March 2024 Vol. 79 No. 3


Inside infrastructure: Safety debate continues to address new, controversial subjects

By Eben M. Wyman, Wyman Associates 

(UI) — Every four or five years, multiple committees in Congress undertake the responsibility of reauthorizing the nation’s pipeline safety program and the federal agency that oversees it.

Although pipeline safety legislation has traditionally been bipartisan, a range of new, and many would describe as peripheral, issues have entered the conversation. The result has been a more polarized debate, and one that has delayed passage of recent pipeline safety reauthorization legislation. This year, the conversation might be heading in the same direction.  

Certain provisions under consideration in the current pipeline safety debate offer the opportunity for significant improvements in the underground damage prevention process at a time when excavation activity in this country is at an all-time high, and hundreds of billions of dollars in new federal investments in American infrastructure continue to be injected into the market.  

Safety vs. environmental protection

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is charged with overseeing the safe design, operation, and maintenance of America’s nearly 3.3 million miles of natural gas, oil and other hazardous materials, including hydrogen, carbon dioxide and other emerging fuels. For decades, issues commonly found in a pipeline safety bill focused on traditional and, some would say more legitimate, safety issues related to corrosion, equipment and/or material failure, human error, excavation damage, natural disasters and other factors.  

The last pipeline safety reauthorization bill enacted, the “PIPES Act of 2020,” clearly changed the game. It mandated PHMSA to require the development of advanced leak detection programs capable of identifying, locating and categorizing natural gas leaks from pipeline infrastructure for timely repair.  

Fierce debate raged over whether and how environmental goals, such as reducing methane emissions, should be part of the pipeline safety conversation. This fight ended up impeding final passage of the PIPES Act of 2020 for almost a year. To say that lawmakers were at odds on this issue would be a tremendous understatement.  

Following enactment of the 2020 Act, resulting federal guidance and PHMSA regulatory actions have led to proposed requirements aimed at: 

  • Strengthening leakage survey and patrolling requirements by increasing the frequency of such surveys and requiring use of advanced leak detection technology (aerial/vehicle surveys, handheld detection devices, continuous monitoring systems, etc.). 
  • Reducing the volume of gas released because of unintentional emissions (leaks, equipment failures, etc.). 
  • Minimizing intentional releases (venting, flaring, blowdowns, etc.) associated with maintenance, repair and construction activities. 
  • Establishing explicit criteria and timeframes for the repair of leaks that pose a risk to public safety or the environment. 

Shared jurisdiction, differing approaches

As mentioned, jurisdiction over pipeline safety reauthorization is shared by three congressional committees. Late last year, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced the “Promoting Innovation in Pipeline Efficiency and Safety Act of 2023” (PIPES 2023), which would reauthorize pipeline safety programs for the next four years. It addresses a range of pipeline safety issues related to fulfilling previous congressional mandates and ongoing rulemakings, reporting requirements and multiple studies regarding pipeline transportation of carbon dioxide and hydrogen pipelines, use of state-of-the-art technologies and materials, and improving state damage prevention programs.  

Almost immediately after introduction of PIPES 2023, the fight over PHMSA’s expanded scope of jurisdiction was the subject of considerable (and vocal) dispute. Democrats pointed out that emissions reduction was now an approved and legitimate responsibility of the agency, and Republicans dis everything to redirect the focus from environmental concerns to traditional safety issues.  

Last summer, Republican leaders for the House Energy and Commerce (E&C) Committee introduced their own version of pipeline safety reauthorization legislation. The Pipeline Safety, Modernization and Expansion Act of 2023 included some of the provisions contained in the T&I Committee bill (PIPES 2023). It also addressed several topics that, while considered “high-profile” issues in the debate over America’s energy future, are not considered appropriate by most Democrats to be included in a pipeline safety debate.  

For example, the E&C measure calls for PHMSA to finalize safety standards for pipeline facilities that transport carbon dioxide and hydrogen, addresses cost-benefit analysis currently required by law, and includes provisions to test and allow for use of innovative technologies in the pipeline industry.  

However, the E&C pipeline safety bill also included provisions that would:  

  • Prohibit a state or municipality from banning the transportation of an energy source, including natural gas or liquid fuels, that are sold in interstate commerce using a pipeline facility regulated by PHSMA. 
  • Authorize the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to issue any federal permit required for constructing, modifying, expanding, inspecting, repairing or maintaining an existing or new pipeline within an existing right-of-way.  

Volatile issues such as “fuel choice” versus mandatory electrification or efforts to otherwise restrict access to natural gas, as well as the ongoing struggle to update and reform the infrastructure permit process are important and will likely be considered for the foreseeable future. However, while almost universally supported by the natural gas industry, energy proponents should not be surprised if these pro-energy provisions do not make it into a final pipeline safety bill.  

Many contend that the push to address provisions to facilitate development of energy infrastructure in pipeline safety legislation seems to be a response to added environmental considerations injected into PHMSA’s bailiwick during the last reauthorization. Either way, at the time this piece was written, the House T&I measure differed considerably from its counterpart offered in the House E&C Committee, and the third committee with skin in the game (Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee) has yet to introduce a bill.  

In other words, considerable work remains to be done to get a pipeline safety bill across the finish line in what will likely be contentious debate during a hostile presidential election year.  

Advancing damage prevention

Construction organizations like the Distribution Contractors Association (DCA) voiced immediate support of the T&I Committee’s PIPES 2023 (HR 6494) legislation and continue to encourage important policy proposals it offers be included in the E&C bill and then in the Senate pipeline safety measure when that chamber develops and advances its bill. 

Specifically, HR 6494 addresses the enduring problem associated with damages to underground facilities during excavation. The excavation construction industry has long-advocated for policy that supports shared responsibility in damage prevention. This means that the responsibilities of both excavators and gas pipeline operators (as well as facility operators in other underground facility markets) are considered equally important. The bottom line is that federal policy should reflect that.  

PHMSA offers grant dollars for developing and improving state damage prevention programs, traditionally based on criteria related to public education and awareness, training, balanced enforcement, effective benchmarking and other factors. HR 6494 would add to that criterion, requiring states to demonstrate that they have adopted or can show progress toward adoptions of several leading practices in their damage prevention programs as part of the criteria considered when states apply for PHMSA damage prevention grant dollars.  

The leading practices include (but are not limited to): 

  • Examining and limiting exemptions, including municipal exemptions 
  • Requiring marking of all lines and laterals, including sewer lines and laterals 
  • Encouraging training for locate professionals 
  • Applying damage prevention requirements to other underground infrastructure markets  
  • Encouraging the use of technologies to locate underground facilities, such as geographic information systems (GIS), which offer the most detailed and prolific pipeline mapping available  

Many in the excavation industry believe these provisions will undoubtably improve the damage prevention process. At a time when the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) is taking a hard look at the need for improved underground facility mapping, the need to address overloading facility locators with unrealistic expectations, and to eliminate exemptions to the 811 process, this year’s pipeline safety debate has the opportunity to considerably improve pipeline safety.  

Multi-industry support for GIS

In a letter of support for HR 6494 just prior to consideration by the full T&I Committee, an ad-hoc coalition of construction organizations wrote to T&I Committee members, stating that “providing excavators with well-contrived designs that avoid or mitigate utility conflicts along with standardized digital data on utility infrastructure enables better construction planning and execution by leveraging virtual design and construction technologies that eliminate potential for damages. A fundamental need is to document utilities properly and in a standardized fashion at the time of installation.”  

The letter was signed by associations representing excavation contractors, operators, engineers, manufacturers, service providers and labor unions. Specifically, these included: 

  • Association of Equipment Manufacturers  
  • American Society of Civil Engineers  
  • Distribution Contractors Association  
  • Laborers International Union of North America  
  • Pipeline Open Data Standard Association   
  • Plastics Pipe Institute  
  • United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters 

In other words, there is interest from national groups representing all key stakeholders in improving excavation damage prevention through movement toward superior GIS mapping of underground facilities. 

Pipeline safety advocates have significant work to do, and there are critical opportunities currently under consideration that should keep serious groups engaged. We know we’re in the midst of the biggest infrastructure buildout in American history, with some $550 billion of new infrastructure investments that were included in the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law expected over the next several years. With a lot of that going toward underground infrastructure, it’s safe to say there’s no end in sight regarding the increasing levels of excavation going on across the country.  

Pipeline operators, and those who operate any underground facility for that matter, need to “up their game” when it comes to mapping, locating and marking their facilities. While there is a long way to go before reaching any consensus on most pipeline safety issues, it has been encouraging to see stakeholders in many industries support future mapping of subsurface infrastructure.  

Other beneficial, pro-energy issues like “fuel choice” policy and infrastructure project permit reform are not likely to survive in a final pipeline safety bill, but this pipeline safety debate is providing ample opportunity to bring them up. Industry should be vocal about all these issues, while understanding the need to keep our eye on the prize and support a final bill that improves legitimate pipeline safety issues, especially related to underground facility damage prevention. 

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