Rural gas gathering pipelines kindle concerns about safety laws

Mike Wereschagin
| Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

An estimated 230,000 miles of natural gas pipelines across the United States — some of them among the largest and highest-pressure pipes in use — are not covered by state and federal pipeline safety laws, a Tribune-Review investigation found.

Known as gathering lines, they usually take natural gas from rural well pads to processing plants, where other byproducts such as butane are removed and the rotten egg smell that warns you of a gas leak is added.

Pennsylvania has 20,000 miles of unregulated gathering lines. Once thought to be too small to worry about, nearly 6,000 miles of the lines in the state were laid during the Marcellus shale boom, when new drilling practices dramatically increased their size and pressure.

Federal laws governing pipeline safety, construction materials, inspections and record-keeping apply to just 10 percent of the nation's gathering lines, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Some gathering lines are as large as and operate at nearly three times more pressure than main transmission lines, such as the transmission line that exploded beneath San Bruno, Calif., in 2010, killing eight people and destroying a neighborhood.

“They're just as dangerous as the big gas transmission lines” that feed cities' distribution networks, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Washington state-based nonprofit that advocates for pipeline safety rules.

Several state and federal entities are expected to consider changing the rules in 2015. Most, including lawmakers in Pennsylvania, propose bringing gathering lines under the same safety and inspection rules as other pipelines.

Others — including a North Dakota congressman, where a natural gas and oil boom is rapidly transforming the state — want to loosen restrictions to speed up installation of gathering lines.

“What keeps me up at night? Gathering lines,” Linda Daugherty, the federal pipeline agency's deputy associate administrator for field operations, told an annual conference of the Pipeline Safety Trust last year.

“Right now, there's a whole lot of gathering lines out there that no one is inspecting,” she said. “There are no safety standards applicable to those lines and no safety agency or regulators looking at them.”

New wells, new worries

The lack of regulation is a holdover from an era of drilling when wells were smaller and required only narrow, low-pressure pipes to deliver gas to processing plants.

Hydraulically fractured well pads, the kind used in Western Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale, bring together multiple bore holes drilled more than a mile into the earth. Each well pad can produce a much larger volume of gas than conventional wells.

Gathering lines that run through heavily populated areas fall under the same regulations as other pipelines. But because wells are generally in rural areas, 90 percent of the lines are classified by federal law as “Class 1,” the federal pipeline safety agency estimates.

Class 1 lines are those with fewer than 10 homes within 220 yards on either side of a mile of pipeline.

But a housing development can turn a farm field into a neighborhood, said Lynda Farrell, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition, a Chester County-based nonprofit.

“A rural area today is not a rural area tomorrow or in the future,” she noted.

Changes coming?

Though not legally required, many gas companies voluntarily report the location of unregulated gathering lines to Pennsylvania's One Call system. Anyone digging must call the system beforehand to find out whether there are gas lines or other buried utilities in the excavation site. Gathering lines typically are buried three to five feet below the surface.

State Sen. Don White plans to reintroduce a bill next year to require gas companies to report gathering lines to the One Call system. The bill didn't make it to the floor for a vote this year.

But White, R-Indiana, doesn't yet support applying other safety regulations to these lines.

“With the increase in Marcellus shale activity ... both the state and federal governments are re-examining whether more regulation is necessary,” White said. “As such, I believe more information is warranted before moving forward on additional mandates.”

The federal pipeline safety agency began studying possible rules for gathering lines in August 2011. Regulators are “coming close” to issuing proposed rules, spokesman Damon Hill said, but there is a mandatory comment period before any rule changes would be implemented.

Pennsylvania law ties state regulations to those at the federal level, so any changes the federal agency makes will take effect here. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a gas industry group, plans to respond to those proposals when they are issued, said Patrick Creighton, a coalition spokesman.

“Meantime, the coalition and our member companies will continue to ensure that all gas gathering lines in Pennsylvania are operated safely and reliably and in accordance with both PHMSA and Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission regulations,” Creighton said.

Ohio decided not to wait for the feds. In 2012, lawmakers extended pipeline safety regulations to Class 1 gathering lines.

“We wanted to make sure that these pipelines were under some safety regulations now,” said John Williams, director of the Service Monitoring and Enforcement Department in the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. If the federal pipeline agency changes its rules, Ohio will adopt them, he said, “but we wanted a stopgap so we could get out in front of it.”

Gas companies filed plans for about 400 miles of Class 1 gathering lines in Ohio since the law took effect, according to data that PUCO provided to the Trib.

“We haven't had any type of negative feedback from the gas companies,” Williams said.

Growing pains

North Dakota has a different problem. Its oil industry grew so fast, it produced 300,000 barrels a day more than its pipelines could ship in 2013, the Government Accountability Office said. In this environment, many drillers did not bother trying to ship the less-profitable natural gas that came up with the oil. At night in the oil fields, flares at well pads light the prairie sky, burning off natural gas that drillers could sell.

“Every day, we were flaring enough gas to heat 1,200 North Dakota homes for a year,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

Pipeline construction on private land is catching up with the gas supply, but not on federal and tribal lands because the permitting process is so difficult. Wells in those areas burn off gas at twice the rate as private land counterparts, he said.

Cramer said he plans to try to speed up the permitting process in 2015. Though his bill would curb some environmental protections on federal and tribal lands, he said it's actually better for the environment than the status quo, in which drillers simply burn carbon-heavy natural gas. The bill does not apply to wildlife refuges and national parks, he said.

“I can understand why there would be a safety concern. The integrity of gas line infrastructure is critical — including to the pipeline owners,” Cramer said.

The San Bruno line was 30 inches across and operated at 400 pounds per square inch. Some gathering lines are just as large but contain as much as 1,100 pounds of pressure per square inch, according to a 2012 report from an environmental adviser to Gov. Tom Corbett.

When the San Bruno line ruptured, the fire melted paint and cracked windows on fire trucks, Mayor Jim Ruane told the Trib. Officials called in tanker aircraft to douse it, he said.

“What we're starting to see in places like Pennsylvania is, yeah, they're classified as rural pipelines, but they're still going past rural houses,” the Pipeline Safety Trust's Weimer said. “It's not like Philadelphia or something, but where do you draw the line?”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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