U.S. Pipeline Agency Pressed to Regulate Underground Gas Storage

Following the Aliso Canyon methane disaster, Congressional lawmakers want PHMSA to create the first federal standards for underground gas storage.

At a Congressional hearing on February 26, 2016, the federal pipeline safety agency was pressed to swiftly regulate underground storage facilities. The hearing came one week after a months-long leak was sealed at the Aliso Canyon storage facility in the L.A. suburb of Porter Ranch, seen here. Credit: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Members of Congress pressed the agency responsible for pipeline safety to create the first federal standards for underground gas storage in a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. 

Lawmakers convened the hearing to discuss the reauthorization of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), but spent much of their time urging the agency to address underground gas storage following the massive leak in Los Angeles that brought the issue to national attention.

Southern California Gas Co. finally sealed the months-long leak at its Aliso Canyon storage facility last week. A recent study concluded it was the largest leak of methane—a powerful greenhouse gas—in U.S. history.

"We are nowhere near the end of this tragedy," Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.) said during the hearing.

Several industry representatives who appeared as witnesses also endorsed the idea of federal oversight.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said his next-door neighbors were among the thousands of residents who evacuated after the stench of natural gas drove them from their homes. Many residents reported headaches, vomiting and other health effects attributed to the odorants and trace toxins present in the gas.

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group, told the subcommittee there is inadequate research on the long-term health impacts of pipeline accidents. The Aliso Canyon incident was plagued by similar concerns and data gaps.

Weimer, who was invited to speak as a witness, dedicated his testimony to the memory of Peter Hayes, a Salt Lake City resident who lived near Red Butte Creek, the site of a Chevron oil pipeline leak in 2010. Weimer said Hayes died last year after developing a rare lung disease, which may have been partially triggered by exposure to toxic contaminants.

PHMSA, a small, overburdened agency within the United States Department of Transportation, is responsible for the safe operation of America's more than 2.6 million miles of energy pipelines. It also has the authority to set national regulations for all 418 underground gas storage facilities, but has not done so. PHMSA currently oversees about 233 facilities that are part of the interstate natural gas pipeline network, but the agency does not inspect or regulate these storage units, deferring instead to the states. Large amounts of this infrastructure is old and increasingly susceptible to leaks and accidents. 

In the absence of national rules, PHMSA recently advised operators to follow storage guidelines created by the American Petroleum Institute, the nation's largest oil and gas trade group. PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez told committee members her agency can't force companies to immediately comply, so the measures are voluntary.

Pipeline safety advocates say the API guidelines are inadequate, in part because the guidelines don't require operators to install emergency shutoff valves, which could help prevent more incidents like Aliso Canyon. The SoCal Gas well that leaked did not have one of these valves.

Advocates also worry PHMSA may rely too heavily on the API rules as it seeks to regulate natural gas storage.

It often takes years for PHMSA to issue a new regulation. The long, convoluted process involves many stakeholder meetings, revisions and review by the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

Weimer urged the committee to grant PHMSA "emergency order authority," which would allow the agency to make industry-wide changes after emergency situations. If PHMSA had that authority, for instance, it could order natural gas storage operators to immediately comply with the API guidelines.

Knight and Sherman, the California representatives, also spoke about their efforts to speed up PHMSA's rulemaking for underground gas storage.

Knight's bill, called the Natural Gas Leak Prevention Act of 2016, would require PHMSA to create minimum standards for all storage facilities within two years.

Sherman's bill, the Underground Gas Storage Safety Act, would require PHMSA to set federal standards within 180 days. In the meantime, operators would use the API guidelines as a stopgap measure.

Rebecca Craven, program director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said her organization prefers Sherman's bill. The 180-day limit is very ambitious given PHMSA's normal rulemaking speed, she said in an email. "But it certainly imparts a sense of urgency."

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