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 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.

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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.
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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. 
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In response to questions from lawmakers on whether federal law adequately provides for the prosecution of “criminal activity against infrastructure,” the Department of Justice (DOJ) recently committed to “vigorously” prosecute those who damage “critical energy infrastructure in violation of federal law.”  Historically, vandalism on oil or gas pipelines has been relatively uncommon, largely because most of the infrastructure is buried underground.  Since 9/11 and in response to increased high profile pipeline construction projects, however, acts of vandalism—and more intentional attacks—have increased.

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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 Department of Transportation formally requested public comment on existing rules and “other agency actions,” including but not limited to guidance documents and policy statements, that are good candidates for repeal, replacement, suspension, or modification without compromising safety.  This request covers all DOT modal agencies, including PHMSA, the FAA, the FRA, NHTSA, among others.   In addition to requesting comments, DOT indicated that it may hold a public meeting on these issues. Comments are due November 1, 2017.

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