Exclusive: Pipeline Safety Chief Says His Regulatory Process Is 'Kind of Dying'

Wiese told several hundred oil and gas pipeline compliance officers that his agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA), has “very few tools to work with” in enforcing safety rules even after Congress in 2011 allowed it to impose higher fines on companies that cause major accidents.

“Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty? No,” he said.
Recent Tragedies Highlight Need to Reform Regulations for 500,000 Miles of Oil and Gas Pipelines in U.S.

What’s going on with pipelines? Has there been a high number of major pipeline tragedies recently, or are such incidents just more in the news with widespread attention to potential federal approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline?

As someone who has worked on pipeline safety and associated environmental protection issues since I began serving on a pipeline federal advisory committee in the mid-1990s, I can say confidently that the period from 2010-2013 has had a very large number of serious transmission pipeline tragedies compared to the previous decade (serious in the lay-person’s sense of the term, i.e., not the relatively narrow definition developed by federal pipeline regulators).
Only You Can Discover Oil Pipeline Spills, Since 80 Percent Of The Time The Companies Miss Them

According to a new review by the Wall Street Journal, this scenario is common in the U.S. — more often than not, it’s people who discover pipeline leaks, not the pipeline’s leak detection equipment. The WSJ looked at Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data for 251 pipeline incidents over four years, and found that nearby residents or company employees were nearly three times as likely to detect a leak in a pipeline than pipeline technology was. Leak-detection software, special alarms and 24/7 control room monitoring discovered leaks just 19.5 percent of the time.

The review points to the dangers of transporting oil by both pipeline and rail, concerns that are especially relevant as the State Department’s release of the final Environmental Impact Statement of Keystone XL draws nearer. The section of Tesoro pipeline that leaked wasn’t required to have leak monitoring or pressure sensors, which makes the spill’s discovery 11 days later by a farmer unsurprising. In an October interview with the New York Times, Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said the federal government hasn’t moved quickly enough to improve leak detection standards
Official Tipped Off Hess Rail Yard About Oil-Carrier Inspection

Emails obtained by In These Times show a cozy relationship between North Dakota’s oil industry and a chief federal inspector charged with monitoring the safety of shipping crude oil by rail. The emails cast serious doubts on the integrity of the federal government’s supposed crackdown on the industry’s shoddy shipping practices—a subject of growing concern in the midst of a largely unregulated, and in some cases, deadly, transport boom.

Last August, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency (PHMSA) and Federal Railroad Administration announced they were rolling out the “Bakken Blitz”—a crackdown on shippers and carriers that mislabel their cargo. Federal hazmat regulations require trains carrying oil to properly classify and identify their shipments with placards. These practices are supposed to ensure that oil is safely packaged before being shipped. They’re also aimed at informing railroad personnel and, in the event of a mishap, any emergency responders.

Regulators introduced the Blitz just one month after the Lac Mégantic disaster, when a runaway freight train carrying oil exploded in the small Quebec town, killing 47 people. In that case, Canadian safety investigators found American shippers in North Dakota’s Bakken region had understated the volatility of the oil that ignited and destroyed much of Lac Mégantic’s downtown area. Improper classification caused the shipment to be transported in an improper package. Emergency responders, too, were caught by surprise at how quickly the fire spread and how long it burned.

As part of the Department of Transportation’s new enforcement effort, PHMSA officials show up unannounced at rail facilities to conduct classification inspections—at least that’s what an agency spokesperson told In These Times at first. An email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request strongly suggests that Kipton Wills, Central Region Director of PHMSA’s Office of Hazardous Materials Enforcement, pre-arranged at least one of his agency’s visits to a Hess Corp. rail yard in Tioga, North Dakota, last October.
Which Federal Agency is Keeping Its Head in the (Tar) Sands?

The following is a guest post from Jeffrey Insko, who lives along the Enbridge Line 6B pipeline route in Groveland Township, Michigan […]

I traveled from my Michigan home to Washington DC, along with other concerned citizens, conservationists, and representatives from the National Wildlife Federation.

Our mission: To talk with regulators and legislators about the dangers – to our stable climate, to wildlife, and to our communities – posed by the increased production and transportation of tar sands. But one agency wasn’t listening.

For me, this issue literally hits home – Enbridge has a pipeline running right through my backyard. As the oil industry barrels forward with various complicated schemes to move tar sands oil from Alberta through our communities to export off of our coasts, our government has been slow to react. It’s been left to citizens to call for caution and reasonable measures designed to safeguard our natural resources and the rights of landowners in the face of the oil industry’s overwhelming resources and influence.

Among those reasonable measure is a citizen petition calling for new regulations to protect wildlife and people from the risks of tar sands. Spearheaded by the National Wildlife Federation and signed by a broad coalition of conservation groups and individuals, the petition seeks stricter rules that account for the unique properties of tar sands oil.

The rules we seek are so sensible, so uncontroversial, that it’s hard to believe they don’t already exist. For instance:

  • Industry reporting of what materials are being transported through pipelines
  • The development of spill response plans that account for the unique properties of tar sands
  • A requirement that operators immediately shut down and repair lines carrying tar sands as soon as operators discover safety defects
  • greater transparency in pipeline inspection reporting
Pipeline Regulators Spent More Time With Industry Than On Oil Spills (REPORT)

WASHINGTON – The Transportation Department office charged with overseeing the 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the United States is spending more time at oil and gas industry conferences than it is addressing spills and other incidents, a watchdog group contends in a new report. Between 2007 and 2012, staff from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration spent 2,807 days at conferences, meetings and other events sponsored by the oil, gas and pipeline industries, according to the report from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Pipeline Regulator Cutting Its Staff By 9 Percent Despite An Increase In Pipeline Spills In 2013

The U.S. agency in charge of regulating pipelines and oil-shipping rail cars could shrink its staff by 9 percent by mid-June, if employees accept the buyouts the agency is offering them.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is offering buyouts to 33 employees on top of the 13 buyouts it offered at the end of last year, InsideClimate News reports. If all the employees accept their buyouts, the agency would experience a net loss of 40 workers (it hired six recently).

A PHMSA spokesman told InsideClimate News that the agency would continue to hire in other key areas, and that the buyouts were done to help manage the agency’s workforce in areas where a large percentage of workers are eligible for retirement. But some pipeline safety advocates are worried that, in this period of surging oil-by-rail activity and blossoming pipeline networks across the U.S., a smaller PHMSA could be bad news for fossil fuel transport safety.

“It seems like a lot of people … [and] an inopportune time,” Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust and a member of a PHMSA committee said. “They have all these Congressional mandates, they have all these requests from [the National Transportation Safety Board] to fix things, there’s been a series of incidents that they’re trying to investigate, and they’re even saying out loud how they don’t have enough inspectors and how they would like to do more.”
Stop the Keystone XL South Before It Spills!

The Keystone XL Gulf Coast Project (KXL South) was installed in Texas and Oklahoma without regard to long-established, industry-wide safety regulations. We know, because we’ve been inside the pipeline and seen holes for ourselves. To fulfill its public service, PHMSA must issue a Corrective Action Order for KXL South to be re-installed correctly, or shut down permanently, before tar sands begin pumping through it early next year.

PHMSA cannot allow pumping to start on KXL South without addressing their grossly negligent attitude toward pipeline safety during this construction process. Texas and Oklahoma families deserve better. TransCanada spent the summer of 2013 digging up the southern leg of the Keystone XL in 125+ locations over a stretch of 250 miles in rural East Texas. This was not out of “an abundance of caution”, as TransCanada’s PR team would have you believe, but because of an overwhelming number of code violations that TransCanada could not get away with. PHMSA has issued warnings to TransCanada concerning code violations during the construction phase of the pipeline, but has taken no steps to verify that the violations which caused the anomalies have in fact been corrected.

PHMSA’s own warning letters show that TransCanada failed to construct the KXL South right the first time. Photographic and video documentation by the East Texas Observer, Public Citizen and ourselves shows violations of construction code even during the anomaly repair process. For these reasons, watchdog groups have called for quality retests of the entire pipeline to ensure its safety. But even if the entire length of the KXL South were to be retested, the fact remains that the rocks in the ditch, the lack of adequate underlying support for the pipe, the underpacked soil, and the inadequate coatings will cause catastrophic problems with this pipeline. There can be no onus on grassroots watchdog groups to prove code violations still exist. Ample proof has already been submitted to PHMSA and to the public. The onus is now on TransCanada to prove, beyond doubt, that they are honoring ASME construction code, and on PHMSA to prove they are doing the regulatory job they are tasked to do. For more information on PHMSA visit: To see our pictures of welding holes inside the Keystone XL and to learn how we got them, visit:
"Just the Reality:" Pipeline Safety Official Admits He’d Avoid Buying A Home Near Pipelines Like Keystone XL

A federal pipeline safety official admitted on camera recently that he made a point of ensuring his home wasn’t in the path of any pipelines before buying it, and that he wouldn’t advise anyone to build in the path of a pipeline. 

The official, Bill Lowery, is responsible for community assistance and technical services for the southwest region of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

At a Public Safety Trust conference on Nov. 21, Lowery was asked, “Knowing what you know about the problems in the Keystone XL’s construction, what would you do if your house was in its path?”

His answer:  "Here is what I did when I bought my house — I looked on all the maps, I looked for all the well holes. I found there is nothing around me but dry holes and no pipelines. And it’s not because I’m afraid of pipelines, it’s not because I think something will happen. It’s because something could happen. … You’re always better off, if you have a choice….“ 

He trailed off before finishing his sentence, but added that, "If I was building a house, I wouldn’t build it on a refinery, … I wouldn’t build it on a pipeline, because they’re all industrial facilities. That’s just the reality.”
TSB Engages PHMSA at Pipeline Safety Conference

TSB recently traveled to NOLA to attend the annual Pipeline Safety Trust (PST) conference held on Nov. 21-22 at the fancy Hotel Monteleone, in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. The PST website says the conference intended to “bring together a unique mix of experience from the affected public, local government, the pipeline industry, and pipeline regulators to discuss the hard issues and create greater understanding to move pipeline safety initiatives forward… It’s the only all-inclusive pipeline safety conference in the country: one that’s open to everyone in the pipeline safety community.”

Sure enough (and much to our surprise) TSB was invited into a room comprised largely of corporate energy tools, whose name tags said things like “Community Relations Specialist” and “Director of Pipeline Risk Management” and “Director of Regulatory Compliance” and “President of Ignoring and Silencing Affected Residents” (okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea). Although our crew had many exchanges with the real eco-terrorists from the corporate energy world, our primary goal was to engage directly with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) team to demand they address the overwhelming number of code violations documented while KXL was being constructed.

Whoa, so many acronyms in that headline! Allow us to “expand” upon them:

TSBTar Sands Blockade, that’s us! We’re continuing to seek answers and accountability regarding  TransCanada’s suspect pipeline construction practices, well documented across Texas. Presently we’re doing this using…

FOIA- the Freedom Of Information Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, it codifies the public’s right to know and have access to information and documents about how government agencies operate. It provides for a means of accessing information from government agencies when those agencies aren’t being forthcoming.

PHMSA- the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, is a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). This agency is basically responsible for policing the transportation of hazardous materials  through pipelines, trains, tankers etc. by inspecting and enforcing safety codes. For example, PHMSA has regulating authority over KXL construction insofar as it is supposed to ensure that the pipe was installed and tested “up to code.” PHMSA should do this transparently, and give the public access to critical information like inspection results, spill response plans, emergency call numbers and emergency evacuation plans.