Regulators weigh more rules for natural gas pipelines

WASHINGTON Thu Aug 25, 2011 5:46am EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators sought public input on Wednesday about the need for increased oversight of the country's natural gas pipelines, as part of a push to strengthen safety after several deadly accidents.

The U.S. Transportation Department asked for comments about whether certain regulatory exemptions for pipelines built before 1970 should be eliminated and whether rules regarding pipeline integrity should be expanded.

"Incidents with significant consequences continue to occur on gas transmission pipelines, and this action will help us determine whether new requirements are needed to increase safety," Cynthia Quarterman, head of the department's pipeline oversight agency, said in a statement.

A 2.5-million-mile (4-million-km) network of pipelines crisscrosses the United States, carrying everything from crude oil to natural gas to refined products such as gasoline and jet fuel.

The department launched an oil and gas pipeline safety initiative in April after a series of high-profile accidents in the country's aging web of pipelines.

An explosion on a natural gas pipeline operated by UGI Utilities killed five people this past February in Allentown, Pennsylvania, while a blast on a PG&E Corp line in California last year killed eight people.

Many pipelines date to the 1960s or earlier and old lines are rarely retired. The overall length of active U.S. pipelines has grown more than 20-fold since the 1920s.

As part of its safety push, the department is also asking for feedback about the need to reduce operating pressure for some pipelines that are more than 40 years old.

Pipeline safety has actually improved sharply over the past 20 years. But from 2006 through 2009 U.S. oil and gas pipeline accidents killed 56 people, caused $1.2 billion in property damage and spilled 381,000 barrels of oil, government data shows.

Recent oil spills from TransCanada's Keystone pipeline, as well as Exxon Mobil's Silvertip line, have also raised concerns about the environmental risks posed by crude oil pipelines.

Earlier this year, the Senate commerce committee approved legislation that would raise fines against reckless operators of petroleum and natural gas lines and require automatic shut-off valves to prevent oil spills and gas explosions.

(Editing by Dale Hudson)

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