS has modified its inspection and enforcement approach so that entire pipelines are inspected in order to provide a comprehensive assessment of safety risks; (11) OPS has revised its enforcement of compliance with regulations by reducing its use of fines, and instead, working with operators to identify and correct safety problems; (12) OPS has not implemented some of the Safety Board's recommendations and requirements because it believes they would be too costly for the pipeline industry compared with the expected benefits; and (13) the OPS has recently taken action on some issues covered by outstanding recommendations and requirements, such as identifying countermeasures for preventing damage to pipelines from excavation and requiring pipeline operators to inspect their pipelines for corrosion.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the recommendation, the Office of Pipeline Safety modified its Interstate Pipeline Oversight Program to allow more opportunities for state participation. Under Interstate Agent Agreements, qualified states may inspect the construction of new pipelines, oversee rehabilitation projects and integrity management programs, investigate accidents, conduct inspections, and participate in non-regulatory program initiatives. States that do not qualify as Interstate Agents may apply to participate in specific, short-term activities, such as inspecting the construction of a new pipeline or investigating a pipeline accident. As of August 2001, 11 states have entered into Interstate Agent Agreements, and four states have been approved to participate on specific projects for a limited time period.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct OPS to work with state pipeline safety officials to determine which federal pipeline safety activities would benefit from state participation and, for those states willing to participate, integrate state participation into these activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2000, OPS issued a final rule requiring individual pipeline companies to develop integrity management programs. Consistent with GAO's recommendation, OPS revised its Interstate Agent Agreements with states to allow qualified states to participate in reviewing the integrity management plans developed for pipelines that operate in their states. As of August 2001, 11 states have entered into Interstate Agent Agreements with OPS.

    Recommendation: If OPS issues a final rule requiring individual pipeline companies to develop integrity management programs, the Secretary of Transportation should direct OPS to allow state inspectors to help review the programs developed by the companies that operate in their states to ensure that these companies have identified and adequately addressed safety risks to their systems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OPS is not able to determine the impact of its reduced use of fines on compliance as GAO recommended, because it does not have sufficient data. Nevertheless, the agency concluded that its decreased reliance on fines did not allow it to adequately address safety concerns and was perceived negatively by the public and Congress. OPS subsequently changed its enforcement policy to make better use of its full range of enforcement tools, including increasing the number and severity of fines. According to OPS officials, the agency plans to collect data that will allow it to link its enforcement policy with improvements in compliance and safety. Although OPS has not undertaken the study that GAO recommended, it re-evaluated its enforcement policy, and therefore accomplished the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should determine whether OPS' reduced use of fines has maintained, improved, or decreased compliance with pipeline safety regulations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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