State regulators mull stricter rules for gas-gathering lines in rural areas

Colorado regulatory officials are considering proposing applying pipeline construction rules to rural natural gas gathering lines, closing a gap in how such lines are currently regulated.

Joe Molloy, section chief for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission’s Pipeline Safety Program, says a federal agency also had been looking at new regulations that would have applied to all gathering lines, including rural ones, but that effort has been put on hold with the change in presidential administrations.

Molloy said his office is considering proposing new rules to the Public Utilities Commission this year to apply to the rural gas gathering lines, known as Class 1 lines.

Gathering lines ship gas from production areas to processing facilities. Nationally, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulates gathering lines, covering areas such as construction, testing, inspection and maintenance. But those regulations apply to only about one-tenth of such lines as measured by mileage because they don’t apply in areas with fewer than 10 buildings per mile intended for human occupancy within 220 yards of a line.

The exemption is based on the lower public safety risk of such rural lines, but has drawn scrutiny from pipeline safety advocates who question the lack of equal protections for rural residents.

The Colorado PUC has an agreement with the federal pipeline agency for regulating gas gathering lines in the state, and its gathering-line rules generally reflect the federal ones. However, for Class 1 lines the state does require markings when pipelines cross public rights of way such as roads, and pipeline company participation in the 811 one-call program under which people planning excavating work provide advance notification so pipeline operators can mark line locations.

Molloy said he would like to see standard construction rules apply in Class 1 areas just as they do for more urban areas. He said such rules would basically require adherence to general industry standards that companies should and generally do follow. 

Molloy said he’s not sure exactly what the federal proposal that has been put on hold contained.

“And they will not comment on it, not even to their partners with the state,” he said of federal regulators.

A PHMSA spokesman said in an email that the proposed rule “is part of an ongoing regulatory review pursuant to the executive order issued by the White House. The safe movement of hazardous materials remains a priority. We will provide updates as decisions are made.”

Gas gathering lines are subject to different rules than transmission lines that distribute gas beyond processing plants. For example, Molloy said, if a population encroaches on an existing transmission line, there needs to be a reanalysis of the risk posed by that line. He said he’s hoping that new federal rules would require the same thing for gathering lines. It only makes sense that if they’re operating at the same pressure the same rules should apply, he said.

“It’s difficult to explain to the public that just because of the classification of your pipeline, gathering instead of transmission, these rules don’t apply,” he said.

Pipelines also can come under regulations under certain circumstances from entities such as counties, the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The COGCC’s rules apply to production lines, or flowlines, leading from wells to gathering lines. But Molloy said determining what constitutes a flowline can be complicated sometimes, and that’s another area where he hopes for more eventual clarity.

“What I would like is a very clear succession of (regulatory) jurisdiction in terms of pipelines from the wellhead out to distribution. It would be nice for everybody,” Molloy said.


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