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Federal advisory warns against pipeline reversals

In a recent advisory, federal regulators are warning that reversing the flow of oil and gas pipelines or changing the product they carry could have a major impact on a line’s safety and integrity.

This is the first time the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a division of the Department of Transportation, has formally warned the industry about the potential safety hazards that come with restarting or reworking pipelines to, for example, transport Canadian tar sands oil and the increasing glut of domestically produced shale oil and gas. The notice states that if these changes are not handled properly the likelihood of pipeline ruptures and leaks is increased.

The alert was partially prompted by oil spills last year, which involved two pipelines in which the flow had been reversed. The incidents involved a Tesoro Logistics line in North Dakota and ExxonMobil’s Pegasus tar sands line in Arkansas. These spills, along with other information the PHMSA became conscious of, prompted the agency to issue the alert.

Although the alert doesn’t specify new regulations, it defines the tests, precautions and adjustments companies should employ before making substantial changes to a pipeline. For example, the PHMSA says pipeline companies should conduct tests using water, or hydrostatic pressure tests, especially if a pipeline has a history of failures or has certain types of corrosion.

InsideClimate News reports that Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant involved with the Pegasus incident, believes the alert is a sign that the agency’s current rules are being misinterpreted, overlooked, bypassed, or even ignored. Kuprewicz’s said, “What PHMSA’s saying is ‘Look, we’re seeing too many projects where you’re changing the service, changing the flow direction, and you haven’t done adequate integrity management.”

The Pegasus pipeline, which burst open in March 2013, was constructed with pipes from the 1940s and was known to be susceptible to cracking. When the pipeline’s flow was reversed, it also switched to transporting a heavier and a denser type of oil known as Canadian dilbit. Along with the change of direction, the pipeline also had higher volumes pumped through it. Exxon is challenging a proposed fine, but the PHMSA asserts that the company didn’t give enough consideration to the pipeline’s innate flaws. In the case of the Tesoro Logistics pipeline in North Dakota, the flow of the pipeline was reversed without adjusting the pressure and flow-monitoring devices.

Reversing the flow of pipelines used to be uncommon, but the influx of oil and gas production across the U.S. has made it a routine practice. Unfortunately, the recommendation comes after the completion of various pipelines within the past few years. There are a few projects in the works, however, that could be affected by the alert. One such project is Sunoco’s Mariner East 1 pipeline. A segment of the pipeline was built using 1930s-era materials and is planned to reverse its flow to carry propane across Pennsylvania. In the past, the pipeline carried gasoline and other refined fuels from east to west.

Elizabeth Douglass reports that Damon Hill, spokesman for PHMSA, said the advisory “is explanatory in nature and is provided to offer recommendations … and to help operators making those operational changes understand how to comply with the regulations.” Pipeline projects which don’t employ the suggested tests and provisions could be delayed and be subjected to further review. Also, pipelines that have a history of being high-risk may be scrutinized more heavily.

Federal regulations currently don’t require approval for reversing the flow of a pipeline, changing the type of hydrocarbons being transported, or converting liquids pipelines to carry natural gas. Also, federal regulations do not specify what tests need to be conducted before making a change, or what changes are considered to unsuitable. Rather, a vague set of guidelines are provided, which requires pipeline owners to minimize threats on a regular basis. Operators are only required to notify the PHMSA of pipeline changes if the costs exceed $10 million.

In a recent blog post, a law firm representing oil and natural gas companies, Hunton & Williams, stated that “although such pronouncements can help the regulated community better understand an agency’s expectations, they do not have the force of law, and are not enforceable or admissible in administrative or judicial proceedings as the basis for a claim or defense … When agencies attempt to enforce informal guidance, the courts routinely strike them down.”

As reported by Douglass, Kuprewicz says he welcomes the guidance, despite the agency’s inability to enforce the terms. He said it will prevent pipeline companies from referring to older research and guidelines, and if the advisories are ignored, it is done so at the risk of pipeline operators.

To read the advisory released by the PHMSA, click here.

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