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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) Completes its Natural Gas Pipeline Oversight Safety Review

Dec 22, 2017
Press Release

(Washington, DC) – Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that paints a disturbing picture of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA’s) ability to effectively establish and oversee new safety standards of natural gas storage facilities.

Click here to see the report: https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-18-89

The GAO review was requested by Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX); Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Environment; Congressman Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D-VA), Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Oversight; and Congressman Marc Veasey (D-TX), Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Energy.

PHMSA’s new safety standards are required by the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act of 2016, signed into law last year. In January 2017, PHMSA issued an interim safety rule and the agency expects to issue a final rule in January 2018. These are important steps that can help protect the health and safety of the public from the toxic and lethal dangers of natural gas incidents and explosions. However, GAO found the agency has an extremely small number of trained employees to conduct safety inspections and that it may take many years for the oil and gas industry to comply with these new safety standards. These delays may put the health and safety of the public at undue risk.

Ranking Member Johnson said: “I am concerned that having few expert inspectors to oversee a massive natural gas pipeline infrastructure combined with long delays in complying with new safety standards may put the health and safety of the public at risk. Earlier this week there were multiple news reports that a new gas leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in California led to dozens of reports from the public of headaches, nosebleeds, and burning of the eyes and throat. We must ensure that this important energy resource is monitored, developed and overseen with safety in mind.”

Natural gas is an important component of the U.S. energy infrastructure. However, with more than 300,000 miles of pipelines, 17,000 wells, and 415 underground natural gas storage facilities in 31 states, the transportation, delivery and storage of natural gas presents unique challenges. Over the past twenty years there have been nearly 5,700 significant incidents, 310 fatalities, 1,305 injuries and nearly $8 billion in economic damages due to pipeline mishaps, including 85 injuries and 16 deaths last year alone.

The GAO’s investigation found the following:

  • PHMSA has focused on training but has not addressed other core program activities, such as conducting effective inspections.
  • PHMSA failed to use best practices to strategically plan its enforcement of new safety standards.
  • It is unclear if PHMSA will have the financial resources and personnel needed to conduct robust oversight of the U.S. pipeline infrastructure, particularly the 415 underground natural gas storage sites, the majority of which are located near populated cities and towns. As of August 2017, for instance, PHMSA only had 10 employees with natural gas storage experience, according to the GAO report, and it may take until 2025 for some pipeline owners and operators to inspect and remediate risks found at their sites.
  • PHMSA has chosen to ignore a critical safety recommendation in implementing the PIPES Act. The GAO found that despite the fact that half of the 17,000 natural gas wells are already more than 50 years old with outdated equipment and safety features, PHMSA has decided to side with industry and ignore a key safety recommendation by the Department of Energy (DOE) to phase out “single-point-of-failure” designs on these gas wells.
  • Neither PHMSA nor the industry were able to tell GAO how many of the 17,000 wells currently have single-point-of-failure designs. PHMSA will not even begin to collect the data necessary to identify wells with single-point-of-failure designs until March 15, 2018.

Science Committee Democrats hope this GAO report will help inform PHMSA’s decisions regarding the issuance of its final safety rule expected in January 2018. The GAO is continuing to investigate natural gas pipeline safety issues for Minority Members of the Science Committee. The GAO’s next review will focus on potential environmental and public health hazards surrounding natural gas leaks and accidents.

115th Congress