By Marc Campopiano and Samantha Seikkula

On June 22, 2016, President Obama signed a bill reauthorizing the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) oil and gas pipeline programs through 2019. Obama’s final stamp on the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2016 (PIPES Act or Act) follows unanimous passage in both the House and Senate. In addition to reauthorizing PHMSA and its associated programs, the Act includes new mandates aimed at strengthening PHMSA’s existing safety procedures and programs.

Pipeline Safety After the completion of a PHMSA pipeline safety inspection, the Act requires the Comptroller General to submit reports to Congress regarding the integrity management programs for gas and hazardous liquid pipeline facilities.  The reports must include, among other requirements: an analysis of technical, operational, and economic feasibility regarding measures to enhance pipeline facility safety; an analysis of the pipeline facility features’ impact on safety; and a description of any challenges affecting Federal and State regulators in the oversight of pipeline facilities.

In addition, the Act authorizes several studies aimed at improving pipeline safety. For example, the Secretary of Transportation (Secretary) must conduct a study on “improving existing damage prevention programs through technological improvements in location, mapping, excavation, and communications practices” to reduce releases caused by excavation.  Further, the Act requires the Secretary to convene a working group to consider developing a voluntary information-sharing system to facilitate improving inspection information feedback and pipeline facility integrity risk analysis.  The PIPES Act also requires the Secretary to study the feasibility of establishing a national integrated pipeline safety regulatory inspection database to facilitate collaboration between PHMSA and State pipeline regulators.

Underground Gas Storage Facilities The Act amends 49 U.S.C. section 60101(a) to define “underground natural gas storage facility” as “a gas pipeline facility that stores natural gas in an underground facility, including—(A) a depleted hydrocarbon reservoir; (B) an aquifer reservoir; or (C) a solution-mined salt cavern reservoir.”  The PIPES Act requires PHMSA to issue, within two years of passage, “minimum safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities.”  In addition, the Act expressly allows states to adopt more stringent safety standards for intrastate facilities, if such standards are compatible with the minimum standards prescribed in section 12 of the Act.  In order to implement the safety standards, the PIPES Act imposes a “user fee” on entities operating underground storage facilities.

Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Facilities Under the Act, owners or operators of hazardous liquid pipeline facilities are required to prepare a response plan that considers the impact of a discharge into or on navigable waters, and includes procedures and resources for responding to such a discharge.

Leak Prevention and Reporting Requirements The Act commissions a study of materials and corrosion prevention in pipeline transportation.  The study will analyze: the range of piping materials used to transport hazardous liquids and natural gas in the United States and other countries; the types of technologies used for corrosion prevention; common causes of corrosion; and the training provided to personnel responsible for identifying and preventing corrosion in pipelines, and for repairing such pipelines.  The study will also analyze best practices or guidance aimed at preventing or recognizing corrosion, and analyze the costs and benefits associated with the use of such materials and technologies.

The Act also authorizes a study on natural gas leak reporting. The study will examine various reporting requirements, and analyze whether separate or alternative reporting requirements could better measure the amounts and identify the location of lost and unaccounted for natural gas, and the impacts alternative reporting may have on safety.

Further, the Act calls for a review of State policies relating to natural gas leaks. The PHMSA Administrator must conduct a State-by-State review of State-level policies relating to leak repair and replacement of systems that pose a safety threat, or that may create barriers for entities to conduct work to repair and replace leaking natural gas pipelines.

Emergency Order Authority The PIPES Act gives the Secretary the power to quickly issue emergency orders for the pipeline industry if “the Secretary determines that an unsafe condition or practice, or a combination of unsafe conditions and practices, constitutes or is causing an imminent hazard.” The emergency order may impose “emergency restrictions, prohibitions, and safety measures on owners and operators of gas or hazardous liquid pipeline facilities without prior notice or an opportunity for a hearing, but only to the extent necessary to abate the imminent hazard.”