Surface Transportation:

Issues Associated With Pipeline Regulation by the Surface Transportation Board

T-RCED-98-127: Published: Mar 31, 1998. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 1998.

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GAO discussed the regulatory role of the Surface Transportation Board (STB), focusing on: (1) STB's responsibilities in regulating surface transportation; (2) the historical reasons for the economic regulation of pipelines; (3) the ability of alternatives to anhydrous ammonia pipelines to compete in the Midwest; and (4) issues before Congress as it decides to extend, modify or rescind STB's authority to regulate pipelines.

GAO noted that: (1) STB is responsible for the economic regulation of railroads and certain pipelines, as well as some aspects of motor carrier and water carrier transportation; (2) the majority of STB's resources and workload are devoted to examining rail issues; (3) in fiscal year 1997, STB dedicated 89 percent of its staff years to rail issues and less than 1 percent to pipeline issues; (4) historically, the federal government has regulated the rates charged by interstate pipelines because pipelines have inherent cost advantages that may limit competition from other pipelines as well as from other modes of transportation; (5) two federal agencies--STB and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission--regulate pipelines; (6) this regulation includes ensuring that all shippers have access to pipeline transportation services and that the rates charged by pipeline carriers for these services are reasonable and nondiscriminatory; (7) the ability of alternatives to anhydrous ammonia pipelines to compete with pipelines in the Midwest varies, depending on these alternatives' access to the market areas served by pipelines and their ability to increase their supply of anhydrous ammonia to compete within those market areas; (8) GAO's work showed that some market areas currently served by pipelines also have access to alternatives, while other market areas may not; (9) however, even where alternatives to pipelines are available, they may not offer effective competition because they have limited ability to increase their supply of anhydrous ammonia without additional investments in capital; (10) because of the large number of local markets that exist along the two midwestern anhydrous ammonia pipelines, GAO was not able to definitively determine the number of markets that do or do not have competitive alternatives to pipelines; (11) no clear conclusions can be reached on whether continued economic regulation of pipelines under STB's jurisdiction is needed because such a determination requires the examination of competition in numerous local markets along 21 pipelines; and (12) however, as Congress considers reauthorizing STB, pipeline regulation issues to consider include: (a) whether pipelines do not face effective competition in a significant number of market areas and subsequently have the potential to charge unreasonably high rates; (b) what the costs of regulating pipelines are; (c) whether the limited number of pipeline cases before STB and its predecessor indicates there is no need for regulation; and (d) whether shippers would have any recourse if STB's economic regulation of pipelines was eliminated.

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