Agency looks to close gap in rules on pipelines
A federal agency is looking at plugging a hole in the regulation of oil and gas gathering pipelines.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, is considering regulating all gathering pipelines, which would close a loophole applying to many lines in Colorado and other states.
Gathering lines deliver oil, gas and associated substances from production areas to processing facilities.
For gas gathering lines, the agency’s pipeline safety regulations currently don’t apply to low-population areas, leaving only about 10 percent of 200,000 miles of natural gas gathering lines nationwide regulated by it.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration now regulates about 4,000 of the 30,000 to 40,000 miles of hazardous liquids gathering lines in the country. Its rules for hazardous liquids lines apply to lines that are in communities, cross waterways used for commercial navigation, or in the case of certain rural lines come within a quarter-mile of environmentally sensitive areas.
The federal agency typically has agreements with state agencies for regulations and enforcement within a state, but those agencies may not impose safety rules on federally unregulated gathering lines. It has a regulatory agreement with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for gas lines, but although the PUC imposes some minimal safety rules on rural gathering lines, the more extensive rules that PHMSA requires for those gathering lines it does regulate do not apply.
The rules of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration cover areas such as pipeline design, construction, testing, operations, maintenance, and corrosion detection and prevention, agency spokesman Damon Hill said.
Pipeline regulations associated with oil and gas development in Colorado have garnered increased attention in light of a leak of some 6,000 gallons of hydrocarbons, discovered in a pipeline corridor near Parachute Creek northwest of Parachute last month. The investigation into that leak continues, but it is focusing in part on a valve set for a natural gas liquids pipeline that runs from Williams’ nearby gas processing plant to tanks on the other side of the creek.
Williams has said that pipeline is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Hill said his agency continues to look into the situation, but that it doesn’t appear to regulate that pipeline. He said certain pipelines within a plant might not be considered transportation lines for regulatory purposes.
Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, has said he expects his agency to review its own pipeline rules in light of the Parachute situation to see if changes might be warranted. Its rules currently apply to flow lines running from wells to metered points at which the oil or gas joins gathering lines, and cover areas such as piping materials that must be used and requirements for pressure-testing.
Williams has said the regulations apply to a liquids line that runs from the tanks by Parachute Creek to another processing plant in Rio Blanco County.
In the case of natural gas gathering lines, the federal agency doesn’t regulate lines in areas with fewer than 10 buildings intended for human occupancy within 220 yards of a line per mile — what are called Class 1 areas.
State rules dropped
Under the Colorado PUC agreement with Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the state enforces Colorado safety regulations of gas pipelines when lines are entirely within the state. It regulates transmission lines, distribution lines to customers and other lines including gathering lines.
However, in the case of Class 1 gathering lines, it only mandates pipeline markers at roads and railroad crossings; telephone reporting of incidents such as leaks along with immediate, documented repairs; and other notification in certain instances.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had some gathering pipeline rules in place but eliminated them in 2008 out of concern over possible duplication of, or conflict with, rules the PUC was working on. The PUC adopted its gathering rules in 2011. According to a commission rulemaking document, its past rules apparently involved requirements only to notify the commssion and affected local governments and provide construction plans when companies plan to build gathering lines subject to federal pipeline agency rules.
While leaks from gas lines can threaten the environment, a primary concern is the danger of explosion. Part of the reason the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration hasn’t regulated gas gathering lines in rural areas is because they historically have been generally small and have had relatively low pressures. However, diameters and pressures of gathering pipelines have been increasing in the case of some lines being installed for drilling in gas-rich shale formations. Some local energy companies have begun exploratory drilling in shale.
On its website, the agency said that it “recognizes that the state of onshore gathering pipeline safety is evolving, and is in the process of collecting new information about gathering pipelines in an effort to better understand the risks they may now pose to people and the environment.”
Garfield County has about 10,000 gas wells, generally in the less-populated western part of the county, including in many areas commonly referred to as rural-residential.
It also said that while most gathering lines nationaide previously were built in minimally populated areas, populations are spreading to once-rural locations as the nation grows, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said.
Hill said the agency will have to consider the costs and benefits of regulating unregulated gathering lines, and will consult with other regulators, the industry and the public.
“There’s a lot of things that are looked at and weighed when we consider developing new regulations,” he said.
WPX Energy, which has more than 4,400 gas wells in Garfield County and surrounding areas, has said it treats all of its lines as flow lines subject to COGCC rules and tests them beyond what that agency requires.