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Boom in Unregulated Natural Gas Pipelines Posing New Risks

Thousands of miles of 'gathering lines' are now operating at high pressure to serve fracking operations, but regulators don't even know where they are.

Sep 26, 2013
Natural gas operation in Piceance Basin in Colorado

Thousands of miles of pipelines are being built at natural gas drilling sites throughout the nation without supervision or regulation by state or federal authorities.

These specialized pipelines, known as gathering lines, carry gas from wells to nearby separation facilities for processing. Many of the pipes are as large as regulated pipelines and operate at the same or higher pressures. Some run close to homes and businesses.

Of the nation's 240,000 miles of gathering lines, only about 10 percent are regulated. When leaks or accidents occur on the remaining 90 percent, operators aren't required to notify regulators. In most cases, state and federal officials don’t even know where these lines are located.

"Since they're unregulated, no one has to report them to anybody," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Pipeline Safety Trust. His organization has asked the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to give all gathering lines the same scrutiny it gives transmission lines, which carry gas to refineries.

Pipeline accidents involving natural gas are among the most feared industry accidents, because gas is so explosive. When a poorly maintained natural gas distribution pipeline exploded in San Bruno, CA. in 2010, eight people died and 38 homes were destroyed.

To try to prevent such tragedies, PHMSA has traditionally focused on regulating transmission lines, which carry gas to refineries, and distribution lines, which carry gas to businesses and homes. Until the early 2000s, that approach seemed to make sense. Earlier gathering lines were much smaller and operated at far lower pressures than transmission and distribution lines. Most were also in rural areas, where mishaps would be less likely to cause widespread damage or loss of life.

But the technology that triggered the U.S. drilling boom—hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—has changed that equation. To accommodate the volume and pressure of the gas coming out of fracked wells, gathering lines are now 12 to 36 inches in diameter, instead of 2 to 12 inches. They operate at much higher pressures, too.

(Click to enlarge)

When an unregulated gas gathering line blew up several hundred yards from a compressor station near Alice, Texas last year, neither PHMSA nor the Texas Railroad Commission, which is in charge of pipeline safety in Texas, investigated the incident. The pipeline operator, Copano Energy, which has since been acquired by Kinder Morgan, didn’t submit an incident report to either agency.

"Since [operators] are not required to submit data, we don't have any data," said Damon Hill, a PHMSA spokesman.

Fire Chief Dean Van Nest, who was first on the scene, reported that a fine plume of smoke 100 feet high could be seen billowing from the field. Fortunately, the line was a small one, was operating at low pressure and was located in an open field. The damage was limited to burnt fences, 10 acres of charred grass, and roadway and telephone lines that needed to be replaced.

Still Debating Regulations

In 2011 a PHMSA advisory committee urged PHMSA to consider creating safety requirements for large-diameter, high-pressure gas gathering lines in rural areas.

In response to that suggestion, PHMSA asked the public to comment on whether the agency should take on this responsibility.

Industry groups filed comments arguing that PHMSA shouldn't consider new rules until it first collects data and assesses the risk gathering lines pose. To get that data, however, PHMSA would first have to create a rule giving it authority to require operators to provide the information. The entire process would take five or six years, according to a comment submitted by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and the American Petroleum Institute (API).

By that time, thousands of miles of additional gathering lines will have been built to accommodate the U.S. gas and oil boom.  By 2020, the number of miles of gathering lines is expected to almost double, to 405,000. By 2035 about 654,000 miles are expected to be in place, according to the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, an industry group.

Regulating the lines without first collecting data on them would likely result in a "misallocation of scarce economic resources with no tangible safety benefit," the API and the IPAA warned. Most gathering lines weren't built to accommodate inspection tools, so operators would have to stop production to conduct the inspections. The Gas Processors Association said this would be expensive and could have "long-term impacts on well productivity."

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