March 2021 Vol. 76 No. 3

Washington Watch

Biden Administration Initiates Major Pipeline Leak Regulatory Reviews

By Stephen Barlas, Washington Editor

Both gas transmission and distribution pipelines face new regulations from the Biden administration on leaks from pumping station equipment andStephen Barlas | Washington Editor  pipelines, in part because of legislation passed in December by Congress and a Biden administration executive order. The Protecting Our Infra-Structure of Pipelines and Enhancing (PIPES) Act of 2020 and Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act were included in the big fiscal 2021 consolidated federal appropriations bill Congress passed at the end of December. 

The first requires the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to write new safety regulations on leak detection for all gas pipelines; the second regulation mandates rules for operations and safety of only distribution lines. 

At the same time, the Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis issued on Jan. 22 by President Biden requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review and perhaps rescind the final rule issued last September by the Trump administration. That rule relieved pipelines and other oil and gas sectors from facing Obama administration limits on methane emissions. The now-cancelled Obama rules would have required gas transmission pipelines to monitor pneumatic controllers, compressor stations and storage for both methane and volatile organic chemical (VOC) leaks, and to fix them. 

The Biden executive order (EO) lists numerous Trump rules now in the Biden administration’s crosshairs, but the oil and gas rule from the EPA is listed first. That has to send an unmistakable signal. Moreover, the order specifically tells the EPA to consider going beyond the Obama rules, which only dealt with emissions from “new, reconstructed, and modified sources.” 

Biden’s EO tells the EPA to consider “any additional agency actions” for establishing “comprehensive standards of performance and emission guidelines for methane and volatile organic compound emissions from existing operations in the oil and gas sector, including the exploration and production, transmission, processing, and storage segments, by September 2021.” 

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) issued a qualified statement of support for the Biden EO. 

“For years, INGAA has expressed concern about the lack of certainty and predictability regarding methane regulations,” said an INGAA spokesperson. “We would welcome federal new and existing source methane regulations that are safe, sound and effective, avoid unintended consequences that may impair reliability, and allow companies appropriate flexibility to meaningfully minimize and reduce emissions from their operations.” 

The Biden EO probably means new emissions limits for controllers, compressors and storage facilities. The new pipeline bill passed by Congress, on the other hand, requires a new regulatory program for leaks from the pipelines themselves. Those leaks have been the subject of numerous National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations as far back as its San Bruno investigative report in 2011. 

In February, the NTSB issued a report on an Atmos pipeline leak in Dallas that caused a death and did major structural damage to a residence. Rob Hall, director of NTSB’s Railroad, Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Division, said when investigators examined a large segment of Atmos’ Dallas pipeline system, they found thousands of Class 1 and Class 2 leaks, which Hall calls “excessive.” Class 1 leaks are hazardous and require immediate attention; Class 2 is a leak that may become hazardous and requires scheduled repair. 

The new PIPES Act of 2020 covers both transmission and distribution lines and includes numerous provisions. The leak provision requires PHMSA to publish minimum performance standards for leak detection and repair programs by the end of 2021 – a deadline the agency, given its past, dismal record on rulemaking deadlines, surely will miss. 

Those standards must “reflect the capabilities of commercially available advanced technologies that, with respect to each pipeline covered by the programs, are appropriate for: (i) the type of pipeline; (ii) the location of the pipeline; (iii) the material of which the pipeline is constructed; and (iv) the materials transported by the pipeline.” 

The standards can allow operators to use leak detection practices that depend on human senses and they must include “a schedule for repairing or replacing each leaking pipe, except a pipe with a leak so small that it poses no potential hazard, with appropriate deadlines.” 

According to C.J. Osman, vice president of government affairs, INGAA, PHMSA’s current leak detection standards are from the 1990s, so they do need updating. 

“Our members have made significant strides so we think this is a positive step and will allow companies to use technology available in 2021,” Osman stated. “We will engage heavily in this rulemaking process. Not all leaks are of the same concern. There is a lot for PHMSA to work through here.” 

Jake Rubin, senior director of public relations and executive communications at the American Gas Association, said the organization also supports the leak detection provision. 

“Leak detection and investigation technologies and practices are frequent topics covered in AGA’s technical committees, Best Practices Program and Operations Conference,” Rubin explained. “AGA members are committed to working with PHMSA, the NTSB, industry research consortiums and others to continue to advance leak detection and investigation technologies and procedures.” 

NTSB’s Hall, who worked for the PHMSA a few decades ago and wrote a report on leak detection, thinks the leak detection rule will affect distribution pipelines more than transmission pipelines, because the former leak more methane and those leaks are frequently detected not by the distribution company but residents smelling leaking gas. 

In addition to the leak prevention program in the PIPES Act, distribution pipelines face a second rulemaking required by the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act. PHMSA must adopt regulations requiring that distribution integrity management plans (DIMP) provide for evaluating risks related to cast iron pipes, and mains and risks associated with operating a low-pressure distribution system at pressures that make connected gas-burning equipment unsafe. 

PHMSA must also update its regulations to require that distribution system operators’ emergency response plans contain written procedures for establishing communication with first responders, other public officials and the general public, and for implementing a voluntary, opt-in system to facilitate rapid communication with customers in an emergency. 

Corps initiates INGAA-opposed permit changes 

The Army Corps of Engineers finalized changes to wetland pipeline digging permits opposed by INGAA. But that final rule, issued days before President Trump’s exit from office, now faces review and revision by the Biden administration, possible cancellation by Congress or a lawsuit from environmentalists. 

That the Corps will probably have to review that final rule, in some sense, is a boon to the gas transmission industry, given the final rulemaking changes to Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP12) adopts none of the suggestions INGAA asked for after the proposed rule was issued in September 2020. The Corps’ proposal covered numerous NWPs, including NWP12, which allows pipelines to get expedited approval for digging in and around wetlands when they dislodge a minimal amount of land and do no environmental damage. 

The Corps issued the final rule on Jan. 16, 2021. It removed electric utility and telecommunications, and water systems pipelines from NWP12 and created separate NWPs (57 and 58, respectively) for them. INGAA had opposed that separation calling it an “arbitrary, abrupt, and unjustified departure from its long-standing view that utility lines are activities that are similar in nature.” The Corps’ rationale for separating components of NWP12 was so it could spend more time on pipeline applications, which are much more numerous and potentially more damaging. Environmentalists wanted the Corps to eliminate NWP12 entirely; the Corps did not do that. 

The final rule also makes some changes to preconstruction notification (PCN) requirements, which determine if an NWP12 application for a Clean Water Act permit needs an extra level of review from the Corps district in which the project would take place. Five current PCNs would be eliminated, two retained and, most importantly perhaps, a new one added for pipelines over 250 miles in length. INGAA opposed the new 250-mile PCN, as well as the other PCN changes.

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