Who Enforces Pipeline Safety Procedures in Texas? No one.

Pipeline systems like the Trans-Pecos Pipeline fall under a number of regulatory requirements at the state, and federal level. The primary federal agency, a sub-agency of the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) charged with regulating pipelines is the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The primary state agency charged with pipeline operation and safety regulation is the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT).

PHMSA only spends about 10% of its resources on new construction inspection. RCT does not routinely inspect any new construction, and no permit to construct a pipeline is required in the State of Texas.

There is a lot of confusion on the matter, but PHMSA provides minimal oversight, almost none at all, on new pipeline construction at a nationwide level, and almost none at all in Texas.

Pipeline construction at a Federal level is regulated under 49 CFR Parts 191-199. At a state level, in Texas, the activity is regulated under TAC 16 Chapter 8, which is in part derived from, and references 49 CFR Parts 191-199. In turn, both codes incorporate ASME Standard B31.8, the engineering and construction practices for gas transmission systems.

Federal, and state statutes require that pipeline operating companies, their contractors, and related entities follow the aforementioned codes and statutes, during construction, including testing, and after construction, during operation. PHMSA develops “Operator Qualification,” or “OQ” guidelines, which apply to both construction, and operation of a pipeline.

Unfortunately, pipeline companies and their contractors are largely self-regulating, and self-reporting. While there can be some spot-checking and inspection, for example, during construction, there is no Federal, or State inspector present that monitors welding, radiography, hydrostatic testing, or any other activity that takes place on the construction easement. Pipeline construction is complex, and requires attention to many critical details; ensuring coating integrity, cathodic protection installation and integrity, welding, weld inspection, pad layer and pipeline support in the trench, backfill quality, hydrostatic testing, and so on. Problems with any one, or combination of these details can result in catastrophic pipeline failure during operation.

The construction contractor is responsible for following applicable elements of the required PHMSA OQ guidelines, including certification of its staff, which range from field supervisors and inspectors to individual trades people and even general labor. The contractor must make sure inspectors are certified, and that inspectors and supervisors are monitoring construction activity, collecting the required test and inspection data, preserving that data for the record, and identifying defects, improper work and installation practices, etc.

All of that falls on the contractor. Neither PHMSA, or the RCT routinely monitor any of this activity.

Contrary to recently spread misinformation, the pipeline operating company hires the inspectors, and conducts the tests, including radiography and hydrostatic testing. The pipeline operating company retains the inspection records, including X-rays of welds, and hydrostatic testing results. Those records are not submitted to, or retained by either State or Federal agencies.

In the event of an operational incident that must be reported to either RCT, and/or PHMSA, a pipeline company will normally turn over the related test records to the investigating agency – barring voluntary compliance, those records may be obtained by subpoena. Note that this is “post-facto,” i.e. an incident, like a leak, rupture, explosion, or fire must occur before any investigation is performed, or enforcement action is effected – it is not pro-active.

Included here is the PHMSA data, from 2002 – 2016 related to enforcement for Energy Transfer Company, Operator ID 32099, Sunoco Pipeline L.P, Operator ID 18718, and Sunoco Pipeline LP, Operator ID 31623. These are three of Energy Transfer Partners pipeline operating entities. Note that there are only 18 enforcement events across all three operating entities, over a period of 14-years. This rough statistic shows just how thin inspection, and enforcement is at the federal level.

Interested persons can contact the regional PHMSA office, located in Houston, here: 713-272-2859

You can visit PHMSA on the web here: http://www.phmsa.dot.gov

You can visit RCT on the web here: http://www.rrc.state.tx.us

Safety regulations promulgated by the RCT for Texas pipelines are here: http://www.rrc.state.tx.us/pipeline-safety/rules/