June 2022 Vol. 77 No. 6

Washington Watch

PHMSA Finalizes New Remote Valve Requirements

Stephen Barlas | Washington, D.C. Editor 

After more than a decade of considering whether pipelines should install automatic shut-off valves, the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a final rule, although it fell short of what the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wanted to see. 

It was the NTSB that had repeatedly asked PHMSA over the past decade to impose shut-off valve requirements, starting after its investigation of the PG&E Sept. 9, 2010, accident in San Bruno, Calif., when a gas transmission pipeline ruptured, causing an explosion that killed eight people. 

The NTSB made recommendations after its investigation and the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011 required PHMSA to issue regulations requiring the use of automatic shut-off valves (ASV) or RCVs, or equivalent technology, on newly constructed or replaced gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipeline facilities. 

Eleven years later, the new PHMSA regulation affects most newly constructed and entirely replaced onshore gas transmission, Type A gas gathering, and hazardous liquid pipelines, with diameters of six inches or greater, after April 10, 2023. 

Eleven years in the making 

The pipeline industry has appeared to have won most of the regulatory battles it fought over the past decade, as this regulation slowly progressed through PHMSA. 

“Safety is our top priority, and we are glad to see that PHMSA listened to industry’s input when finalizing the requirements that allow for faster response and help minimize the risk to the communities our members serve,” said Christina Sames, AGA’s senior vice president of Safety, Operations and Security. 

“The changes within the final regulation continue to help move the needle on safety, while ensuring AGA’s members are maintaining reliable and affordable natural gas service,” 

The NTSB and the Pipeline Safety Trust wanted PHMSA to apply the rule to existing pipelines, which the agency did not do. The final rule also falls short in other ways. 

“PHMSA’s final rule does not meet the criteria specified in NTSB safety recommendations regarding valve and rupture detection completely,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “I encourage PHMSA to continue their efforts to address the identified issues from our investigation of the San Bruno, Cali., natural gas explosion and satisfy the NTSB safety recommendations.” 

PHMSA acknowledged that the application of the rule to existing pipelines was included in the NTSB recommendations, but such a change is beyond the scope of what it could authorize within the current regulations. PHMSA hinted it could go that route in the future, but such “an expansion may merit additional process (e.g., a supplemental notice and solicitation of additional comments), imposing a substantial delay to a rule that is already 11 years in the making. 

“Further, application of the rule’s rupture-mitigation valves (RMV) and alternative equivalent technology installation requirements to existing pipeline infrastructure would entail installation activity (e.g., blowdowns of existing pipelines prior to replacement, and work in pipeline rights-of-way) that could involve significant GHG emissions and other potential environmental harms.” 

In the regulation, PHMSA requires operators to install RMVs (i.e., remote-control, or automatic shut-off, valves) or alternative equivalent technologies. It also establishes minimum performance standards for those valves’ operation to prevent or mitigate the public safety and environmental consequences of pipeline ruptures. The final rule sets requirements for RMV spacing, maintenance and inspection, and risk analysis. 

Final rule 

One of the issues that surfaced after PHMSA proposed explicit language in 2020, as part of its proposed rule, was the definition of what constituted a “newly replaced” pipeline. 

Trade groups, including the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), the American Petroleum Institute (API) and American Gas Association (AGA), pressed for a definition, which PHMSA adopted in the final rule. It stated that an “entirely replaced” pipeline is one that has two or more miles being replaced with new pipe within any stretch of five contiguous miles within any 24-month period. 

PHMSA also adopted language proposed by the gas groups, specifying for gas transmission and Type A gas gathering pipelines, that the RMV or alternative equivalent technology installation requirements will not apply if the pipeline segment is in a Class 1 or Class 2 location and has a potential impact radius (PIR) less than or equal to 150 feet. 

This final rule also establishes federal minimum safety performance standards for the identification of ruptures, pipeline segment isolation and other mitigative actions, for pipelines on which RMVs or alternative equivalent technology are installed. 

Relevant new requirements include: a definition of the term “notification of potential rupture” to identify signs of an uncontrolled release of a large volume of commodity observed by, or reported to, the operator. INGAA questioned parts of the definition, some of which were accommodated by PHMSA changes. 

But a second, objectionable, part of that definition stayed: a 10-percent-pressure-loss-within-15-minutes threshold. PHMSA agreed to cushion the definition by permitting operators to document in their written procedures the need for alternative pressure-loss-rate thresholds, due to the unique pipeline flow dynamics resulting from changes in demand. 

Other new standards of note include: 

  • Establishing written procedures for identifying and responding to a rupture. 
  • Responding to an identified rupture by closing RMVs or alternative equivalent technology, to provide complete valve shut-off and segment isolation as soon as practicable, but no more than 30 minutes after rupture identification. 
  • Performing post-event reviews of any incidents/accidents or other failure events involving the closure of RMVs or alternative equivalent technologies to ensure the performance objectives of this rule are met and to apply any lessons learned system-wide 
  • Performing maintenance on RMVs and alternative equivalent technology, which includes drills for alternative equivalent technology that is manually or locally operated 
  • Remediation measures for repair or replacement of inoperable RMVs and alternative equivalent technologies, including any that cannot maintain shut-off, as soon as practicable. 

NWP 12: Up for review again 

The Army Corps of Engineers is undertaking a review of Nationwide Permit (NWP) 12, which allows gas and oil pipelines to avoid a lengthy, expensive environmental review when building facilities near wetlands. The Corps held virtual hearings around the country during May to determine whether NWP 12, one of about 50 NWPs, ought to be made harder to get because it conflicts with President Biden’s Executive Order from January 2021. 

That Executive Order said it was the Biden administration’s policy to “listen to the science” and to further a laundry list of environmental objectives related to clean air and clean water, in addition to holding “polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.” NWP 12 expires in March 2026. 

In the last days of the Trump administration, the Corps split NWP 12 into three separate NWPs — one for oil, gas and petrochemicals (which remained as NWP 12); one for electric utility lines and telecommunications activities (which is now NWP 57); and one for utility line activities for water and other substances (now NWP 58). INGGA opposed that trifurcation. 

The January 2021 NWP 12 removed several preconstruction notification (PCN) requirements, but also included an additional one for new oil or natural gas pipelines greater than 250 miles in length. Opposed to this new requirement, INGGA wanted the Corps to keep all the PCNs as they existed in 2017, the last time NWP 12 changes were issued. 

NWP 12 had recently become controversial. In April 2020 opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline convinced a federal judge to issue a nationwide injunction against the use of NWP 12, because the Corps did not dig deep enough into potential violations of the Endangered Species Act when issuing the Keystone XL NWP 12 permit. In July 2020, the Supreme Court stayed that injunction for all project developers, except Keystone XL. 

In its notice announcing the review, the Corps asked for input on a number of questions. Those included whether the NWP 12 should be tightened so that projects lead to “no more than minimal individual and cumulative adverse environmental effects.” Other questions were should more be done to involve environmental justice communities in NWP 12 proceedings, and should there be differences in the way the Corps handles NWP 12 applications for gas and oil pipelines? UC 

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