New rules from Congress require material strength testing regulations on pipelines nationwide.
Despite a July 2013 federal deadline to establish material strength testing regulations on pipelines nationwide, it's likely pipeline operators won't even see a notice of proposed rule making before 2014.
The mandate from Congress came after significant pipeline incidents over the past decade, in particular, the failure in San Bruno, Calif., in 2010. As a result and after Congress passed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) was charged with gathering data about natural gas transmission pipelines and setting rules for strength-testing.
Pipeline operators were tasked with validating the current maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) on their pipelines by searching historical construction and maintenance documents for strength test records — an effort covering more than 300,000 miles of natural gas transmission pipelines. Segments of pipelines with inadequate or lacking test pressures would need to be strength-tested.
Also due in July were regulations from PHMSA establishing acceptable strength testing methods for pipelines. These regulations were anticipated to identify any alternatives to the disruptive method of hydrostatic testing and if testing would be limited or prioritized to certain conditions. The financial impact could be significant if many pipelines need to be strength-tested or even replaced, which can be a prudent alternative in many situations.
"Ultimately, PHMSA decided to first collect and analyze data before creating new regulations because they didn't really know how big the job would be until more information was available," says Dana Book, manager of pipeline projects at Burns & McDonnell. "They'll look at the MAOP validation data, as well as data from annual reports, and make decisions on where the initial focus should be."
Because completing hydrostatic testing and potentially replacing pipelines can be disruptive and expensive, PHMSA is taking costs and deliverability into consideration, which is stipulated in the Act, as well as public safety and the environment. PHMSA is working with state regulators and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on issues regarding rate cases and overall industry impact.
"They're trying to make an informed decision," Book says. "These regulations are a step change in terms of the integrity of our nation's natural gas pipeline system, and PHMSA is looking to implement that change without overextending the industry."
Eyes on California
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) took swift action to develop new state regulations in response to one of the deadliest pipeline explosions in recent history. The 2010 blast in San Bruno killed eight people and rattled the surrounding area so violently it initially registered as an earthquake.
The CPUC has responded to several safety recommendations issued by the National Transportation Safety Board — most notably by ordering all natural gas transmission pipeline operators to develop and submit plans to replace or test all pipelines that have not previously been pressure tested. PHMSA's upcoming federal regulations will stop short of requiring that all pipelines be tested or replaced by focusing initial efforts on higher-risk pipelines.
"PHMSA is watching what happens in California," Book says. "The federal regulations on pipelines won't be as stringent as California's, but they will result in a similar, significant effort by nearly every pipeline operator to test and replace pipelines."
For more information, contact Dana Book, 816-823-7535.
For more information about PHMSA's progress in establishing new pipeline safety regulations, visit www.phmsa.dot.gov.