As those who work closely with pipeline development and operations, we must be ever vigilant in ensuring safe and compliant pipelines. The cost of not doing so can be tragic to the health and safety of the public. But the solution is not easy.
There are more than 230,000 miles of onshore gathering gas lines (GGLs) in the U.S. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) established new definitions for "regulated onshore GGLs" or "unregulated onshore GGLs" based on potential risks to human health and the environment.
Pipelines built before 1970 may have a welding defect that, over time and with continued use, can leak, causing damage to human health and the environment.In fact, this welding problem may have been responsible for up to 36 percent of spills and leaks in GGLs between 2006 and 2010. Over the years, pipes with a welding defect have also caused hundreds of accidents and multiple deaths.
Still, not much has been done to rectify the problem, largely in part because the U.S. Transportation Department (DOT) and PHMSA must measure the cost of repairs with the percentage of accidents caused by these welded pipes, and accidents that occur constitute only a small percentage of the pipes in use.
Meanwhile, spills, leaks, and horrific explosions continue to occur. But things may be changing.
It would cost an estimated $50 billion to replace the nearly 50,000 miles of active pipelines in the U.S., each with the potential to destroy both the natural and built environments.
Although government and industry leadership balk at this expense, and line replacement continues to be pushed to the next fiscal year, there are many reasons the PHMSA may be finally taking action—not only on pipes with welding problems, but with all GGLs.
Although PHMSA updated its requirements for regulated and unregulated GGLs in DOT’s 49 CFR Part 192 in 2006, new developments and recent failure events have given the agency pause.
According to an article in Oil & Gas Monitor, PHMSA’s new concerns make it "likely that PHMSA will include GGLs into the notice of proposed rule-making for natural gas pipeline operators." The authors also believe that the agency will change the "definition of GGLs, which would lead to additional miles of existing lines being defined as regulated and operated as gas transmission lines."
If that happens, operators will be required to verify MAOPs and to perform risk assessments based on the danger the pipeline poses to people and the environment. Although these risk assessments can be costly, they provide benefit beyond just compliance.
We can kill two birds with one stone if we combine risk management procedure with our current asset management programs. This could satisfy the requirements of 49 CFR Part 192 and take care of our pipeline assets. The latter means that we could become aware of potential problems before they happen and fix them before they become costly—or deadly—failures.
In addition, combining asset and risk management systems enables the industry to increase efficiency and encourage safety in our companies.