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.

Natural gas operation in Piceance Basin in Colorado
Natural gas drilling operation in Piceance Basin in Colorado. There are currently 240,000 miles of specialized "gathering lines" at natural gas sites across the country, and only 10 percent of them are regulated. Since they're unregulated, operators aren't required to report leaks or spills when they occur. Credit: Energy Tomorrow

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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.

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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.”

The Gas Processors Association said that requiring safety-related reporting for rural gathering lines “would be premature.” Jeff Applekamp, the association’s director of government affairs, said in an email that the group still stands by that statement.

“The risk based approach to the regulation of gathering lines … continues to be one of the deliberative and thoughtful discussions” that his group supports, Applekamp said.

When the six-month public comment period ended in January 2012, PHMSA had received more than 100 letters including a 13-page comment from the Pipeline Safety Trust supporting regulations for rural gathering lines. It also received letters from worried landowners in Pennsylvania who were seeing firsthand the expanding network of gathering lines around them.

“There are gathering lines proposed for Wyoming County, Pa. where our family has been living for five generations,” wrote Hetty Baiz. “We are deeply concerned about safety issues and lack of regulations and fear that our children’s health and safety is at risk without strong oversight.”

In 2012 the Government Accountability Office studied gathering line safety, and it, too, said PHMSA needed to collect more data.

“You can’t regulate something unless you know what the issues are,” Sara Vermillion, a key contributor on the report, told InsideClimate News.

The GAO recommended that PHMSA begin collecting the data and create an online clearinghouse where states can share information about unregulated lines.

PHMSA is still reviewing the public comments it received in early 2012 and is “close” to scheduling a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the next step toward creating new rules, said Hill, the PHMSA spokesman. Weimer, with the Pipeline Trust, said once that step is taken it would be at least a year before rules could be implemented. Meanwhile, construction continues.

No Reliable Damage Standards

Whether a gathering line is or isn’t regulated is determined by how close it is to a populated area. If more than 10 buildings are within 220 yards of a line, the gathering line must be regulated. If the buildings are outside the 220-yard radius, the line is not regulated.

Operators of regulated lines must give state or federal regulators details about their operations, including pipeline diameter, exact location and maximum operating pressure. They must also inspect and maintain their lines and report details of any accidents, including fatalities, injuries and property damages.

None of these fundamental practices are followed with unregulated pipelines.

Because PHMSA doesn’t collect data about rural gathering lines, it’s difficult to estimate how much damage they cause each year. In 2010, accidents on regulated gathering lines caused more than $15 million in property damage, or approximately $1.8 million per incident according to the GAO report.

The GAO found another problem that it said state and federal regulators should consider: Some rural areas where gathering lines were built have become urbanized, putting more people at risk in the event of fire or explosion. Because the gas in gathering lines isn’t odorized, nearby residents wouldn’t be able to smell escaping gas in the event of a leak.

One state official told the GAO that in places where the population has grown, pipeline operators are supposed to change the status of their gathering lines from unregulated to regulated. However, the operator “might not be aware of the development and therefore would not monitor and apply more stringent regulations along that pipeline,” the GAO reported.

Among the public comments submitted to PHMSA in 2012 was an American Petroleum Institute survey of operators of both regulated and unregulated gathering lines. It found that between 2007 and 2011, a total of 22 people were hospitalized due to accidents on these lines. Six of those people died. The API said this statistic shows that gathering lines are safer than transmission lines and do not need additional regulations.

Regulated miles of gathering lines and associated property damage between 2003-2012*

*Regulated gathering lines comprise about 10 percent of the total gathering line network in the country. Click here to see incidents and property damage for all states.

Circumstances Change

In the past, gathering lines operated at pressures of between 5 and 800 pounds per square inch, according to the GAO.

But the pressures increased when drilling companies began switching from traditional drilling techniques to hydraulic fracturing, which allows them to extract small molecules of gas trapped in shale rocks. During fracking, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is sent into the earth at a very high pressure in order to break up the rocks and release the gas. The gas is then discharged into the gathering lines at a similarly elevated pressure.

*Sources: GAO Pipeline Safety report; PHMSA briefing paper

One of the most abundant shale gas reserves is the Marcellus region, which underlies parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and Virginia. Prior to the rise in fracking, gathering lines in the Marcellus typically operated at a maximum of 800 pounds per square inch, or psi.

“But now these gathering lines are running at pressures in excess of 1000 psi,” said Emily Krafjack, president of Connection for Oil, Gas & Environment in the Northern Tier, a citizen’s group that has made the regulation of gathering lines a priority. Krafjack, a resident of Wyoming County, Pa. has been studying pipelines since 2006, when she learned that drilling was coming to her area.

The PHMSA advisory committee estimated that shale gas gathering lines typically handle a maximum operating pressure of 1480 psi. That “far exceed[s] the historical operating parameters of such lines,” the committee said.

What Does the Future Hold?

The federal Energy Information Administration has reported that shale gas accounted for 34 percent of the total domestic gas supply in 2011 and predicts that figure will rise to 50 percent by 2040. In a recent address on climate change, President Obama strongly supported the move toward natural gas as the nation’s primary energy source.

As natural gas production rises, especially in shale regions, the pipeline infrastructure to support will have to grow, too.    

“We’re going to see more and more of this happening all over the country,” said Weimer. “The Marcellus Shale is still ramping up.”

While PHMSA debates how far it should go in regulating gathering lines, Ohio and Texas have already taken action. Last year Ohio passed an energy bill that included regulations for rural gathering lines. This year Texas passed similar legislation.

“These [rural gathering] lines are essentially transmission lines. They’re operating at high pressure and it’s important to ensure that they are being built in accordance with safety regulations,” said Peter Chace, who manages the gas pipeline safety program for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, in an interview with InsideClimate News.

Ohio’s new law requires operators to report any rural high-pressure gathering lines built after September 2011. Two people have been hired to deal with the added workload. 

In Texas, the state’s Railroad Commission now has authority to regulate more than 154,000 miles of unregulated gas and liquid gathering lines. The Commission “will begin evaluating the best way to move forward with determining the risks these facilities present to the public,” said spokeswoman Gaye McElwain.  Inspections will begin on September 1, 2015.

“There’s no question that the more information on gathering lines available, the better,” said Libby Willis, co-chairman of the Gas Drilling Committee on the Fort Worth (Texas) League of Neighborhood Associations. “We’re not going to know how effective these laws are till we see the rulemakings by the RRC. It depends on how they enforce it.”

The Fort Worth group has been following the Barnett Shale drilling activities since 2005 and in 2009 was awarded a grant by PHMSA to study the condition of natural gas pipelines in their area.