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Pipeline Safety: Better Data and Guidance Could Improve Operators' Responses to Incidents

GAO-13-284T Published: Jan 28, 2013. Publicly Released: Jan 28, 2013.
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What GAO Found

Numerous variables--some of which are under operators' control--influence the ability of transmission pipeline operators to respond to incidents. For example, the location of response personnel and the use of manual or automated valves can affect the amount of time it takes for operators to respond to incidents. However, because the advantages and disadvantages of installing an automated valve are closely related to the specifics of the valve's location, it is appropriate that operators decide whether to install automated valves on a case-by-case basis. Several operators we spoke with have developed approaches to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of installing automated valves, such as using spill-modeling software to estimate the potential amount of product released and extent of damage that would occur in the event of an incident.

One method PHMSA could use to improve operator response to incidents is to develop a performance-based approach for incident response times. While defining performance measures and targets for incident response can be challenging, PHMSA could move toward a performance-based approach by evaluating nationwide data to determine response times for different types of pipeline (based on location, operating pressure, and pipeline diameter, among other factors). First, though, PHMSA must improve the data it collects on incident response times. These data are not reliable because operators are not required to fill out certain time-related fields in the reporting form and because operators told us they interpret these data fields in different ways. Furthermore, while PHMSA conducts a variety of information-sharing activities, the agency does not formally collect or share evaluation approaches used by operators to decide whether to install automated valves, and not all operators we spoke with were aware of existing PHMSA guidance designed to assist operators in making these decisions. We recommended that PHMSA should: (1) improve incident response data and use those data to explore the feasibility of developing a performance-based approach for improving operators' responses to pipeline incidents and (2) assist operators in deciding whether to install automated valves by formally collecting and sharing evaluation approaches and ensuring operators are aware of existing guidance. PHMSA agreed to consider these recommendations.

Why GAO Did This Study

Pipelines are a relatively safe means of transporting natural gas and hazardous liquids; however, catastrophic incidents can and do occur. Such an incident occurred on December 11, 2012, near Sissonville, West Virginia, when a rupture of a natural gas transmission pipeline destroyed or damaged 9 homes and badly damaged a section of Interstate 77. Large-diameter transmission pipelines such as these that carry products over long distances from processing facilities to communities and large-volume users make up more than 400,000 miles of the 2.5 million mile natural gas and hazardous liquid pipeline network in the United States. The Department of Transportation's (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), working in conjunction with state pipeline safety offices, oversees this network, which transports about 65 percent of the energy we consume.

The best way to ensure the safety of pipelines, and their surrounding communities, is to minimize the possibility of an incident occurring. PHMSA's regulations require pipeline operators to take appropriate preventive measures such as corrosion control and periodic assessments of pipeline integrity. To mitigate the consequences if an incident occurs, operators are also required to develop leak detection and emergency response plans. One mitigation measure operators can take is to install automated valves that, in the event of an incident, close automatically or can be closed remotely by operators in a control room. Such valves have been the topic of several National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations since 1971 and a PHMSA report issued in October 2012.

As mandated in the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011, we issued a January 2013 report on the ability of transmission pipeline operators to respond to a hazardous liquid or natural gas release from an existing pipeline segment. This statement is based on this report and addresses (1) variables that influence the ability of transmission pipeline operators to respond to incidents and (2) opportunities to improve these operators' responses to incidents. This statement also provides information from two other recent GAO reports on pipeline safety.

For more information, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512-2834 or


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