Administrative Guidance

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a notice seeking input from the public on existing guidance documents within DOT and its modal operating administrations, including PHMSA.  In particular, DOT seeks input on guidance documents that are no longer necessary, are cost-inducing, inconsistent or unclear, not conducive to consistent enforcement, or that need to be updated.  The more specific the comments about the documents and the concerns with them, the better, along with suggested alternatives.  The comment period remains open until April 8, 2019.

The notice relates back to a prior DOT notice requesting comments on regulatory review in October 2017, where DOT sought public comment on existing rules as well as guidance documents.  Both this notice and the prior 2017 notice stem from the Trump Administration’s Executive Orders regarding deregulation (E.O. 13771) and regulatory reform regulatory reform (E.O. 13777).   In addition, this most recent notice was issued on the heels of DOT’s posting of a new guidance directive from DOT’s General Counsel outlining a more detailed clearance process for guidance that became effective in December 2018.

Regardless of the basis, the regulated community has a unique opportunity to recommend that particular guidance documents be repealed or revised.  A wide array of PHMSA documents constitute guidance potentially subject to the notice, such as Agency Inspection Protocols, Staff Manuals and Instructions, Reporting Form Instructions (such as 7000.1 or 7100.2 incident and annual reports), Advisory Bulletins, Frequently Asked Questions, and even interpretations and policy statements.  Other documents such as the Pipeline Civil Penalty Summary are also within the scope of the Notice.

Certain of PHMSA guidance materials are inconsistent, out of date, and unclear, and could benefit from revision at a minimum.  Further, PHMSA at times relies on guidance documents which do not have the force of law to inform agency enforcement or corrective actions. Coupled with DOT’s new focus on streamlining agency guidance, we encourage operators to consider submitting comments.  To that end, we are particularly well positioned to assist clients in preparing comments to this Notice, given the breadth and depth of our national practice and experience.

In yet another development relating to Clean Water Act (CWA) Section 401 water quality certifications, a recent policy directive from the Department of the Army could impose tighter timeframes for a state to review whether projects comply with state water quality standards. The U.S. Department of the Army has issued a policy directive memorandum requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to adhere to a “default time period” of 60 days for states to act on a request for water quality certification under CWA Section 401 in conjunction with USACE’s issuance of dredge and fill permits under CWA Section 404. The directive also requires USACE to “immediately draft guidance” to establish criteria for USACE District Engineers to identify circumstances that may warrant additional time for states to decide on an application for water quality certification. Continue Reading USACE to Impose 60 Day Period on State Water Quality Certification Review

Hurricane season is upon us, with Hurricane Florence making its way towards landfall in the Carolinas, currently expected to reach the coast by early Friday morning, September 14, 2018.  Tropical storm force winds and heavy rain will reach the coastal areas even before that, and the storm is forecast to bring high winds, torrential rain, power outages and flooding over a multi-state area in the mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions for several days.  Many of these areas have experienced unseasonable amounts of rain this year, and that has already contributed to several pipeline incidents caused by earth movement.  As pipeline operators prepare for potential impacts of this “monster storm,” operators should look to their own emergency response preparedness plans, known or suspected risks to their systems, as well as to PHMSA’s prior Advisories that provide guidance to the industry under these circumstances.

States of emergency have been declared for North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, with mass evacuations ordered on the coast.  The wide swath and strength of the storm, however, will be of most concern as the storm comes inland and drops very large amounts of rain over the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, which encompass considerable pipeline mileage.  In anticipation of the impacts, PHMSA has already announced that it is “prepared to provide any necessary regulatory relief from the Hazardous Material regulations and waive certain pipeline Operator Qualifications/and pre-employment requirements in support of hurricane response and/or recovery.”  And it is likely that the Agency will issue or reissue a version of its prior Advisories regarding potential impacts of hurricanes to oil and gas pipelines, as it did in the aftermaths of Harvey and Irma in 2017.

In advance of the storm’s arrival, PHMSA’s prior Advisories provide some interim guidance to pipeline operators.  Past Advisories have addressed the potential for damage to pipeline facilities caused by hurricanes, warning of adverse effects on operations such as increased risks of earth movement (including landslides), exposed pipe, loss of electricity and access, disruption in service, etc.  The Advisories remind operators that any of these developments may trigger obligations to take appropriate corrective measures, such as increased surveillance or repairs (49 C.F.R. Parts 192.613, 195.401(b)) and underwater inspections (49 C.F.R. Parts 192.613, 195.413).  Further, while the most recently issued Advisories in 2017 largely focused on areas in the Gulf Coast, they also included guidance more generally applicable to pipelines on the East Coast, by encouraging pipeline operators to:

  • Bring offshore and inland transmission facilities back online after a disruption, and check for structural damage to piping, valves, emergency shutdown systems, risers, and supporting systems.
  • Aerial inspections of pipeline routes should also be conducted to check for leaks in transmission systems.
  • Take action to minimize and mitigate damages caused by flooding to gas distribution systems, including the prevention of overpressure of low and high-pressure distribution systems.

Although Agency guidance such as this is not legally binding or enforceable, the Agency refers to the ‘general duty’ provisions in its regulations (such as 192.613 and 195.401).  PHMSA could rely on those general provisions in future enforcement actions if operators fail to take the actions recommended in the Advisory.  There have been instances in the past where the Agency has cited its general duty regulations as the basis for enforcement where operators failed to discover or correct conditions caused by natural forces that could potentially affect safe operations on their pipeline systems.  See, e.g.,  In re Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America, CPF No. 3-2005-1011 (failure to address exposed pipeline at a river crossing); In re ANR Pipeline Company, CPF No. 2-2008-1005W (failure to address undercutting of concrete matting over a pipeline).

As pipeline operators prepare for the hurricane season, and Hurricane Florence in particular, operators should look to their emergency response plans, relevant system characteristics, and consider the recommendations in prior PHMSA Advisories.

As part of its integrity management regulatory scheme, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is requesting comments on a draft risk modeling report.  In certain densely populated or environmentally sensitive areas, PHMSA integrity management rules require the continual evaluation of ways to reduce pipeline threats to minimize the likelihood and consequences of an incident.  Because these rules are performance based, the methodology for analyzing and assessing risk is not prescribed and the industry employs a variety of approaches.  PHMSA’s draft report similarly does not dictate a particular methodology but clearly favors probabilistic and quantitative risk models that may not be practical or effective for many operators.  Operators should take the opportunity to review and comment on the draft report to ensure that their experiences and insights with risk modeling are reflected prior to finalizing the document.  Based on a request from industry trade groups, PHMSA recently extended the comment period an additional 30 days until October 17, 2018.

Continue Reading Draft Pipeline Risk Modeling Report Issued for Public Comment

Since 9/11, no new rules or regulations have been promulgated to address pipeline or LNG facility security or cybersecurity. Although the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently released an updated version of its “Pipeline Security Guidelines” (Guidelines) that were last issued in 2011, those Guidelines remain advisory.  And both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have made only informal outreach to pipeline and LNG industry as issues have arisen.  As the threat of both cyber and physical attacks on critical energy infrastructure continues, however, some question whether minimal standards for prevention of threats should be in place.  In particular, there has been recent attention by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), members of Congress, and at least one Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) commissioner. (See E&E News Article of May 29, 2018).  These discussions, along with recent proposed legislation in the House and the fact that the Pipeline Safety Act is up for reauthorization later this year, are likely to bring these issues into sharper focus.

Continue Reading Pipeline Security and Cybersecurity: Are Guidelines Enough to Protect Critical Infrastructure?

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) officially announced that it is going to review its policy framework for certification of new interstate natural gas and LNG pipelines in the U.S. and issued a Notice of Inquiry (Notice or NOI).  This is the first time in nearly twenty years that FERC will examine its pipeline review and approval policy, last issued in 1999.  Kevin McIntyre, the current FERC Chairman, said review of the policy is intended to determine ‘whether, and if so, how’ any changes should be made in the evaluation of new pipeline projects.  The NOI establishes a 60-day public comment period, beginning with publication in the Federal Register, thus the deadline for comments is June 25, 2018.

Continue Reading Continuing Review of New Pipeline Projects

The Department of Transportation formally requested public comment on existing rules and “other agency actions,” including but not limited to guidance documents and policy statements, that are good candidates for repeal, replacement, suspension, or modification without compromising safety.  This request covers all DOT modal agencies, including PHMSA, the FAA, the FRA, NHTSA, among others.   In addition to requesting comments, DOT indicated that it may hold a public meeting on these issues. Comments are due November 1, 2017.

Continue Reading DOT Requests Comments on Regulatory Review

On August 15, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order (EO) entitled “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects.”  As part of the Administration’s goal to improve domestic infrastructure, the purpose of the EO is to promote agency coordination, efficiency, and accountability with respect to environmental reviews of infrastructure projects.

Continue Reading Executive Order Aims to Improve Environmental Review of Infrastructure Projects

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently published a notice inviting public comment to identify statutes, rules, regulations, and interpretations in policy statements or guidance that “unjustifiably delay or prevent completion of surface, maritime, and aviation transportation infrastructure projects.”  As stated in the notice [attached], in keeping with President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda, DOT and other federal agencies are in the process of reviewing existing policy statements, guidance documents, and regulations that might pose impediments to transportation infrastructure projects.   The upcoming deadline to provide input on that review is July 24, 2017.  We encourage industry to consider submitting comments, particularly given DOT’s statement that comments are not restricted to burdensome regulations, but also extend to policy statements, interpretations and guidance.

Continue Reading Deadline Approaching for Input on Regulatory Improvements

As part of his regulatory reform agenda, President Donald Trump instructed federal agencies to review their regulations to identify requirements that burden businesses and industry.  See EO 13771 and EO 13777.  In order to comply with these directives, on June 8, 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requested public comments to identify statutes, rules, regulations, and interpretations in policy statements or guidance “that unjustifiably delay or prevent completion of surface, maritime, and aviation transportation infrastructure projects.”

Continue Reading DOT Requests Input Regarding Burdensome Regulatory Requirements