Administrative Rulemaking

The first Congressional Hearing on Pipeline Safety Act Reauthorization for 2019 was held this week before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  The Hearing did not have as much drama as last summer’s Hearing before the same Committee, where PHMSA Administrator Skip Elliott was asked sharply to explain why the Agency had failed to fulfill so many Congressional mandates and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Recommendations.  In his written testimony at this week’s Hearing, Administrator Elliott stated that “When I spoke [here] last year, I heard clearly from [Committee] members that finalizing outstanding Congressional mandates must be a top priority.”   The Committee staff report issued for the Hearing listed 12 “unmet mandates,” and Administrator Elliott’s written testimony conceded that PHMSA yet to address 8 mandates from the 2011 Pipeline Safety Act (PSA) reauthorization, and another 4 from the 2016 PSA reauthorization.  Of that dozen outstanding mandates, 4 relate to reports and 8 involve rulemaking.  Jennifer Homendy, a member of the NTSB, testified that the NTSB has 24 “open” recommendations to PHMSA, several on the Board’s “most wanted” list for completion.  Homendy previously served as the Democratic Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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For at least the past 35 years, federal courts have generally allowed an administrative agency’s interpretation of a regulation or statute that it administers to prevail when challenged by a member of the regulated community or any other interested party. The ‘agency deference’ doctrine has been questioned in recent years, however, and a new case pending review before the Supreme Court may reverse or revise the doctrine as it relates to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulation. Whether a court defers to an agency’s interpretation of a statute or regulation defines the standard of review with which it will review the Agency’s decision. For that reason, whether agency deference remains in place or not, regulated entities should focus on the importance of creating a record for judicial review of agency action.
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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.

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The Gas Pipeline Advisory Committee (GPAC) convened in Washington D.C. at the end of March, 2018, to continue discussions from May and December 2017 regarding PHMSA’s proposed gas and gathering pipeline mega rule (“Safety of Gas Transmission and Gathering Pipelines” [PHMSA-1011-0023]. The meetings included discussion and voting on a number of provisions concerning

In an attempt to bring clarity following the recent Supreme Court decision—which as noted in our prior post will result in expiration of the nationwide stay of the 2015 revised definition of “waters of the U.S.” that was imposed two years ago by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals—EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) issued a final rule extending the applicability date of the 2015 revised definition to February 6, 2020.  With this final rule, the Agencies seek to ensure that the pre-2015 “waters of the U.S.” definition will remain in place consistently throughout the country while the Agencies consider possible revisions. As expected, the final rule has already been subject to judicial challenge, further ensuring that the scope of “waters of the U.S.” will continue to remain uncertain in the near future as these challenges play out.
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On January 22, 2018, the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision threw the long contested issue of what constitutes “waters of the U.S.” back to the lower courts.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Supreme Court held that federal district courts have jurisdiction to hear challenges to the rule, reversing a Sixth Circuit decision and suspending that court’s nationwide stay of the rule.  In doing so, the Court guaranteed that a revised definition of “waters of the U.S.” will remain undecided for some time to come.
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A year ago, the oil and natural gas industry was preparing comments and responses to several expansive proposed rules issued by the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).  With the advent of the Trump Administration and its focus on deregulation, those pending rules have since been withdrawn and are being reevaluated (among hundreds of other administrative agency rules).  In the first 100 days of this Administration, the White House issued 58 executive orders and memoranda, nearly a quarter of which affected the pipeline industry directly or indirectly.  In the six months since, the President has continued to issue directives aimed at eliminating regulatory burdens and expediting energy infrastructure.  While these directives were met with initial relief from the industry, they lack clear deadlines and details and it has fallen on the various administrative agencies to interpret and implement them.  To complicate matters, the Administration has simultaneously issued budget cuts across the board and has been slow to appoint key leadership positions.  For an industry that relies on regulatory certainty, much remains uncertain.

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On October 19, 2017, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) announced an additional comment period on its December 19, 2016 interim final rule (IFR) which established minimum federal safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities.  PHMSA will accept comments until November 20, 2017.  This notice comes amidst the current administration’s executive orders on deregulation and a recent DOT request for comment on regulatory reform.

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In October 2017, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a pre-publication report on “Designing Safety Standards for High Hazard Industries.” Sponsored by PHMSA (and many years in the making), the Report focuses on oil and gas pipelines and the regulatory scheme used by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).  Noting the differences between prescriptive and performance based rulemakings, the Report observes that while most federal agencies use a combination of both, PHMSA is one of the few federal agencies that primarily relies on performance based standards.  The rationale used by PHMSA, the Report notes, is that pipeline integrity management is best maintained by placing responsibility on individual operators to identify and manage risks that may not be known to the regulators or common to the industry.  (Report, p. viii).

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The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) announced a series of public teleconferences for stakeholder input on recommendations to revise the definition of “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.  This definition is critical to the determination of whether wetlands or water discharge permits are required for construction projects or operations across all industries.  In total, there will be ten teleconferences beginning on September 19, 2017, nine of which will be tailored to a specific industry sector and one of which will be open to the public at large (see summary below).  The session specific to the energy, chemical and oil and gas industries is scheduled for October 24, 2017.  The teleconferences will run throughout the fall on Tuesdays from 1 to 3 pm eastern. 
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