The multiple failings of the US oil and gas pipelines regulation body

From ToxicLeaks

The oil and gas industry would have the public believe that pipelines are the safest way to transport these fossil fuels. And they use that point again and again to push massive pipeline projects like Keystone XL or Dakota Access. But are they really that safe ? Or is that just another lie serving the greed of companies such as Transcanada, that builds pipelines or oil companies that plan to use them ? Indeed, pipelines are far from being as safe as these companies claim, in 2014 alone, 700 pipeline failures caused 19 deaths, around 100 injuries and $300 million in damage. And one important reason for this situation is that the agency that is supposed to monitor the pipelines in the United States, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), is failing its task abysmally. Which is putting millions of lives at risk countrywide.

A pipeline monitoring body born because of pipeline failure disasters[edit | edit source]

The PHMSA was created because of a series of pipeline failures that reflected the shortcomings of the federal monitoring of the American pipeline network. These failures caused massive disasters. On June 10, 1999, a pipeline owned by Shell and Texaco ruptured because of a pressure spike close to a creek, near Bellingham Washington. A young man called Liam Wood that had just graduated from high school was fishing on the creek as the pipeline leaked its gasoline into the water. He was intoxicated by the fumes and drowned. Two ten year old boys were playing close to the creek with a lighter. The lighter ignited the gasoline and set off a blast which burned them over more than 80 % of their bodies. They died the following day. Not the kind of disaster you would expect from a company that claims it is “committed to delivering energy responsibly and safely, preventing harm to [its employees, contractors, local communities and the environment]” ! One year after the Bellingham leak, another pipeline failed in New Mexico, and caused a natural gas explosion that killed 12 people ! These two shocking disasters were the definitive proof that federal regulators had been too lax and had failed to protect the citizens against the financial interests of the companies that build and own pipelines ! This led to more stringent regulations that forced pipeline operators to conduct risk-assessment analyses for pipelines running through populated areas. It also led to a reorganisation of the federal monitoring of the pipelines and the birth of the PHMSA in 2004. Unfortunately, this new administration body would prove to be just as complacent as its precursors and is far from having eradicated the risk created by the American pipelines.

An inefficient agency[edit | edit source]

On the PHMSA website, one can read that its mission is to “protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials that are essential to our daily lives”. However, it has proved unable to act decisively and expeditiously to improve the safety of American citizens. And this has prompted the Representative of Oregon and top Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Peter De Fazio, to demand that the Department of Transportation conduct an internal audit to clarify why the PHMSA was totally failing its task. The audit found in particular that “PHMSA’s slow progress and lack of coordination over the past 10 years has delayed the protections those mandates and recommendations are intended to provide”. Indeed, one of the PHMSA's missions is to craft regulations to give federal laws effect, but in a huge majority of cases, the PHMSA missed its deadline by a very large margin ! For example, the audit concluded that “since 2005, PHMSA has missed deadlines for responding to 115 of 118 NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] recommendations and 10 of 12 GAO [Government Accountability Office] recommendations”. Another example shows how inefficent the PHMSA is when it comes to making decisions : in 2011, a federal law was passed to improve the safety of pipelines, and this law ordered the PHMSA to conduct a large number of studies and elaborate regulations. However, as of July 2016, over 25 % of these projects remained incomplete !

An underfunded agency that is paralysed by the fossil fuel industry[edit | edit source]

So why is the PHMSA so slow to do its job, which is to protect the public from the risk that can arise from pipelines ? The first answer is funding, and when one takes a look at the budget that is granted to the PHMSA to conduct its mission, it becomes clear that monitoring pipelines is a pretty low priority for the government. How much money does the PHMSA receive to monitor the 2.6 million miles of pipelines of the country and the million shipments of hazardous material that occur every day ? About $145 million, which is “less than what the Pentagon spent on a single jet engine maintenance contract” in 2014. So federal laws are voted to strengthen the surveillance of pipelines but the organisation that actually does the job doesn't get the money it needs. Which is totally insane, since the United States continues to spend over $20 billion every year in fossil fuel subsidies despite the Paris deal ! One might think that kind of money would be better spent on the safety of the public ! However, underfunding is not the only obstacle to an efficient PHMSA that would really protect American citizens from the terrible disasters caused by pipeline failures. The other problem is the huge influence of the fossil fuel industry in the decision making of the PHMSA. Indeed, the regulation crafted by the PHMSA must undergo “peer review” by two committees where representatives of the industry have a say. Which means that corporations have a direct mean to influence the decisions of the PHMSA. Worse, the committees are theoretically composed of an equal number of members from private companies, the government and the public, but actually, the industry has the upper hand because several representatives of government or the public are currently missing ! As Paul Blackburn, an environmental consultant, puts it : “With PHMSA, there’s only one wind, and it blows from the industry”. The PHMSA accepts to follow recommendations... but at its usual sluggish pace !

The scathing audit by the Department of Transportation came with strong recommendations to improve the PHMSA's decision making. The audit asked the PHMSA in particular to clarify its decision making process, to improve its coordination with other administrations and to prioritize its rulemaking. And how did the PHMSA greet these recommendations ? By doing what it does best, stalling ! Representative Peter DeFazio wasn't fooled by the PHMSA's answer : “I am pleased that PHMSA has accepted the IG [inspector general] recommendations, but the key is in their implementation,” he said, “and already PHMSA says it won’t be able to implement the recommendations until December 2017, far too long to address such significant concerns and to ensure the health and safety of our communities and the American public.” A striking example of what a senior Capitol Hill aide calls the PHMSA's “culture of can't”.

Meanwhile, pipeline disasters continue to kill, injure and pollute countrywide[edit | edit source]

Given the weakness of PHMSA regulations and its reluctance to actively implement new rules, hundreds of pipeline failures happen every year in the United States, which causes fatalities, injuries and massive pollution. Just a few days ago, on Friday 21 October, a pipeline burst in Pennsylvania and started leaking gasoline into the Susquehanna river. Sunoco Logistics, the operator of the pipeline, didn't realize what what happening until about 55,000 gallons had poured into the river, causing massive pollution that cause impact the water quality of the area. In 2015, a pipeline facility in Louisiana was shook by a series of explosions that killed four people and injured two. Overall, since 1986 pipelines have killed 532 people, injured 2,400 have been injured and caused $7.5 billion in damage. And it's not only the old pipelines. The new ones fail as well and are just as dangerous, despite what communication teams are paid to make the public believe. For example, the Keystone I pipeline that was built by TransCanada and opened in June 2010 leaked 35 times in its first year alone !

This is definitive proof that pipelines are more dangerous than companies like TransCanada or Enbridge would have us believe. And just because shipping fossil fuels by truck, train or boat isn't safe isn't a good reason to rely on pipelines that have exposed the public to danger again and again. The only answer is to forsake fossil fuels altogether and focus on the energy sources of the future, renewable energies.