Shale Gas Boom Creates New Challenges for Regulators

Posted April 9, 2013 at 5:39pm

The effects of transporting tar sands oil via the infrastructure currently in place are not the only questions the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will address in the coming months. The regulatory agency also must grapple with the new pipeline networks that will be needed to carry natural gas from booming shale plays to market.

“From the discovery of vast energy shale deposits, which will require the creation of additional infrastructure, to the maintenance and rehabilitation of the infrastructure already in place, the nation’s infrastructure needs are growing and changing,” the agency’s administrator, Cynthia L. Quarterman, said at a field hearing in January on the implementation of the 2012 pipeline safety law (PL 112-90).

The updated statute authorized the agency to hire more pipeline inspectors and to increase the maximum amount of penalties and fines assessed for safety violations. But the law did little to change how the pipeline administration manages the thousands of miles of transmission and gathering lines, much of which are unregulated, that move natural gas under the country’s surface.

Of the more than 200,000 estimated miles of natural-gas-gathering pipelines, the pipeline administration regulates roughly 10 percent of them, according to a March 2012 Government Accountability Office report. Also, the agency generally doesn’t oversee the gathering lines — which collect gas or oil from wellheads for transport to larger transmission lines — located in rural areas with low population density.

Quarterman said she believes that the most recent update to the pipeline safety statute provides “a solid foundation” for regulators working to make the U.S. system accident-free. But Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who has noted that he wanted more-stringent requirements for pipeline operators to be included in the final product, is taking a more cautious tone as he monitors the law’s implementation.

“Whether they carry oil or, like the pipeline that ruptured in my state of West Virginia, they transport natural gas, pipeline accidents can have significant consequences,” he said in a statement, referring to a natural-gas transmission line that exploded in December.