Political leaders ranging from Winston Churchill to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have long opined on the importance of never letting a good crisis go to waste. Whether the Refugio oil spill qualifies as “good” depends, no doubt, on one’s vantage point. Probably the dead dolphins that washed ashore, their mouths blackened with oil, might have an opinion on the matter.
Earlier this week, state representatives Hannah-Beth Jackson and Das Williams dropped a legislative cluster bomb of gut-and-amend bills designed to prevent future Refugio spills from taking place. Late Wednesday night — 30 minutes before the stroke of midnight — Congressmember Lois Capps — managed to get an amendment to an appropriations bill passed that would require the federal agency responsible for pipeline safety to enact new rules and regulations relating to leak detection and shutdown capacity.
As quick fixes go, it ain’t. It’s weedy and wonky in the extreme, but it sends a clear message that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) — an especially obscure agency within the Department of Transportation — needs to stop dragging its feet on such matters. According to some Capitol Hill staffers who’ve bird-dogged the agency in the past, PHMSA has been under pressure from Congress to enact such regulations since 2002, but it has been especially slow to act. According to PHMSA spokesperson Damon Hill, drafting new rules involves a nine-step process, the first being an “advanced notice of proposed rule making.” PHMSA took that first step in 2010, but has yet to take the second one — the actual notice of proposed rule making.
Hill took issue with critics who’ve charged his agency has been timid, querulous, and fearful of its own shadow. “PHMSA’s work on leak detection and valves has been extensive, transparent, and inclusive,” he said, pointing out the agency hosted a workshop on the matter in 2012. Capps would no doubt be stomping her feet were she not still recovering from recent ACL (anterior cruciate ligament, aka “knee”) surgery. But her bill sets aside $1 million to help PHSMA accelerate the process. Capps introduced another measure that would have funded the agency to the tune of $27 million — what President Barack Obama’s proposed budget called for — but that was shot down on a party-line vote 202 to 222.
Recent revelations about the extent of corrosion found on the Plains All American pipeline that ruptured two weeks ago will no doubt add fuel to the already raging debate over an agency that until two weeks ago most Santa Barbarans had never heard of. The preliminary results show that the pipe in question had been worn down by external corrosion — on the bottom of the pipe — losing anywhere from 54 to 74 percent of wall thickness.
Plains All American had “pigged” the line on May 5 — two weeks before the rupture — as part of an internal inspection and detection process. Plains reported to PHMSA metal loss of approximately 45 percent in stretches of the failed pipe. That report, however, was contradicted by PHMSA inspectors, who concluded the damage was substantially worse. They found metal losses up to 74 percent and that the pipe itself — in places — had been worn down to one-sixteenth of an inch.
Typically, under PHMSA protocol, such inspections are required every five years. The fact that the May 5, 2015, inspection was conducted within three years of the most recent one in 2012 indicates problems — described in the techno speak of pipeline inspectors as “anomalies” — were encountered. PHMSA investigators discovered three repairs made to the ruptured pipe. Still, the pipe blew, leaving a gash six inches long. Plains All American owns and operates several pipelines in Santa Barbara besides the now notorious Line 901. In Line 903 — 128 miles long and 30 inches in diameter — previous investigations found 99 metal loss anomalies.
These finds are re-enforced by the pipeline permit history with the County of Santa Barbara, limited and sketchy though it may be. In 2013 — not long after the previous inspection — Plains filed applications with county energy planners to investigate 82 anomalies. The most reported in any previous year were 15 in 2008. In that year, 15 anomalies were reported between Las Flores Canyon and Gaviota, the stretch where the current rupture took place. The most recent spate of anomalies took place away from the 10 miles of pipe currently giving Plains headaches and giving Santa Barbara millions of dollars’ worth of unwanted free publicity.
County energy director Kevin Drude said he has no idea what any of these reported anomalies signify, explaining the County of Santa Barbara has no jurisdiction over pipeline safety matters and is kept out of the loop. (Plains All American Pipeline’s pipeline is the only pipeline in Santa Barbara County not to be regulated by county energy planners. The company’s predecessor — Celeron — successfully rebuffed county oversight efforts in federal court in the late 1980s. Celeron argued that because it was an interstate pipeline — meaning it went from California to Texas — the county lacked legal authority to impose its regulatory oversight; only the federal government did.) The county does have jurisdiction, however, over what happens to the ground on top of the pipeline, and permits are required when more than 50 cubic yards of soil have to be dug up or moved to get a closer look at what the “anomalies” entail. Typically, the pipeline operators rely on the results of their internal tests — pigging the line — for preliminary info as to where trouble spots might lie. At some point, however, actual digging is required.
Although PHMSA has not made any official finding as to what caused the pipeline rupture, clearly the failing is tied to what appears to be a dramatic level of corrosion. That the pipeline thickness could have gotten so worn away will animate debate as the adequacy of the job done by PHMSA.
Critics of the agency note PHMSA has yet to establish any functional threshold for pipeline leak detectors, or, for that matter, to require that such detectors be in place for all pipelines. The states of Washington and Alaska, by contrast, have very definite performance standards that any leak detectors must meet.
PHMSA has struggled to maintain a full complement of qualified pipeline inspectors. As domestic oil production has skyrocketed in recent years, the oil industry itself has been willing to pay considerably more for skilled personnel. This left the agency at a disadvantage when the need was most acute. Beyond that, there remain abiding questions — and doubts — about the agency’s willingness and ability to adopt a tougher regulatory posture.