On September 7, 2018, a jury in a California state court found Plains All American Pipeline guilty on 9 criminal counts, stemming from a release of 140,000 gallons of crude oil from a Plains pipeline near Santa Barbara in 2015. Media across America reported on the criminal verdict in the Plains case, and certain commenters predict that the verdict could further energize pipeline opposition groups around the country. The case may be viewed best, however, as somewhat of an anomaly: a broadside of state legal requirements brought after an oil spill to a sensitive environment in California.
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.
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.
Opposition to new pipeline construction has grown in recent years, moving from public comment to litigation to physical protest and vandalism. In 2016 alone, several coordinated actions led to trespass and vandalism of pipelines and pipeline facilities in multiple states, some of which were prosecuted as felony criminal acts. The defendants in several of these cases have raised a “necessity defense” to their actions, and two courts have now allowed that defense to proceed.
The U.S. DOT and 10 other federal agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on April 9, 2018, which became effective on April 10, 2018. The MOU is intended to implement Executive Order 13807 (Aug. 15, 2017), which established a “One Federal Decision” policy for infrastructure projects that require authorizations by multiple federal agencies. Under the MOU, a lead federal agency must be designated to be responsible for addressing compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the preparation of a single Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The lead agency will establish a single Permitting Timetable that all federal agencies must follow. The MOU mandates that all federal authorizations must be resolved within 90 days of issuance of the lead agency’s Record of Decision (ROD) on the EIS, with limited exceptions.
There have been problems on large pipeline construction projects in recent years getting all federal agencies to agree on an approach to permitting review and timetables. The MOU addresses that by requiring all agencies to work on a single approach and timeline, and to develop the policies necessary to do so. It also requires all environmental review to be complete no later than two years from issuance of a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare an EIS for a new project. Additionally, the MOU specifies three “concurrence points” at which all involved agencies are requested to reach consensus on NEPA project review and approval: (1) Purpose and Need; (2) identification of Alternatives; and (3) selection of the Preferred Alternative.
For new natural gas pipeline construction projects, FERC will continue to be the lead agency preparing an EIS, but any cooperating agencies must now comply with a uniform schedule for review and input. Although not required by the MOU, state, local and tribal agencies will be invited to voluntarily participate in the single permitting timetable process.
The MOU was welcomed by many as a means to achieve permit streamlining, a concept that Congress has attempted to address over the years, as noted in our prior posts regarding both House and Senate efforts [see prior pipelaws posts, August 4, 2017, July 5, 2017]. It also harkens to President Trump’s January 2017 Presidential Memorandum addressing permit streamlining for domestic manufacturing. As a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said of this new MOU, “It shouldn’t take longer to approve a project than to build it.” Opponents of new infrastructure projects, including pipelines, note that the courts are still deliberating on whether and to what extent large projects need to consider climate change impacts under NEPA. Challenges such as that are not addressed directly by the MOU, but in theory the MOU will foster a consolidated position by all federal agencies involved.
While the MOU stands to improve the coordination and timing among federal agencies, it is only aspirational, speaking in terms of “goals” and “milestones” that are ultimately non-binding. It may also place more burdens on project applicants, to ensure that all agencies are, in fact, coordinating and adhering to the timetable, etc., and that any disputes are identified and resolved in a timely manner.
In addition, challenges to permits and approvals at the local and state level will be unaffected by this MOU. New infrastructure projects continue to face opposition by environmental or citizen groups, and increasingly states too have posed challenges to large scale projects. For example, as noted in our prior post of July 5, 2017, projects such as Millennium Pipeline Company that received prior FERC approval have found themselves in the U.S. Courts of Appeals addressing state challenges. The Second Circuit recently issued a favorable decision in the Mellennium appeal , however, holding firm to the plain language in the Clean Water Act that the timeline for a state’s action in response to a request for a water quality certification is one year from receipt of the request.
 The MOU was signed by the heads of the Department of Transportation; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; the Environmental Protection Agency; Department of Energy; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Department of the Interior; Department of Agriculture; Department of Commerce; Department of Housing and Urban Development; the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council.
Building off of President Trump’s “Made in America” campaign commitment, the Trump Administration issued a tariff on steel imports on March 8, 2018. The proclamation finds that the imposition of duties on steel articles is necessary to ensure that steel imports will not threaten national security and, effective March 23, 2018, steel imports will be subject to a twenty-five (25) percent ad valorem tariff, except for imports from Canada and Mexico. The proclamation also authorizes the Commerce Department to grant exclusions from the tariffs of affected parties (1) if the steel at issue is determined not to be produced in the U.S. in a sufficient and reasonably available amount or of a satisfactory quality; or (2) based upon specific national security considerations. The President directed the Commerce Department to promulgate regulations as necessary to set forth the procedures for an exclusion process.
Prior to the effective date of the tariff, the Department of Commerce issued an interim final rule (IFR) to outline exclusions and the exclusion application process (set forth as a supplement to 15 C.F.R. Part 705). The IFR was issued without notice and comment and became immediately effective when published on March 19, 2018. While the IFR tracks the limited exclusions in the proclamation, much remains unclear with regard to the process and the likelihood of success for industry applicants. An exclusion will only be granted on a case by case basis where an article is not produced in the U.S. in a “sufficient and reasonably available amount,” is not produced in the U.S. in a “satisfactory quality,” or for a “specific national security consideration.” The IFR does not clarify the meaning of these terms or provide the industry with illustrative examples. The form for filing an exclusion request requires information such as the average annual consumption of the product at issue for the past two years, time involved in delivery, manufacture, and shipment of the product from a foreign suppliers, specifics about the physical properties of the product, and detailed U.S. product availability information (including attempts to qualify a US steel manufacturer or procure the steel from a US manufacturer).
The rule also establishes limits on who can request an exclusion and the scope of any exclusion. Exclusions are limited to individuals or organizations using steel articles in business activities (e.g., construction, manufacturing, or supplying steel to users). Approvals of exclusions will be specific to the individual or entity who submitted the request, unless Commerce approves a broader application of the exclusion to apply to other importers. Objections may be filed by any individual or organization, but Commerce will only consider information directly related to the submitted exclusion request.
The IFR states that “follow-on” requesters to exclusions that are approved will be taken into consideration, but signals that approval will depend on the strength of a requester’s application which may potentially set the stage for inconsistent results. Exclusion requests, objections and comments on the IFR will be public and located in the federal register docket. The rule establishes a 30 day period for individuals or organizations to file objections (from posting of the exclusion request) and a 90 day period for the Department to review and adjudicate any objections to an exclusion request. Responses approving exclusion requests will be effective within 5 days and will generally be approved for one year. Commerce estimates that it will receive tariff exclusion requests from 4,500 applicants. To date, no requests have been posted to the federal docket associated with steel import exclusions.
The Administration’s January 2017 Executive Memorandum requiring that all new and repaired pipe be made in the U.S. and the issue of steel tariffs have been the subject of much comment by the pipeline industry. Industry operators and trade groups have argued that such requirements will result in construction delays, project cancellations, higher costs and consumer impacts if they are implemented. There are major constraints on the procurement of adequate quantities of line pipe materials and equipment in the U.S., due to the unavailability of U.S. made pipe at necessary technical specifications and in time to meet market demands and/or regulatory requirements. It remains uncertain whether the Commerce Department’s IFR will resolve any of these concerns, if it will be subject to judicial challenge or whether the exclusion process will prove to be workable for industry.
In a surprising turn of events this week, PHMSA approved a request from the media to attend a hearing in the Agency’s Southwest Region offices in Houston yesterday. An environmental reporting service (E&E News) submitted a request to PHMSA last week to attend a hearing requested by Cheniere, in response to an enforcement action related to an incident at that company’s LNG export facility, and threatened legal action after receiving no response to their request. [See E&E News March 16, 2018 article E&E News seeks open PHMSA hearing on Cheniere leaks and E&E News March 21, 2018 article Pipeline regulators open Sabine Pass safety hearing.] In agreeing to the request just days before the Hearing, PHMSA’s Associate Administrator for Pipeline Safety Alan Mayberry was quoted by E&E News as stating that “PHMSA has decided for purposes of this hearing to open the hearing to the press and to members of the public.” Although the hearing yesterday was open to the public at the outset, it was later closed following a break. To date, PHMSA administrative enforcement hearings have been closed to the public. While this does not likely signal an official policy change on behalf of the Agency, it nonetheless suggests that PHMSA could make the decision to open administrative enforcement hearings to the public in the future, on a case by case basis.
In the past few weeks, the Trump Administration’s Department of Interior (DOI) has taken significant steps to roll back several environmental policies and/or rules affecting the energy industry. On December 22, DOI issued a memorandum interpreting the scope of the criminal liability under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) not to extend to incidental takes of migratory birds associated with development, construction or operation of energy and infrastructure projects. The following week, DOI formally rescinded a 2015 final rule issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for oil and gas operators engaged in hydraulic fracking on Federal and Indian public lands because it “imposes administrative burdens and compliance costs that are not justified.” That same day, DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) issued a proposed rule to revise or eliminate regulations on offshore drilling safety equipment, including the production systems safety rule which was prompted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. More recently, DOI has announced a draft proposed plan to reopen nearly all offshore waters to oil and gas drilling. Continue Reading Regulatory Rollbacks Continue for Energy Industry
Last week, PHMSA’s oil and gas pipeline technical advisory committees convened to review and discuss significant pending rulemakings and regulatory reform initiatives, among other topics. At the same time, the White House touted its deregulation efforts, including the purported elimination of 22 regulations in the past year for each new rule passed. For an agency that is facing outstanding statutory mandates to enact certain regulations, with reauthorization looming in 2018, it is expected that PHMSA will promulgate some new rules in the New Year. It is not yet known, however, what the content of those rules will be and whether the expansive gas ‘mega rule’ will be among those finalized in 2018. Given the overall regulatory climate to reduce regulation and burden, a little certainty might be appreciated in the New Year. Continue Reading All I want for Christmas is … regulatory certainty?