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Federal Regulator Struggles to Keep Up With U.S. Pipeline Expansions

Oil and gas pipelines are expanding across the U.S. and PHMSA cannot keep up.

The federal agency tasked with writing and enforcing safety regulations for America’s oil and gas pipelines is struggling to keep up with the rapid rate of new pipeline construction across the U.S.

According to a new report from Investigate West,  pipeline miles are growing faster than any time in recent history, but the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is failing to guarantee the safety of these dangerous oil and gas lines.  

18,800+ Miles of New Pipeline Added in U.S. in 2023  

Over 2.6 million miles of pipelines transport natural gas and liquid petroleum products across the country and more are added every day.  The greatest area of growth is in carbon dioxide pipelines. There are only 5,000 miles of existing carbon dioxide pipelines today, but that’s expected to skyrocket to 100,000 miles over the next five years. 

This expansion is due in part to two pieces of legislation that are creating boom times for the pipeline industry: 

  • A 2021 infrastructure law that provided $1 billion in grants for new natural gas lines  
  • A 2022 climate bill signed into law by President Biden that gives billions in tax incentives for carbon capture systems, including pipelines that carry carbon to storage sites underground

These bills have spurred pipeline expansion, especially in North Dakota and across the Midwest, but neither bill includes any type of additional funding for the PHMSA’s already meager pipeline safety program. Combined with the agency’s history of foot-dragging, this spells trouble for anyone living in a community where these volatile, hazardous materials are increasingly transported or stored underground.  

500+ Pipeline Accident Fatalities and Growing 

Despite the rapid growth of new pipelines, more than half of the nation’s existing pipeline infrastructure is over 50 years old, and that directly increases the chance that an entirely preventable rupture can trigger a massive explosion or fire. There have been more than 8,000 U.S. oil and gas pipeline spills since 1986, resulting in over 500 deaths, 2,300 injuries, and $7 billion in damage.  

Multiple deadly pipeline explosions have occurred in recent years in Texas, California, and New Jersey. And in early December, 25,000 gallons of gasoline spilled from the Olympic Pipeline in Washington state after a small tube that connects the main pipeline to a pressure-check valve failed. 

PHMSA Has Long History of Stalled Regulations 

Safety advocates have long called for stronger regulations regarding shut-off valves, leak detection systems, and more — congress has also previously pressured PHMSA to act faster on mandated rules — but the agency has a history of dragging its feet. And when new regulations are finally introduced, these rules never seem to apply to old pipelines or the pipeline operators who repeatedly put profits over safety. 

Here are just a few ways that PHMSA stalled, delayed, or fell short on regulations in recent years: 

  • Emergency safety values. A new emergency safety valve regulation that requires the installation of valves to automatically shut off the flow after a rupture applies to new pipelines only — even though the NTSB began pushing for such a requirement in the 1990s and for ALL existing and new pipelines.  
  • Cast-iron pipelines.  Federal regulators recommended the removal of cast-iron pipelines in 1980, but many of the explosions today still involve cast-iron lines.   
  • Pipeline operator accountability. During the Trump administration, PHMSA proposed eliminating the classification system that requires pipeline operators to take extra precautions in high-density population areas, so these same operators could conduct their own risk assessments and decide for themselves what extra safety measures – if any – were needed. 
  • Gathering pipelines. More than 450,000 miles of old gathering pipeline only came under federal regulation in 2021 and there are still many more miles unregulated today. 
  • Carbon dioxide pipelines.  PHMSA does NOT have any regulations written, let alone enforced, for hydrogen or carbon dioxide pipelines.  These pipelines are skyrocketing in number as carbon capture is incentivized and the ethanol industry sends more of their carbon byproduct to underground storage sites. Like any pipeline that distributes natural gas, ruptures in hydrogen and carbon dioxide pipeline can lead to significant injuries, deaths, environmental impacts, and property damage due to the explosive, highly flammable nature of the gases and pressurized equipment involved. Natural gas pipeline explosions and failures have killed nearly 300 people in the United States since 1990 and injured over 1,600 others. 

With the addition of hundreds of thousands of miles of new pipeline on the way, critics are once again calling for action, including more funding, hiring, and rulemaking to allow PHMSA to catch up — and fast. 

Zero PHMSA Employees Focus on Fast-Growing Carbon Dioxide Pipelines 

PHMSA is the smallest of the Department of Transportation’s eight federal agencies and has long been underfunded. Though it has a budget of $319 million, only $161 million goes toward pipeline safety. 

There are only 600 employees at the agency and 207 of those are pipeline inspectors. Shockingly, not a single one of them focuses on the fastest growing area of pipeline in the country: carbon dioxide lines.  

“We have zero people, zero full-time employees focused on that,” PHMSA Deputy Administrator Tristan Brown said in a recent congressional hearing, admitting that the agency is completely overwhelmed, but placing blame elsewhere: “Our ability to get things done is directly proportional to the resources that Congress gives us.” 

Critics agree that more funding is needed, and the House is currently working to reauthorize the PIPES Act for the next four years, which will boost the annual funding of the pipeline safety program to $201 million. But that may not lead to an increase in pipeline inspectors at PHMSA— a burden that safety advocates believe will continue to fall on state agencies who provide an additional 450+ pipeline inspectors across the nation. The bill will require PHMSA to write much-needed safety rules for hydrogen and carbon dioxide pipelines, however. And that’s good news.

Undefeated Pipeline Explosion Lawyers: Call 1-888-603-3636 for a Free Consultation 

Our Undefeated Pipeline Explosion Lawyers have won Billions and successfully represented clients throughout Texas, Louisiana, and across the United States who were severely burned, injured, or tragically killed in pipeline explosions and other catastrophic industrial accidents. 

If you or a loved one were injured or tragically killed in a pipeline accident or explosion, our attorneys can help. Please call 1-888-603-3636 or contact us for a free case review. 

All consultations are free, and because we only work on a contingency-fee-basis, you’ll owe nothing unless we win your case.