Boston Gas Explosions Highlight Stalled Pipeline Safety Push

The series of deadly explosions and fires that tore through suburban Boston on Thursday has thrown a spotlight on proposed upgrades to safety standards for natural-gas pipelines, something that has languished amid opposition from utilities.

“We have been pushing for more regulations for years and there has been some huge regulations in the works but for some reason they have been stalled,” Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, Washington, said in a telephone interview. “The industry does a whole lot to slow these things down.”

At least one person died and dozens were injured Thursday after a series of explosions and fires along NiSource Inc.’s natural gas network in Massachusetts. Investigators say it’s too soon to say what the cause is, but past incidents have led safety advocates to issue proposals for tighter rules or closer oversight that have gone unheeded.

Federal filings show NiSource, which owns seven local gas distribution companies from Ohio to Virginia, has joined the broader pipeline industry in opposing rules on when certain pipelines need to be inspected, frequency of corrosion monitoring, and reporting leaks.

Massachusetts’s two senators, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, both Democrats, on Friday requested a hearing on the regulation of the nation’s natural gas distribution system.

U.S. oil and gas pipeline-related deaths jumped to the highest level in seven years in 2017. The 20 fatalities were the most since 2010, when a natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, leveled a neighborhood and killed eight people.

In a 2011 letter to PHMSA and others after San Bruno, the National Transportation Safety Board called for a host of improvements to lessen the likelihood of explosions and to reduce the severity of leaks after they happen.

“The NTSB has long been concerned about the lack of standards for rapid shutdown and the lack of requirements for automatic shutoff valves or remote control valves in high consequence areas,” NTSB said in its recommendation letter.

A home damaged by an explosion stands on Chickering Street in Lawrence, Massachusetts on Sept. 14,. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg
NTSB Recommendations

The NTSB also called for better tools to help utilities recognize when leaks occur and to pinpoint the location of a breach.

Under the Obama administration, pipeline regulators shifted from an an approach focused on voluntary standards to more prescriptive measures. One proposal would have regulated pipelines in modestly populated areas for the first time, a response to incidents such as the San Bruno explosion and the NTSB’s recommendations.

The rule, which was never finalized, was cheered by safety advocates but panned by industry groups including the American Petroleum Institute, which estimated its cost to be more than $33 billion.

Senators Comment

In May, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Salud Carbajal, both California Democrats, asked PHMSA in a letter to explain why the agency “has failed to enact several long overdue gas and hazardous liquid pipeline safety improvements.” They cited a 1995 recommendation from the NTSB that pipeline safety regulators expedite requirements for installing devices that would allow for the “rapid shutdown” of failed pipeline segments.

After President Donald Trump asked for a review of regulations, NiSource filed comments calling for greater emphasis on the costs of standards. “Incremental operations compliance requirements can actually have the unintended consequence of diminishing, rather than improving, overall system safety,” the company said at the time.

NiSource, which operates nearly 60,000 miles of transmission and distribution pipelines, didn’t respond to a request for comment on their previous efforts to loosen safety regulations.

The American Gas Association, a Washington-based industry trade group, urged everyone to await the results of investigations into Thursday’s tragedy.

“As they release their findings, and we better understand the root cause of the incident, the American Gas Association is prepared to work with our members, state and federal pipeline safety regulators and other interested stakeholders to take additional actions to preserve the safety of the natural gas delivery system and the communities we serve,” the group said in a statement.

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