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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | October 9, 2023

America's Pipelines Are a Disaster Waiting to Happen

ClimateConfirmations CrisisDepartment of TransportationGovernment Capacity
America's Pipelines Are a Disaster Waiting to Happen

The American pipeline system is going gangbusters. In addition to the enormous network of oil and gas pipelines that cobwebs the nation, thousands of miles of new liquified natural gas, hydrogen, and carbon capture pipelines have been proposed. If the Biden administration has its way, many of those proposals will be built expediently. 

Many have objections to these pipelines on climate or environmental protection grounds. But everyone agrees that whatever pipelines built should at least be safe. That makes it quite bizarre that more than halfway through his term, President Biden still has yet to nominate an administrator to lead the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) within the Department of Transportation.

As my colleague Dylan wrote in April, in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern train derailment, PHMSA played an indispensable role in keeping Americans safe from toxic materials. The agency, though small, is responsible for regulating pipelines and overseeing transportation of many dangerous materials throughout the country, including flammable fuels, radioactive substances, and chemicals. Yet the top post at the agency has been vacant now for years. 

The current leader of PHMSA, Tristan Brown, has served as Deputy Administrator of the agency since 2021. His lack of permanence, owing to the fact that he isn’t an appointed and confirmed director, doesn’t help PHMSA to meet the rising challenge of additional pipelines. Research has shown it’s hard for the temporary acting leader of an agency, who can be likened to a substitute teacher, to enact change and turn an agency around, given their impermanence. As running PHMSA becomes an increasingly difficult job, the need for more official, stable, and permanent leadership is necessary to meet the challenge of the position.

The magnitude of issues and regulatory and enforcement gaps exceed the resources that the agency has. Staff capacity at PHMSA, which regularly sends out inspectors and engineers to do pipeline examinations, is particularly important. But staff numbers are low and haven’t increased significantly since 2016, despite the agency’s responsibilities seeing massive increases of both scope and consequence as pipeline proposals and constructions have risen drastically over the past decade. The agency simply doesn’t have the workforce to maintain enforcement at the needed level. Instead, it’s taken to reimbursing states for examinations of pipelines through a grant program.

PHMSA is especially relevant in the aftermath of the Inflation Reduction Act, which created the conditions for a rapid build-out of two pipeline-dependent industries: carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen.

The Biden administration has been all-in on carbon capture and storage, pushing for additional funding and fielding several proposals for carbon pipeline and storage facility build-out. One of the awardees for this funding is BP, which has planned several pipeline projects across the US

The proposals for massive new networks of CO2 pipelines for transporting captured carbon to sites for sequestration present new threats to local communities and the environment. CO2 is toxic at high concentrations, can travel large distances after a pipeline rupture, and  pipelines carrying it are particularly susceptible to fractures. In 2020, for instance, one pipeline ruptured in Mississippi. Months after the rupture, residents of Satartia, Mississippi still reported mental fogginess, lung and stomach issues, and fatigue. 

There have been repeated calls from environmental groups for stricter safety regulations on CO2 pipelines, and for a moratorium on CO2 pipelines as long as these safeguards don’t exist. Environmental experts also argue that the U.S. should not focus its investments in carbon capture and storage at all because it’s a false and harmful solution to the problem of continuing to burn fossil fuels. The vacancy at the helm of PHMSA is cause for concern especially because developers are seeking to build CO2 pipelines before any safeguards exist. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is attempting to kick-start a hydrogen pipeline buildout, as it is hoped green hydrogen can work as an energy-dense, zero-carbon fuel for things that are otherwise hard to decarbonize, like airplanes or concrete production.The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 established $9.5 billion for clean hydrogen initiatives, including hydrogen hubs and clean hydrogen manufacturing programs for decarbonization. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 also offered a production tax credit for clean hydrogen and fuel cell technologies projects.

Yet hydrogen, being both flammable and transported at extreme pressure, is dangerous. Here it seems like PHMSA doesn’t even know where to start. Recent remarks from Alan Mayberry, Associate Administrator of PHMSA’s Office of Pipeline Safety, implied that “the agency is still trying to get up to speed on the issue and that any potential new regulations—or even advisories for emergency responders—are likely years away.” Mayberry’s specific words were that PHMSA was “kind of scratching [their] head on the next step.” Even as utility companies plan to incorporate hydrogen into their fuel supply, PHMSA is still only in the research phase on hydrogen safety, including leak detection and integrity management

Obviously, getting safety measures in place is something ideally done before the first monster leak or explosion.

Along with funding the rapid build-out of carbon and hydrogen pipelines, the Biden administration has supported the rapid growth in US exports of LNG abroad from two major facilities on the Gulf Coast, amidst a European energy crisis in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The IRA reducing natural gas demand in the US hasn’t necessarily reduced supply of LNG, meaning that surplus inventory of gas in US storage was already high earlier this year, and is projected to continue to grow. In response to this, fossil fuel companies have been pushing for over 2,900 miles of pipelines in Louisiana, Texas, and Alaska, for better export capacities to capture the international market. 

This is all aided by a Department of Energy that has approved LNG export contracts through 2050 to non-free trade countries, discontinuing its practice of issuing 20-year export terms. Companies are already jumping to secure contracts that would lock in decades of gas to solidify a natural gas source after abandoning Russian options.

Natural gas, of course, is mostly methane, which is such a powerful greenhouse gas that according to studies of the rate of current leakage, it is worse for the climate on net than coal over the short term.

To be fair, PHMSA has taken significant strides under the Biden administration in addressing needed gaps in its regulatory portfolio. This summer, PHMSA embarked on updating its regulations to reduce methane emissions from new and existing pipelines through strengthened leakage surveys, patrolling requirements, and performance standards. There have additionally been several efforts to reduce methane emissions from gas pipelines through the Inflation Reduction Act, which created incentives for methane mitigation through taxes on oil and gas methane emissions. PHMSA has also proposed updating safety standards for pipelines used for transporting CO2 for carbon capture, but it’s expected to take nearly two full years to finalize that rule. 

Yet that is plainly far short of the necessary mark.  Additional regulation is needed, a near impossibility while PHMSA is understaffed and without a director. And unfortunately this isn’t novel for the agency. Under President Obama, the PHMSA was administrator-less for a year, and since then, many have claimed PHMSA is in need of an overhaul. In 2015, a Politico investigation noted that the structure of PHMSA allows the industry it’s supposed to regulate far too much power to influence the rule-making process and lacks capacity to carry out inspections and take a more aggressive regulatory role. 

The Biden administration is stepping into a new and dangerous era of pipeline construction without anyone at the helm of the agency that oversees pipeline safety. For the administration to bring forward the fullest potential of the Inflation Reduction Act’s programs and rules around pipelines while managing the significant risks  to health and the environment, a new administrator of PHMSA needs to come soon.

This article initially appeared in The American Prospect on October 9th, and can be viewed here.

ClimateConfirmations CrisisDepartment of TransportationGovernment Capacity

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