Three weeks after Santa Barbara’s worst oil spill of this millennia, it’s probably occurred to most of us that the two biggest monster hits of all surf music were “Pipeline” and “Wipeout.” It’s entirely possible I’m connecting dots that don’t even exist, but then again, maybe not. Whatever illusory sense of security I had in the federal regulatory protection agency designed to make sure “hazardous liquid” pipelines run safe and sound evaporated after a conversation I had this week with Damon Hill, public info officer for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
I had asked Hill for copies of the 2012 inspection report on Plains All American Pipeline’s Line 901, the one responsible for the $64 million — and counting — mess off the coast of Refugio. I figured the results of that inspection might illuminate the extent to which corrosion had already been identified as a problem. More recent PHMSA reports indicate the ruptured pipeline had lost 82 percent of its thickness by the time of the spill. It’s old news now that this number is alarmingly higher than what Plains All American Pipeline was reporting as of May 5, the date of the most recent inspection. But still worth repeating.
In this context, the 2012 inspection documents could theoretically shed meaningful light. Hill explained to me that as a matter of policy, PHMSA does not keep copies of inspection reports its pipeline inspectors write up. Those, he told me, are maintained by the pipeline operator. While that struck me as odd, I guess it’s not really when you consider that oil pipeline operators — at least under the federal rules of the game — are responsible for conducting their own inspections. PHMSA field inspectors are dispatched to pipelines hither, thither, and yon, and while they do some independent inspection work, mostly they rely on information provided by the operator.
(In subsequent phone conversations, Hill clarified that PHMSA does in fact keep written reports documenting many aspects of pipeline inspections. What PHMSA does not keep are independent records of the pipeline in-line inspections — the so-called “smart-pig” inspections that function as the pipeline equivalent of an MRI. These inspections are conducted by third-party vendors hired by the pipeline operators and reportedly sufficiently voluminous and complex as to defy easy translation to PDF files. These reports are kept with the operators. These reports are heavily relied upon by PHMSA inspectors, but they are not the only thing such inspectors review. Field inspectors review the pipeline safety plans to determine whether the risk is adequately assessed, whether the response plans on paper are adequate to that risk, and whether pipeline employee training and response documents indicate pipeline operator workers are adequately prepared to respond if so needed. Lastly, PMSHA inspectors conduct field observations to determine whether such training is sufficient to address the risks. These findings are written up and kept with PHMSA. By contrast, the smart-pig data — which details among other things potential problems with pitting and corrosion — are not.)
Still, I was taken aback. What about instances, I asked, where the inspection revealed problems that needed to be addressed? Hill explained that it all depended. Typically, there are three types of notices PHMSA mails out in such instances: warnings, notices of probable violation, and corrective action orders. Warning letters, it turns out, had been issued to Plains All American pursuant to the 2012 inspection, though it remains unclear for what stretches of pipe. But according to Hill, warning notices require no response from the operator. They are warnings only that there might be a problem, not that an actual problem has occurred. As such, no reply is required. It’s strictly up to the operator to decide whether or not a reply is warranted. (For the record, Hill did indicate his agency probably did have copies of the 2012 inspection report now. That information would have been secured as part of the ongoing investigation of the current incident.)
Likewise, PHMSA does not keep independent records of what pipeline safety plans for individual pipeline operators; that documentation is kept by the operator. Inspectors are provided access to such plans when they show up to conduct inspections, and they stay with the operators after the inspectors leave. Hill explained in a prior conversation that such plans might include proprietary information that pipeline companies might not want their competitors to see. If such information were kept by a public agency, they could be requested under the Freedom of Information Act, not just by members of the public, but also by other pipeline companies.
As a general rule, I try to avoid the analogy of the fox guarding the hen house; it’s been beaten to smithereens. But in this case, I’d say with PHMSA at the watch, none of us will be eating eggs in the foreseeable future.
If I recall correctly, one of the two PHMSA warning letters sent to Plains pursuant to the 2012 inspection had to do with control-room-management practices. The letter does not elaborate what is not happening that should be or what is happening that shouldn’t, only that there could be problems and that Plains should look at that. The control room refers to the place in Texas where Plains All American keeps computerized tabs on any problems — anomalies — that might be worth noting with the pipeline.
The other warning letter dealt with corrosion-management practices, though Hill said this did not apply to the stretch of pipe that just ruptured. Again, anyone reading the warning would have no idea what the practices in question were, just that there might be some questionable things happening. Or then again, there might not.
I’m not here to bag on a bunch of hard-working, underpaid federal regulators trying to do their best under extremely difficult circumstances. I am trying to suggest, however, that the fig leaf of federal regulatory protection is conspicuously lacking when it comes to vegetative abundance. The word “robust” — grossly overused in recent months — does not begin to apply here. As has been noted, the Plains All American Pipeline is the only oil pipeline within the County of Santa Barbara to be regulated by PHMSA. The rest are regulated by the County of Santa Barbara. I’ll leave it to you to determine if such dots exist or are a figment of my admittedly febrile imagination.
The problem with PHMSA starts at the top. By that I mean for the past six months, there’s been no one at the top, only an acting interim director. Further complicating the chain of command, the Number Two spot at PHMSA was suddenly and mysteriously vacated three weeks ago. I use these adverbs because Capitol Hill staffer who work on the committee overseeing pipeline safety didn’t find out until after it happened and then only through hallway gossip.
Executives come and executives go; the real question is what regulations are to be enforced, at what standards, and by what inspectors. By these criteria, PHMSA is a bundle of questions sadly lacking much clarity. Since before PHMSA even existed, federal agencies have struggled with safety issues relating to oil pipelines. What kind of leak-detection systems should be required and what kind of automatic shutoff technology should be required. While the rest of the pipeline operators doing business in Santa Barbara have installed automatic shutdown equipment, Plains did not. As has been noted by many experts, the presence of automatic shutdown technology might not have done anything to stop the spill from spreading. It all depends on the location of the leak in proximity to the closest shutoff valve.
What we don’t know is what kind of leak detection Plains All American installed. Nor do we know what performance standards that equipment had to meet. That’s because PHMSA has no such standards in place. The State of Alaska has required leak-detection equipment on its pipelines capable of noting a one percent drop in pressure over 90 minutes. The State of Washington has standards to catch an 8 percent pressure drop within 15 minutes.
In 2002 Congress ordered PHMSA — when its funding was reauthorized — to begin studying the feasibility of leak detection technology standards. In 1987, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended the Department of Transportation — the federal super agency under which PHMSA exists — to start looking at automatic-valve-shutdown technology. In both instances, studies were conducted. To date, no new rules have been promulgated or adopted. In 2000, the Department of Transportation officials decided to leave the question of automatic-flow-restriction devices up to the oil pipeline operators to decide. Five years ago, Congress began agitating again for new leak-detection standards. The creation of such standards is a nine-step process. In 2010, PHMSA took the first of those nine steps, issuing a notice in the Federal Register known as “an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.” The next step that has to take place is the issuance of a “notice of proposed rulemaking.” To date, no such notice has been given.
All this weedy, wonky detail does not obviate in any way Newton’s first, second, and third laws of physics, “Shit Happens,” or its corollary, “No Matter What You Do to Prevent It.” It’s possible that with all these protections in place, the oil spill still could have happened. But the odds would have been substantially reduced. But the odds matter. A lot.
This is a special weekend edition of Nick Welsh's Angry Poodle column.