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).
The 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed several key aspects of a PHMSA Final Order in a recent opinion issued on August 14, 2017. That decision is significant for the fact that few final actions by this agency have been presented for judicial review, and, of those, even fewer have been successful. The decision is based on a complex set of facts and legal issues that went through several years of administrative appeals before the agency. As with most complex cases, many of the factual issues were unique, and are not likely to be repeated. There are a few larger, procedural themes to be gleaned from the decision that apply more broadly, however, both to this agency and administrative law generally.
Donald Trump formally announced Friday that he will nominate Skip Elliott as PHMSA Administrator. Once confirmed by the Senate, Elliott will serve as PHMSA’s chief executive charged with administering federal regulation of natural gas, oil, and other hazardous materials transportation by pipeline and the regulation of multimodal (truck, rail, etc.) transportation of hazardous materials. As PHMSA Administrator, Elliott will have oversight of over 600 employees within the Agency’s headquarters in Washington, DC and five regional offices across the U.S.
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.
The 5th Circuit issued a lengthy opinion on August 14, 2017, reversing most of the violations of a PHMSA enforcement action that began in November 2013 in conjunction with investigation of a failure on the Pegasus Pipeline. In that matter, PHMSA alleged that the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company (EMPCo) failed to properly consider the risk of failure on a segment of pre-1970 low frequency electric resistance welded (LF-ERW) pipe. The Agency assessed a penalty of nearly $2.7 million for the various alleged violations. In a rare judicial decision regarding a PHMSA Final Order and Decision on Petition for Reconsideration, the Court reversed all but one of the items on appeal, and vacated the penalty associated with those alleged violations (dismissing over $1.6M of the total penalty). The Court remanded the one remaining item back to PHMSA for recalculation of the associated penalty.
On July 19, 2017, the U.S. House voted to give lead authority for authorizing cross border oil and gas pipelines to FERC, and to the Secretary of Energy for cross border electric transmission lines. HR 2883, entitled Promoting Cross-Border Energy Infrastructure Act, removes the requirement for such cross border energy infrastructure to obtain Presidential Permits and instead establishes a 120 day review process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Natural Gas Act to obtain a “Certificate of Crossing.”
Oil and gas discoveries in various shale plays around the U.S. over the past decade have led to an increased rise in the number of transfers and acquisitions of pipeline assets, including pipelines serving processing plants, producers, storage facilities, and those associated with power plants and other industrial users. Changes in global and domestic energy markets have continued that trend. Prudent operators routinely request and review documentation as part of their due diligence in making acquisitions, but it is becoming increasingly important that certain records be located during due diligence or factored into the transaction if such records are lacking and must be recreated. Decision makers involved in pipeline acquisitions should involve pipeline safety managers or counsel early on in the process to allow sufficient time to include pipeline safety records review as part of the transaction; to do otherwise can be a costly mistake that carries significant liability risk.
For the past three months, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or the Commission) has been without a quorum needed to make any decisions approving pipeline permits or rates. FERC is designed to have 5 Commissioners, but it must have at least 3 to constitute a quorum and make decisions. FERC Chairman Norman Bay resigned on February 3, 2017, leaving the Agency with only 2 Commissioners; less than a decision making quorum. To make matters worse, Commissioner Colleen Honorable announced this week that she intends to resign in the coming months.
Just last summer, EPA released its final version of the Technical Guidance for Assessing Environmental Justice in Regulatory Analysis (EJ Technical Guidance), defining “environmental justice” as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Now, not quite a year later, EPA is facing a proposed $2.6M budget decrease which will reportedly cripple the EJ program. Continue Reading Fate of Environmental Justice Considerations