WASHINGTON – New rules would prevent the type of maintenance neglect that led to corrosion in miles of Alaska North Slope pipelines, the government's top pipeline safety regulator said Wednesday.
Several lawmakers were skeptical, questioning why the plan still would cover only a small fraction of the thousands of low-pressure oil lines in the country.
A need to broaden federal pipeline regulation became evident after the discovery of extensive corrosion in BP PLC's pipelines on the North Slope in early August, a discovery that led to the partial shutdown of oil production in Prudhoe Bay. The lines were not covered by federal regulations because they are low-stress feeder lines.
A new proposal, unveiled by the Transportation Department last month, would bring 680 miles of rural low-stress lines under federal regulation if they cross environmentally sensitive areas. That may be as little as 5 percent of the total miles of such lines in the country, lawmakers were told.
"The proposal addresses the most significant threats ... and applies a full range of protections," Thomas Barrett, chief of the DOT's pipeline safety agency, told a House Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday. He called it a "sound and prudent approach" based on risk.
It would require pipeline testing in most cases with a "pig" device that is run through a pipe every five years to clean it and monitor wall thickness. BP's problems occurred largely because they did not routinely use such a test, relying instead on spot ultrasound tests of pipe walls.
But several committee members questioned the adequacy of the new rules, as did a pipeline consultant who has been involved in the debate over federal pipeline regulations for years and advises an Alaska conservation and oil industry watchdog group.
Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the committee's ranking Democrat, said the BP pipeline fiasco in Alaska exposed "a corporate culture of neglect" on safety and questioned why federal regulation shouldn't cover all of the lines — not only those that run through environmentally sensitive of heavily populated areas.
"The rest of them don't count?" Oberstar asked Barrett.
Barrett, a retired Coast Guard admiral who has been praised on Capitol Hill for his aggressive response to BP's pipeline corrosion, said the agency will address pipelines that pose the greatest risks.
The vast majority of low-stress lines — those that will not be covered by the new rule — are much smaller than the BP lines in Alaska, are in rural stretches far from people or environmentally sensitive areas and often run only a few miles, he said.
"We do not believe they pose the same level of risks as the BP lines in Prudhoe Bay posed," said Barrett. He said the rural low-pressure lines that will be regulated were selected based on their size, volume of product transported and if they are within a quarter mile of an environmentally sensitive area.
Lois Epstein, an engineer and pipeline consultant who works for Cook Inletkeeper, a conservation group in Alaska, told the committee the new rules may cover as few as 5 percent of the now federally unregulated lines and that the requirements will be less stringent than those that apply to high-pressure lines.
"Many, many miles of low-pressure transmission pipelines remain unregulated and susceptible to BP-like problems," Epstein maintained.
How many miles of pipeline will continue without federal regulation was unclear.
Barrett said there will be about 4,000 miles of line that will remain out of federal jurisdiction, but he acknowledged his agency has no nationwide map of low-pressure lines and is relying on estimates provided by states. Epstein said some surveys have put the number of such lines at 15,000 miles.