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Former pipeline safety chief: Better rules needed on gas gathering lines

| Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Range Resources Corp.’s John Hunter well site in Donegal, Washington County, where Range and FTS International are fracking five wells on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Range Resources Corp.’s John Hunter well site in Donegal, Washington County, where Range and FTS International are fracking five wells on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014.

Size matters.

At least, it should when it comes to regulating more than 230,000 miles of pipelines that gather natural gas in drilling fields across the country, the former head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said.

Known as gathering lines, the lines largely transport natural gas to processing facilities. And, as a Tribune-Review investigation in late December revealed, they are almost entirely unregulated by federal or state governments.

That wasn't a cause for much concern when the lines gathered natural gas from old, low-pressure wells. But in the era of hydraulic fracturing, when gas is extracted under enormous pressure, these unregulated pipes can be larger and operate at higher pressures than the interstate transmission lines that feed cities.

“At some point, all lines become transmission lines,” said Brigham McCown, who was the first head of the federal pipeline agency when it was established in 2004. “I would consider looking at the feasibility of putting a maximum size and pressure on a gathering line,” rather than regulating them based on how many people live near them.

Federal regulations for gathering lines don't take effect unless there are at least 10 homes along a mile of pipeline, regardless of the pipeline's size.

“The way the rules are written, gathering lines — especially in rural areas — pretty much are not regulated,” McCown said. “They can pack a lot of punch.”

The pipeline safety administration began studying whether to regulate those lines in 2011 and likely will propose rules for them sometime this year. Pennsylvania ties its regulations to federal law.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he supports extending regulations to cover larger gathering lines.

“We don't use regulation that was designed back in the rotary phone era for smartphones today,” Doyle told the Trib in an interview Friday. “And obviously, with the advent of Marcellus shale, these pipelines are a lot bigger and carrying a lot higher pressure than what the regulations were designed for.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, said he's waiting on the federal agency's recommendations, as well.

“While we must meet the commonwealth's energy needs, it is crucial that we continue monitoring the public safety where necessary,” Kelly said.

Doyle said rules alone won't be enough. “The regulations don't mean much if there's not oversight,” he said.

Public opposition to hydraulic fracturing prompted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban the practice in his state after a years-long moratorium. A lack of confidence in the safety of the technique drives anti-fracking sentiment, Doyle said.

“If it's going to work, we have to make sure public safety is paramount; that's No. 1. Then the environment. And if we can protect those two things and mitigate the risk through good regulation and good oversight, then I think it's worth doing,” Doyle said.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Washington-based industry group, plans to wait for the federal safety agency to propose its regulations before commenting, spokesman Patrick Creighton said.

Pennsylvania is home to more than 20,000 miles of unregulated gathering lines, which include the small, low-pressure lines in use for decades and the larger, high-pressure lines from Marcellus wells.

Municipalities will have to figure out how to plan residential and business development around the larger, high-pressure lines, said McCown, CEO of Nouveau Inc., a Dallas-based consulting firm to energy, infrastructure and transportation industries.

A 30-inch transmission line exploded in 2010 under a neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight. The pipe had been laid in 1956. Some unregulated gathering lines in Pennsylvania have the same 30-inch diameter and operate at nearly three times the pressure, according to a 2012 report from an environmental adviser to Gov. Tom Corbett.

“The city shouldn't have built a neighborhood over that pipeline,” McCown said of San Bruno. “There needs to be a decision-making process for what kind of development you're going to allow” around these pipelines.

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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