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.
Since the Trump Administration took office, oil and gas industry stakeholders have questioned whether pending PHMSA rulemakings will move forward, whether the rate of PHMSA enforcement will continue, and whether agency priorities will change. The API conference held in San Antonio last week provided a rare opportunity in recent months for the industry to hear from key PHMSA personnel and industry practitioners on the status of agency priorities, rulemakings, enforcement and leadership vacancies. As explained below, while the Agency currently lacks key leadership positions and is analyzing executive directives on rulemaking, it intends to move forward with proposed rules and continue enforcement.