In a letter issued to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and E&E News last week, PHMSA’s new Chief Counsel Paul Roberti announced its intention to publicly post advance notice of hearings requested by operators.  As reported by E&E News and reflected in the letter, PHMSA will now post hearing scheduling letters to the enforcement activity page on its website.  To the extent the press (and presumably the public) is interested in attending, PHMSA asks that a request be submitted in advance for consideration.  This decision potentially brings the Agency and the industry one step closer to opening hearings to the public.

Just a few months ago, PHMSA approved a request from the media (E&E News) to attend a hearing in the Agency’s Southwest Region offices as reported in our prior post of March 22, 2018.  This marked the first time that a PHMSA administrative hearing was opened to the public, even if only partially (it was closed following a break).  As we noted at that time, “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.” The decision to post hearing scheduling letters is in keeping with that prior observation, and does not constitute a blanket grant of public access to all hearings.

Requests for hearings are filed in response to administrative enforcement actions issued by PHMSA to address issues of fact and law, including in response to Notices of Probable Violations, Corrective Action Orders, Emergency Orders and Proposed Safety Orders.  PHMSA hearings are, by regulation, “informal.” 49 C.F.R. Part 190.211(e). As a result, the rules of evidence do not apply and the hearings are, in effect, formal meetings (there is no express language in the Pipeline Safety Act or its implementing regulations that governs public participation in the enforcement context).  The purpose of that approach is to facilitate a frank discussion of the issues and to encourage the possibility of resolution, within the context of applicable law.  Consistent with that purpose, and following recent discussions with us, PHMSA’s Office of Chief Counsel recently confirmed its willingness to engage in pre-hearing discussions to explore settlement of some or all issues in advance of a hearing (in a letter issued the same day as the letter to RCFP and E&E).  That approach is similar to pre-trial conferences that are required by federal and most state laws in litigation.  Notably, pre-trial conferences are not open to the public.

Even if opened for public attendance, administrative enforcement hearings are not ‘public hearings.’  There is no allowance for public participation in the form of questions or statements.  The purpose of the hearing is for the parties to explain and argue their respective positions on questions of fact and law, as moderated by a Hearing Officer.   PHMSA enforcement hearings are held in Agency offices, with limited space.  A request by third parties to attend hearings could present logistical challenges and potentially interfere with PHMSA’s obligation to ensure public safety where hearings are addressing imminent safety issues.  Delays in scheduling of hearings due to the need to post hearing scheduling letters and handle requests for public attendance, and arrange logistics for hearing space, could affect the Agency’s ability to address safety issues in an efficient manner.

The public has a right to know what federal agencies do, and that right is given effect through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was relied upon as the basis to allow public attendance at the PHMSA hearing in March.  Information presented in advance of and during a hearing is frequently subject to protection from disclosure under FOIA, however, as enforcement or settlement confidential, security sensitive or protection of confidential commercial information.  That consideration could add further complexity to logistics planning for a hearing.

We will continue to monitor these developments closely.

A recent Report to Congress mandated by the most recent amendments to the Pipeline Safety Act was released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), reviewing federal and state responsibilities and resources for inspection of pipelines that transport product across state lines.  Increases in funding have allowed the federal agency charged with regulating pipeline safety, the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA or the Agency), to expand its own inspection workforce and reduce its reliance on state agents.  The Report to Congress finds that the Agency has not assessed future workforce needs, however, to determine the appropriate level of state participation.

Continue Reading State Participation in Interstate Pipeline Inspections: GAO Recommendations

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 Congressional Review Act (CRA) has been in the news of late, yet few people know its history, purpose or challenges.  Although used only once in its first 20 years, the Act was resurrected at the outset of the Trump Administration.  In the first four months of 2017, the new Administration used the CRA to withdraw 14 rules promulgated late in the Obama Administration.  There is an effort now to try to use the CRA to nullify even older rules, promulgated over the past 20 years, which could threaten to create more uncertainty for the regulated community.

Continue Reading The Congressional Review Act May Be Coming Soon to a Rule Near You


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.

Continue Reading Invoking the ‘Necessity Defense’ in Pipeline Sabotage Prosecutions

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 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 maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP), integrity management, definitions and repair criteria.  Most notably, PHMSA announced its intention to divide the original Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) into three parts and issue three separate final rulemakings in 2019 [PHMAS PowerPoint]. PHMSA is currently projecting that these three rulemakings will be issued over the course of next year, with the first one focusing on outstanding congressional mandates, as follows::

Part I (expected issuance in March 2019) to address the expansion of risk assessment and MAOP requirements, including:

  • 6-month grace period for 7-calendar year reassessment intervals;
  • Consideration of seismicity for integrity management assessments (fort both threats and preventative and maintenance measures)
  • MAOP exceedance reporting
  • Material verification, MAOP reconfirmation (for those with unknown MAOPs or incomplete records)
  • Expansion of the risk assessment obligation to include areas in non-high consequence areas (HCAs) and moderate consequence areas (MCAs)
  • Related records provisions

Part II (expected issuance in June 2019) to focus on the expansion of integrity management program regulations, including:

  • Adjustments to repair criteria for pipelines in HCAs and non-HCAs
  • Inspections following extreme weather and other events
  • Safety features on in-line inspection launchers and receivers
  • Management of change
  • Corrosion control
  • Other integrity management clarifications and increased assessment requirements

Part III (expected issuance in August 2019) to focus on expanding the regulation of gas gathering lines, including:

  • Reporting requirements
  • Safety regulations for gas gathering lines in Class I locations
  • Definitions

The next GPAC meeting is scheduled for June 12-14, 2018, and it is expected to focus on the NPRM provisions concerning gas gathering pipelines.  As noted in our prior post , the advisory committee meetings are particularly informative to industry and other interested parties concerning the direction PHMSA will take with these final rules.

 

 

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.

Continue Reading PHMSA Opens Enforcement Hearing to the Public

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?

Oil and gas pipeline technical advisory committee meetings will be held on December 13-15 in Washington, D.C.  The agenda covers updates on PHMSA pipeline safety programs and policy issues.  The oil and gas peer review committees, comprised of federal and state agency representatives, industry and the public, will discuss a variety of topics within that agenda, related to inspection and enforcement, updates regarding pending rulemakings and regulatory reform initiatives, underground gas storage, and more.  This is one of the first opportunities to hear from the Agency’s new leadership (especially recently appointed PHMSA Administrator Skip Elliott and Deputy Administrator Drue Pearce).  The meetings should provide valuable insight to the priorities and policy initiatives under the Trump Administration affecting oil and gas critical energy infrastructure.  Continue Reading Advisory Committee Meetings May Add Insight to Policy Priorities