Pipeline Safety:Collecting Data and Sharing Information on Federally Unregulated Gathering Pipelines Could Help Enhance Safety

GAO-12-388 Published: Mar 22, 2012. Publicly Released: Mar 22, 2012.
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Highlights

What GAO Found

While the safety risks of onshore gathering pipelines that are not regulated by PHMSA are generally considered to be lower than for other types of pipelines, PHMSA does not collect comprehensive data to identify the safety risks of unregulated gathering pipelines. In response to a GAO survey, state pipeline safety agencies cited construction quality, maintenance practices, unknown or uncertain locations, and limited or no information on pipeline integrity as among the highest risks for federally unregulated pipelines. Without data on these risk factors, pipeline safety officials are unable to assess and manage safety risks associated with these pipelines. Furthermore, changes in pipeline operational environments cited in response to GAO’s survey and by industry officials could also increase safety risks for federally unregulated gathering pipelines. Specifically, land-use changes are resulting in development encroaching on existing pipelines and the increased extraction of oil and natural gas from shale deposits is resulting in the development of new gathering pipelines, some of which are larger in diameter and operate at higher pressure than older pipelines. PHMSA is considering collecting data on federally unregulated gathering pipelines, but the agency’s plans are preliminary, and the extent to which PHMSA will collect data sufficient to evaluate the potential safety risks associated with these pipelines is uncertain.

A small number of state pipeline safety agencies GAO surveyed reported using at least one of five practices that were most frequently cited to help ensure the safety of federally unregulated pipelines. These practices include (1) damage prevention programs, (2) considering areas of highest risk to target resources, (3) safety inspections, (4) public outreach and communication, and (5) increased regulatory attention on operators with prior spills or leaks. However, the sharing of information among states on the safety practices used appears to be limited. Some state and PHMSA officials GAO interviewed had limited awareness of safety practices used by other states. Increased communication and information sharing about pipeline safety practices could boost the use of such practices for unregulated pipelines. However, information targeted at gathering pipelines on PHMSA’s website, including relevant safety practices and state activities, is limited.

Why GAO Did This Study

Pipelines are a relatively safe mode of transportation for hazardous liquid and natural gas and are regulated by the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and state entities. Included in the nation’s pipeline network are an estimated 200,000 or more miles of onshore “gathering” pipelines, which transport products to processing facilities and larger pipelines. Many of these pipelines have not been subject to federal regulation based on their generally rural location and low operating pressures. While incidents involving gathering pipelines regulated by PHMSA have resulted in millions of dollars in property damage in recent years, comparable statistics for federally unregulated gathering pipelines are unknown. This report identifies (1) the safety risks that exist, if any, with onshore hazardous liquid and natural gas gathering pipelines that are not currently under PHMSA regulation and (2) the practices states use to help ensure the safety of these pipelines. GAO surveyed state pipeline safety agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia; interviewed officials at PHMSA, state pipeline safety agencies, pipeline companies, and industry associations; and analyzed data and regulations.

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Recommendations

DOT should (1) collect data on federally unregulated hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines and (2) establish an online clearinghouse or other resource for sharing information on pipeline safety practices. DOT provided technical corrections on a draft of this report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation To enhance the safety of unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the PHMSA Administrator to collect data from operators of federally unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines, subsequent to an analysis of the benefits and industry burdens associated with such data collection. Data collected should be comparable to what PHMSA collects annually from operators of regulated gathering pipelines (e.g., fatalities, injuries, property damage, location, mileage, size, operating pressure, maintenance history, and the causes of incidents and consequences).
Closed - Implemented
Gathering pipelines typically transport natural gas or hazardous liquids, such as crude oil, from production areas to larger transmission pipelines or processing facilities. While accidents involving gathering pipelines regulated by DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) had resulted in millions of dollars of property damage, comparable statistics for federally unregulated gathering pipelines were unknown because PHMSA did not collect such data. In 2012, we reported that although PHMSA had the legal authority to collect data on unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines, the agency did not collect comprehensive data on safety risks associated with unregulated gathering pipelines. In response to our survey of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, state pipeline safety agencies cited construction quality, maintenance practices, unknown or uncertain locations, and limited or no information on current pipeline integrity as safety risks for federally unregulated gathering pipelines. Unlike their regulated counterparts, operators of unregulated gathering pipelines were not required by federal law to report information on such risk factors. Without data on these risk factors, pipeline safety officials were unable to assess and manage safety risks associated with these pipelines. Although PHMSA was considering collecting data on federally unregulated gathering pipelines, the agency's plans were preliminary, and the extent to which PHMSA will collect data sufficient to evaluate the potential safety risks associated with these pipelines was uncertain. Related to whether current regulations were appropriate, in 2011 Congress mandated that DOT review the sufficiency of existing federal and state laws and regulations to ensure the safety of hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines. Therefore, we recommended that PHMSA collect data from operators of federally unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and natural gas gathering pipelines, and that any data collected should be comparable to what PHMSA collects annually from operators of regulated gathering pipelines. In 2021, we confirmed that PHMSA issued a final rule amending its regulations to require all unregulated hazardous liquid gathering pipelines operators to file annual reports with pipeline characteristic data and when relevant, accident reports starting in 2021. In November 2021, PHMSA issued a final rule requiring the same of unregulated natural gas gathering pipelines starting in 2023. As a result, PHMSA will be better positioned to obtain the data needed to evaluate the sufficiency of safety regulations for gathering pipelines as required by the congressional mandate and make data-driven, evidence-based decisions about the risks of federally unregulated gathering pipelines.
Department of Transportation To enhance the safety of unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the PHMSA Administrator to establish an online clearinghouse or other resource for states to share information on practices that can help ensure the safety of federally unregulated onshore hazardous liquid and gas gathering pipelines. This resource could include updates on related PHMSA and industry initiatives, guidance, related PHMSA rulemakings, and other information collected or shared by states.
Closed - Implemented
In March 2012, GAO reported that a small number of state pipeline safety agencies GAO surveyed reported using at least one of five practices that were most frequently cited to help ensure the safety of federally unregulated gathering pipelines. These practices include (1) damage prevention programs, (2) considering areas of highest risk to target resources, (3) safety inspections, (4) public outreach and communication, and (5) increased regulatory attention on operators with prior spills or leaks. However, the sharing of information among states on the safety practices used appeared to be limited. Some state and PHMSA officials GAO interviewed had limited awareness of safety practices used by other states. GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation direct the PHMSA Administrator to establish an online clearinghouse or other resource for sharing information on pipeline safety practices. In response, PHMSA requested that the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives develop an online resource document library for states to obtain and post information related to gathering pipelines. This online library was established in May 2014 and includes, among other things, state-specific regulatory information for gathering pipelines, such as rules, definitions, and inspection form examples. Sharing state-level information will help to support a safety culture and increase state officials' awareness of possible safety practices or strategies that they can use to enhance pipeline safety.

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