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The Growing Danger of Pipelines Our Safety Regulations Overlook

by Emily Persico, Policy Analyst

In a November 2019 presentation, John Gale, Director of Standards and Rulemaking at the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), called gathering lines “the next big thing” in pipeline safety. This certainly rings true in Pennsylvania. 

After just one week in operation, Energy Transfer’s 24-inch diameter gathering pipeline ruptured and exploded in Beaver County, taking down a nearby house, six transmission towers, and multiple motor vehicles and burning several acres of trees. Residents of 49 households were forced to evacuate in the 2018 explosion. 

By June 2020, Attorney General Josh Shapiro had released a scathing report on the state’s failure to protect its citizens during the fracking boom. The report had eight recommendations, and the regulation of gathering pipelines was third on the list.

As the report describes, the emergence of fracking dramatically upended the gas industry, swiftly rendering decades of regulations insufficient. The failed regulation of gathering pipelines provides a blistering example.

Gas pipelines are broken into three main categories: gathering lines, which transport extracted gas to be processed and treated; transmission lines, which transport processed gas over long distances; and distribution lines, which deliver processed gas to homes and businesses. The PHMSA sets minimum regulations for pipelines and certifies state agents – usually the Public Utility Commission – for enforcement.

While transmission and distribution lines are generally held to higher standards, gathering lines are subject to a patchwork of regulations that leaves an estimated 439,000 miles of pipelines – which, end to end, would wrap around the Earth 17 times – essentially unregulated. These pipelines do not have to be built to standard, marked, or regularly inspected, a regulatory scheme that was devised when gathering lines were considered lower risk because of their comparatively smaller diameter and lower pressure. 

Yet with a dramatic increase in production and more gas to transport, fracked gas companies now operate much larger gathering pipelines under higher pressures. In many instances, these pipelines are indistinguishable from transmission lines, despite being subject to far fewer safety regulations.

In fact, which regulations apply to gathering lines depend upon both the population density of the surrounding area - a factor which is subject to change over time - and its operating pressure. These confusing standards undervalue the safety of rural residents, preclude community involvement, and complicate enforcement. They also mean that about 95 percent of gathering pipelines in Pennsylvania are not subject to any federal or state safety regulations.

Pennsylvania needs to streamline and extend its pipeline safety standards by regulating all gathering lines just as we would transmission lines. This means that pipeline companies would be held to a common standard for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of all gathering lines, regardless of their location.

Gathering lines in urban areas (Class 4 locations) are already subject to most of these rules. This change would extend these safety regulations to pipelines in less densely populated areas, affording peri-urban and rural residents the same level of protection from potential pipeline incidents while simplifying enforcement.

Regulating gathering pipelines is not the only action necessary to modernize our outdated pipeline safety regulations, but it’s an important first step. 

More than 90 percent of voters in Pennsylvania want lawmakers to take the necessary steps to prevent pipeline accidents. We must urge the General Assembly to heed the Attorney General’s recommendations and the expressed concerns of voters across the state by regulating all gathering lines exactly as we would transmission lines.

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