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.
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.
The liquified natural gas (LNG) export boom has strained the resources and technical expertise of the two federal agencies that oversee LNG facility siting, design, construction, and operation: FERC, (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) and PHMSA (the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration). Fifteen LNG export terminal applications are currently pending before FERC. In July, FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre announced that FERC and PHMSA agreed to a revised process for review of LNG export terminal applications that better leverages each agency’s expertise and avoids duplication. A month later, the agencies still have not disclosed whether there is a formal agreement in place. Some project developers nevertheless recently received letters from PHMSA technical experts advising that it would be evaluating a project’s compliance with siting requirements. A more streamlined process that eliminates duplicative reviews will go a long way towards expediting review of LNG export terminal applications. While PHMSA has long participated in LNG design review and oversight, without a simultaneous increase in its budget and staff, an increased role for PHMSA may further hamper an agency with limited resources.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.