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.

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, PHMSA issued a press release regarding hurricane preparedness and response.  As operators implemented hurricane preparedness plans to minimize the impact of the storm, PHMSA noted several significant allowances for pipeline systems impacted by the hurricane including the following:

  1. Temporarily suspending enforcement for noncompliance with pipeline operator qualification or pre-employment and random drug testing requirements associated with the use of pipeline personnel for response and recovery activities.  The enforcement stay is limited to Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Puerto Rico.  It does not relieve operators of their responsibility to use trained, non-impaired workers to perform operations and maintenance tasks.
  2.  Acknowledging that some operators may need to extend the hours of service for pipeline controllers.
  3.  Reminding operators that the Agency is prepared to respond to requests for emergency special permits to assist in disaster relief efforts conducted in response to Hurricane Irma, whether to waive requirements or permit the use of innovative technologies not yet accommodated under the hazardous materials or pipeline safety regulations.
  4.  Delay and rescheduling of planned inspections for interstate operators affected by the storm;

In addition, PHMSA issued 2 emergency waivers of the hazardous materials regulations with respect to persons conducting operations under the direction of the EPA Regions 2 or 4 or the United States Coast Guard (USCG) 7th District within Hurricane Irma emergency and disaster areas of Florida, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, the United States Virgin Islands, and certain counties in Georgia.  The waivers are intended to support EPA and USCG actions to prepare for, respond to, and recover from threats to public health, welfare, and the environment caused by the actual or potential oil and hazardous materials incidents resulting from Hurricane Irma.  In addition, EPA approved emergency fuel waivers under the Clean Air Act for 38 states and Washington, DC due to continued impacts caused by Hurricane Harvey to Gulf Coast refineries and large scale evacuations in response to Hurricane Irma.  Specifically, EPA waived requirements for reformulated gasoline through September 26 and low volatility gasoline through September 15, 2017.

Similar to the precautions operators have taken in advance of other catastrophic events, precautions should be taken before initiating restart of refineries, terminals, offshore and inland pipelines, and other manufacturing facilities.  In its response to Irma, PHMSA highlighted prior advisories it has issued in response to hurricanes, flooding, and other emergency situations.  These advisories include recommendations for (among other things) bringing assets back online, including review for structural damage and aerial inspections to check for leaks.  Operators are required to report incidents and accidents to PHMSA that meet reporting thresholds, and the Agency encourages close communication on other damage caused by hurricanes.  Careful damage assessment and restart of assets is critical.

As the waters begin to recede from our nation’s energy capital following Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented rainfall in the state of Texas, the full impacts of Hurricane Harvey are beginning to become more apparent.  Beyond the incredible toll on the residents of the state, the daily damage estimates continue to rise.  Significantly, nearly one-third of the U.S. refining capacity in the U.S. has been affected.  The nation’s two largest refineries have closed, and many others are shut down or operating on a limited basis.  One chemical plant suffered from several explosions, while another reported a release from a pipeline, and at least one of the country’s largest liquid transmission pipelines is shut down.  While the full extent of damage to the energy industry is not yet known, the importance of good planning, preparedness and response is central to minimizing damage.  These efforts, by both emergency responders and the private sector, can substantially limit the amount of damage to both the public and the environment.

Continue Reading Impacts of Hurricane Harvey: Underscoring the Importance of Planning, Preparedness & Response