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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 3 of 3 )
Jeffrey Wiese, PHMSA's associate administrator for pipeline safety

Instead of requiring operators to install the valves quickly, the act directs PHMSA to spend a year studying the mechanics and costs of such a rule and then spend another year deliberating the implications. It also stipulates that PHMSA may not proceed down the road toward regulations—a process that typically takes 18 months to three years—until it first determines that remote shutoff valves are economically feasible for the industry. Even then, the new rule could be applied only to pipelines laid in the future.

"Laughable," Speier said of the provision in a recent interview. Industry, which has argued for decades that remote shutoff valves are too costly, will no doubt continue to do so, she said. 

Non-Industry Groups Find PHMSA Less Accessible

In addition to Wiese, PHMSA sent at least three officials to address the safety conference at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans. Two former PHMSA officials who left the agency to work as industry consultants also addressed the group of 300 to 400 oil and gas pipeline operators. Throughout the week, the Louisiana Gas Association operated a hospitality suite overlooking Bourbon Street, where regulators and industry representatives gathered each evening to sip libations and drop beads to passersby.

Speaking just before Wiese, Bob Kipp, president of the Common Ground Alliance, an industry-backed safety group, drew on Sun Tzu's classic treatise, Art of War, in urging the crowd to "keep your friends close and your regulators closer." The comment drew chuckles from the audience.

Groups outside the industry have found PHMSA far less accessible.

In preparing for a recent trip to Washington, a delegation organized by the National Wildlife Federation tried to set up appointments with the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and PHMSA to discuss pipeline safety. While the delegation was welcomed by the State Department and the EPA, a PHMSA official denied the request without explanation.

To Beth Wallace, the federation's community outreach coordinator for the Great Lakes Regional Center, it was typical of the brushoffs environmental groups get from PHMSA. "It seems that the agency always gives an ear to the industry," she said. "But when it comes to public participation, there doesn't seem to be that same level of access."

PHMSA spokesman Hill said agency officials had met with the National Wildlife Federation in May and didn't feel another meeting was necessary.

In New Orleans, Wiese said "an under-informed populace highly dependent on fossil fuels" is prone to negative perceptions of the industry. He said that penchant is exacerbated by a press corps that doesn't "have time to fully understand the story" and has instead served as a vehicle for "gang warfare" through its coverage of events like the March 29th rupture of ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower, Ark.

Congress, Wiese contended, hasn't done much to help.

"It's very political in Washington. Nobody wants to try to figure out what's the best thing to do. They're thinking about what's the most advantageous position to take," he said, later adding that he'd recently had an unpleasant meeting with a "very hot" congressional delegation about the Pegasus spill in Arkansas.

Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., a member of the delegation Wiese was referring to, has criticized the operations and maintenance of the pipeline and PHMSA's lack of transparency.

"If public officials and Arkansans would have known then what we know now, changes to the operation of the pipeline may have been demanded years ago," he said.

InsideClimate News reporter David Hasemyer contributed to this report.

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