Plug this hole in regs
The discovery that thousands of gallons of natural gas liquids leaked into the Parachute Creek watershed has raised questions that go beyond the actions of Williams, the company involved.
Perhaps of equal importance is what regulations need to be put in place to help prevent such a spill from happening again.
The leak has exposed a seeming gap in government oversight over the pipeline containing the gauge from which the liquids leaked. It also comes at a time of increasing concern about a lack of oversight of pipelines by state and federal government.
Improving that oversight, preferably by the state, is in the best interest of oil and gas companies when all of their activities are under increasing public scrutiny. Doing nothing until another, bigger and more devastaing leak occurs may result in far more burdensome regulations.
It was disturbing to hear Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission environmental manager Jim Milne acknowledge recently that he can’t say who writes rules for pipeline integrity for the kind of line that leaked.“I think the agencies have all been looking at that question,” was all he could offer.
Milne and Williams both have pointed to a role played by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding the line running from Williams’ gas plant on one side of Parachute Creek to tanks on the other side. But OSHA has made clear its regulations focus only on worker safety considerations, and it has no oversight over things such as pipeline materials that should be used.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration does address things like pipeline design and leak prevention. But Williams says that agency regulates a pipeline leaving the tanks, and not the line going beneath the creek. As a post-processing-plant line, it also doesn’t come under oil and gas commission oversight.
The Williams situation might be somewhat unique, but it reveals a regulatory gap nonetheless. It’s made all the more important by the fact that a creek crossing is involved, and that Williams plans to not only resume use of the pipeline, but also to install a larger-diameter liquids line in the same corridor for a gas-plant expansion, once local drilling activity warrants it.
Meanwhile, regulatory questions surround another class of conduits called gathering lines, which ship oil and gas from wells to processing facilities. PHMSA regulates only about 10 percent of gas-and-oil gathering lines nationwide. Its rules apply only in higher-population areas, and for liquids lines, in certain areas such as environmentally sensitive ones.
Under an agreement with PHMSA, Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission regulates gas gathering lines but not liquids ones, and addresses just a few, minimal safety considerations such as reporting of spills.
Notably, with oil and gas development growing, and the diameter and pressure of many gas-gathering lines increasing, PHMSA is considering closing the loophole in its regulations.
For all the efforts to update oil and gas rules in Colorado over the years, pipelines have received little attention. COGCC Director Matt Lepore has indicated he expects the topic to get a fresh look due to the Williams leak. The public deserves that, and it should include discussions among agencies to rectify jurisdictional issues that have helped produce regulatory gaps.