A Pipeline Safety Agency That Won't Do Its Job

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Last year in the U.S., pipelines carrying natural gas, oil or other hazardous materials leaked or ruptured 322 times, an average of almost once a day. Forty-nine people were injured; nine died. The damage amounted to more than $320 million. And 2015 wasn’t a record year.

Thanks to a drastic increase in production, natural gas has become America’s main power source -- displacing coal and lowering air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Oil production has expanded, too, helping to lower the price worldwide. But those changes have also strained the nation’s 2.6 million miles of pipelines. Unfortunately, the agency tasked with ensuring that pipelines are safe has proven to be among the most dysfunctional in the federal government.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a part of the Department of Transportation, is late finishing many of the specific tasks Congress set out for it five years ago. Those include developing regulations that strengthen requirements for leak detection, and issuing regulations that require operators to quickly close valves following a leak or rupture and report those leaks or ruptures within an hour. (Current regulations require that they do so "at the earliest practicable moment.")

There’s little Congress can do to push the agency along; it can’t threaten to withhold funding, because PHMSA is financed by fees levied on pipeline operators. Ultimately, only the Barack Obama administration can stop overlooking the agency’s failures and see that it gets its job done.

Besides putting lives at risk, explosions in highly populated areas could do more than legions of protesters to undermine support for fracking. PHMSA says it’s making progress, including hiring more staff to write new rules and replacing some of its senior leadership. After five years, what matters is results.

(Corrects third paragraph to accurately describe what the pipeline agency must do to meet congressional requirements.)

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.