US Regulators Look to Tighten Oil Pipeline Rules
Author: Chris Baltimore
Thomas Barrett, head of the US Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said he will soon propose new rules to regulate some low-stress lines in rural areas, including BP's Prudhoe Bay lines.
Current US pipeline regulations exempt from oversight the 22-mile line operated by BP that leaked oil onto the Arctic tundra, spurring a shutdown of half the capacity of the 400,000 barrel-per-day field, the nation's biggest.
That's because low-stress lines like BP's Prudhoe Bay network -- ones that run at less than 20 percent of their rated capacity and are sited away from population centers -- are deemed to be less risky than high-pressure lines.
But the Transportation Department, which oversees the 200,000-mile network of pipelines that criss-cross the nation, is rethinking that equation after a BP pipeline in Prudhoe Bay ruptured in March, spilling at least 200,000 gallons of crude in the North Slope's worst onshore spill.
Barrett said in an interview the proposal will be "fairly robust" and cover about 1,600 miles of the roughly 5,000 miles of US low-pressure pipelines,
The rules will require regular cleaning and inspections of low-stress lines in "unusually sensitive" areas, including places that are near endangered species habitats or community drinking supplies, Barrett said.
Barrett said BP's Prudhoe Bay lines had not been "pigged," or inspected with a bullet-shaped device that slides around inside the pipes, for over 10 years. Under the new rules the lines would be cleaned every five years, he said.
"Prudhoe Bay could have been prevented if BP had paid more attention to its maintenance," Barrett said. "The standard of care up there was well below what we've seen from other companies ... and well below what I would expect from a company like BP."
Lois Epstein, a pipeline engineer with Cook Inletkeeper, an Alaska environmental group, said the rules should include all low-pressure lines, not just the high-risk subset that federal regulators and industry has proposed.
"I've been trying to convince (US regulators) not to just get something out fast but to get something out that makes sense, and that actually will eliminate a problem that they know exists," Epstein said.
"It's frustrating that they've always taken half a cut at the problem instead of dealing with it completely," she said.
Oil industry lobbyists at the Association of Oil Pipe Lines and the American Petroleum Institute said a wider inspection regime would stretch limited inspection resources.
The two groups support regulation of low-stress lines in "unusually sensitive" areas, but said wider rules would divert resources away from inspecting high-volume, high-stress lines.
The US Congress is also involved. A bill to reauthorize federal pipeline safety authority, now making its way through the House of Representatives, could require more oversight in the wake of the BP Alaska affair.
The House Energy Committee will hold a Sept. 7 hearing on the BP field shutdown, which will likely impact the debate on pipeline safety reauthorization.
"This mess tells .... (that) the law needs to be changed to explicitly cover low-pressure pipelines," said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of two panels involved in the issue.
A House Energy subcommittee has drafted legislation that would require the Transportation Department to issue guidelines, but does not weigh in on the form they should take.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, headed by Rep. Don Young of Alaska, in July endorsed more regulations of low-stress lines, in line with the industry proposal.
Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Republican Pete Domenici, said on Thursday his panel will hold a Sept. 12 hearing on BP's pipeline failure.