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Exclusive: Pipeline Safety Chief Says His Regulatory Process Is 'Kind of Dying'

With 'few tools to work with,' PHMSA's Jeffrey Wiese says he is creating a YouTube channel to persuade industry to voluntarily improve safety.

By Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones

Sep 11, 2013
(Page 2 of 3 )
Jeffrey Wiese, PHMSA's associate administrator for pipeline safety

But Hill didn't respond to subsequent emails requesting to speak with Wiese and other PHMSA staffers who attended the pipeline safety conference in New Orleans, and Wiese didn't respond to interview requests sent to his official email address.

PHMSA: A Thin Green Line Protecting the Public from Spills and Explosions

PHMSA was created in 2004 as an agency within the federal Department of Transportation. It is a thin green line intended to ensure the safety of energy pipelines that crisscross the United States. Pipelines also carry other hazardous materials, including poisonous, carcinogenic chemicals like benzene. The agency's tasks include auditing the records of almost 3,000 pipeline operators; developing, issuing and enforcing pipeline safety regulations; conducting industry training, and investigating accidents.

The challenges facing regulators are daunting. More than half of the nation's pipeline was buried prior to 1970, about the same time the nation's first pipeline safety law was enacted and the Office of Pipeline Safety created. Much of the old pipe remains a question mark in terms of its location, composition, level of corrosion and quality of welding.

Some pipelines in the East are more than 100 years old. In the West, suburbs have grown up alongside lines installed when the areas were uninhabited. Age is not necessarily a critical factor if pipe is properly installed, maintained and operated. But many pipelines have changed ownership so many times that installation and maintenance records are unavailable.

In its budget proposal for this year, PHMSA defended its record, stating that its work "often goes unnoticed due to its successful efforts in reducing and containing serious incidents." The agency included a chart showing that incidents resulting in death or serious injury declined more than 60 percent during that period even as the number of miles of pipeline increased almost 40 percent. Other PHMSA data show modest declines in the number of serious incidents, injuries and fatalities in recent years.

"PHMSA is moving in the right direction," said Ravindra Chhatre, an investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board who specializes in pipeline accidents. "Sometimes people get frustrated by the pace that it's moving, but definitely it's improving."

Congress Delays Action on Shutoff Valves Even After Inferno Kills Eight

The problem, Wiese said in New Orleans, is that it takes too long to issue regulations, in part because industry negotiates for the weakest possible rules. 

"Getting any change through regulation, which used to be a viable tool, is no longer viable," Wiese told the industry representatives. "I really don't see that as a way to get change. It moves so slow. I've been working on rules now for recommendations from our friends at (the National Transportation Safety Board) and U.S. Congress. I've been working very hard but with the resources we have I still can't get those rules out."

To Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., whose district includes the site of one the deadliest pipeline accidents in American history, Wiese's comments were surprising only because they were delivered in public.

"To me, he was refreshingly candid," she said. "The industry has a lock on PHMSA. It has a lock on Congress. And the public's interest gets dramatically watered down."

Speier began having doubts about PHMSA after a 30-inch section of pipe ruptured in San Bruno at 6:11 p.m. on Sept. 9, 2010. The explosion generated a giant fireball that went on for 95 minutes because it took that long for gas line operator Pacific Gas & Electric to reach the manual shutoff valves.

The pipe had been installed in 1956 and was substandard and poorly welded, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation found later. Because it was grandfathered under PHMSA's safety laws, it wasn't subjected to the pressure testing that newer pipes must undergo.

The NTSB's investigation also found widespread failures of PG&E's operations, maintenance, record-keeping systems and emergency response. It issued a total of 39 recommendations, including 13 to PHMSA. As the third anniversary of the explosion approaches, PHMSA has yet to finish implementing any of the recommendations, according to the NTSB.

One of those recommendations was for remote shutoff valves to be installed on energy pipelines near suburbs, dams or other areas where an explosion would have grave consequences. Safety advocates had been arguing for remote or automatic safety valves since the 1970s, but the oil and gas industry always objected, saying the cost was too high and false alarms could shut down a pipeline, disrupting the flow of oil or gas. 

On the first anniversary of the tragedy that rocked her district, Speier introduced legislation designed to implement many of the NTSB recommendations, including the call for remote shutoff valves.

But the law President Obama signed several weeks later was a compromise bill—the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011. It was praised in its final form by the American Petroleum Institute, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and other industry groups. It was far weaker than Speier's legislation, especially when it came to the remote shutoff valves that might have reduced the death and destruction in San Bruno.

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