July 2019 Vol.74 No. 7


Texas Implements New Pipeline Safety Regulations

Tom Ewing  |  Contributing Editor


Texas’ natural gas utilities need to be ready for two new state pipeline safety programs: filing incident reports within one-hour of an accident, and removing underground cast-iron pipe by Dec. 31, 2021, used for natural gas delivery to end-use customers.

These demands are established in state legislation passed at the end of May. Once signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbot the bills take effect Sept. 1, 2019.

The legislation is contained within House Bill (HB) 864 (incident reporting) and HB 866 (pipe replacement), both introduced in January by Rep. Rafael Anchia, from Texas’ 103 House District. The two bills were broadly supported in the House and Senate.

HB 864 hit a delay when the Senate made changes to the House version, a move requiring extra time to resolve those differences. On late Friday, May 23, literally in the waning hours of the legislative session, Rep. Anchia’s office advised that he accepted the Senate’s changes, letting the legislative process move to a quicker conclusion than if the bill had to be reworked in a House-Senate conference committee.

Here’s a closer look at what the new regs require.

Incidence Reports, within one hour

HB 864 requires an incident report, from a distribution gas pipeline facility operator serving “end-use customers,” before “the expiration of one hour following the operator’s discovery of the incident.”

An “incident” includes an event that would require a report based on federal law. Or, if an event has one or more of the following consequences:

  • Death or injury necessitating in-patient hospitalization
  • Estimated property damage greater than or equal to $50,000 (excluding cost of gas lost) or an amount requiring a report under federal regulations
  • Unintentional estimated gas loss of 3 million cubic feet or more. A “consequence” does not have to result in explosion or a catastrophic event

Upon discovering such a consequence, that starts a one-hour notification clock requiring an incident report to the Texas Railroad Commission (Texas’ equivalent to other states’ public utility commissions). The report must include:

  • The pipeline operator’s name and telephone number
  • Incident location
  • The time of the incident
  • The telephone number of the operator’s onsite person

Then, the following must be reported “when the information is known by the operator:”

  • Fatalities and personal injuries
  • The cost of gas lost
  • Estimated property damage to the operator and others
  • Any other significant facts relevant to the incident, including facts related to ignition, explosion, rerouting of traffic, evacuation of a building, and media interest
  • Other information required under federal regulations to be provided to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration or a successor agency

Pipeline removal

HB 866 first sets a prohibition and then requires action. The bill prohibits a distribution gas pipeline facility from installing cast iron, wrought iron or bare steel pipelines within an underground system. Because of corrosion and cracking, cast iron presents a particularly high danger in natural gas pipelines.

Next, the bill directs the Railroad Commission to require distribution gas pipeline facilities do the following:

  • Develop and implement a risk-based program for the removal or replacement of underground distribution gas pipeline facilities
  • Annually remove or replace at least “8 percent of underground distribution gas pipeline facilities posing the greatest risk in the system and identified for replacement under the program.”

Finally, the most specific, and likely most pressing, directive: a distribution gas pipeline facility operator shall replace any known cast iron pipelines installed as part of the operator ’s underground system not later than Dec. 31, 2021.

That 30-month deadline is fast approaching, of course, raising questions from fellow Committee members at the April 8 hearing. Basic concerns included how much cast-iron pipe is out there, still in service, and can utilities do it working at a constant enough pace? Another concern: community disruption from upcoming construction and reconstruction. Finally, there was question about whether there are enough certified workers to complete this work by deadline.

Pressed for time

Anchia added that HB 866 was developed with stakeholder involvement. He said utilities think they can meet the new demands, although skilled labor is a concern. He explained how utilities have had to “reverse engineer” their projections and planning, particularly about meeting the cast iron removal deadline. “They think they can do it,” Anchia told the Committee, but he added, “it’s gonna be a hustle.”

Anchia estimated there are 1,000 miles of bare steel pipeline in “north Texas alone,” but he did not have a breakout just for cast iron. He said that Atmos Energy has removed steel pipelines in every other state in which it operates, but removal in Texas has lagged. Anchia said this has been a safety discussion since the 1970s.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are two parts to HB 866’s replacement demands. The cast iron replacement has drawn more attention because of the 2021 deadline. But the second requirement is also aggressive – removing or replacing 8 percent per year of high-risk pipelines. Texas natural gas utilities have had an annual, high-risk pipeline replacement rate of about 5 percent, Anchia told the Committee.

The increase in HB 866 to 8 percent accelerates replacement by 60 percent. It’s also important to note the requirement to first develop a risk-based program. Undoubtedly, those programs, with budgets and goals, will be public documents with progress and delays easy to monitor.

3rd bill dropped

A third pipeline bill – HB 868 – also introduced in January by Rep. Anchia, did not move forward in the House. HB 868 would have required utilities to place incident notifications and leak reports, including street addresses, on their websites. Citizens and customers, then, armed with almost real-time information, could track current, not historical, natural gas hazards within a utility’s system and use this information to demand corrective responses sooner, versus later.

When introduced, these three bills were viewed by many as complementary, each helping to standup the other, to form a strong public awareness and safety framework built on new opportunities provided by web-based data and real-time information. It’s not clear – at least from the public record – why HB 868 didn’t draw Committee support.

The public was given the chance to weigh in on the bills at the April 8 meeting. The Committee chair asked people to comment on Anchia’s three bills as a package, so to speak, not singularly. Support, across many sectors, far outweighed opposition. But it is worth noting that while utility companies Atmos Energy and CenterPoint Energy had registered in support of HBs 864 and 866, they are not listed as supporting HB 868, something legislators may have noted. Neither Atmos nor CenterPoint would discuss what they liked or didn’t like about any of the bills, nor would the Texas Pipeline Association, which includes distribution companies.

Anchia’s district had been the site of a catastrophic gas explosion in February 2018, a tragic accident that killed a high-school student in her home. Anchia said the explosion galvanized his attention on existing, and apparently relatively common, natural gas pipeline dangers within the district, and even across Dallas. He told colleagues that gas leaks were so numerous and well-known throughout one neighborhood that residents would use lighters to flare the escaping gas. It was just common knowledge about exactly where the leaks were.

A sense of constant and almost ubiquitous danger from natural gas was a common message from people who testified in April in support of the three House bills. Jennifer Gates, a member of Dallas City Council, speaking on behalf of the Council, supported all three bills. She told the House Committee that nine people have died in natural gas accidents in Dallas since 2006. She said that since 2010, Atmos Energy lost 98.6 million cubic feet of gas. “I always hear from constituents about these safety issues,” she told the Committee.

Similarly, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins supported all three bills – personally and on behalf of the County. He noted that Dallas depends on pipes from the 1940s and ’50s. He said the County has been working with Atmos Energy and the Mayor of Dallas to develop an expedited pipe replacement schedule – something that Atmos has agreed to and has started. Jenkins was particularly supportive of the “real-time” reporting and posting requirements within HB 868. “We need a quicker system,” Jenkins said, “one that is interactive and transparent.”

In Texas, pipeline safety proponents didn’t get everything they wanted from their legislature this session, but these
new bills start important new moves for safety across the Lone Star State.

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