Remarks of Acting Administrator Tristan Brown Before the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives

August 17, 2021

Good morning.  Thank you all for being here and for giving me the opportunity to discuss the PHMSA outlook and our collective efforts to advance pipeline safety and the protection of our environment.  

As you may know, I joined PHMSA at the beginning of this year—and with the help of a tremendous team, have hit the ground running. By way of background, I previously led an office at the Environmental Protection Agency and practiced energy and transportation law—representing both public utilities as well as private sector clients.  I served on the staff of the [now] chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, working on issues of transportation safety, and previously served on the staff of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, working on energy and environmental issues.

This morning I hope to underscore a few points

  • Continuing and enhancing our cooperative relationships
  • Navigating emerging challenges and the importance of communicating our work
  • New statutory obligations

Continuing and enhancing our cooperative relationships

I am sure it is no secret to anyone here that we are stronger and better able to ensure safety outcomes for the American people and for each of your states when we work closely and collaboratively together.

I’d like to thank the leadership of NAPSR, as well as that of PHMSA’s Office of Pipeline Safety, for your efforts to continuously strengthen the partnership between PHMSA and the states.  

This partnership is critical in advancing the safety of our Nation’s energy infrastructure.  Of the Nation’s approximately 2.8 million miles of pipelines, more than 80 percent of these miles fall under the purview of state programs.  

Over the past year and a half, our Nation’s transportation system has had to cope with unforeseen stresses, from the COVID-19 public health emergency, the devastating impacts of hurricanes, extreme weather events, and cyber-attacks.

PHMSA and its state partners responded to all of these major issues, as you always do.  The effectiveness of our responses continues to be possible due to the important preplanning and ongoing communication amongst all stakeholders.  We also learned a lot, which in the spirit of SMS, provided learning opportunities for our approaches to these types of crises. 

Navigating emerging challenges and the importance of communicating our work

For our part, PHMSA has continued to work to find creative ways to maintain its safety operations.  While COVID-19 forced us to cancel in-person classes at PHMSA’s Training and Qualifications (TQ) facility, it did not dampen the TQ staff’s spirit and drive to teach.  Training continued virtually for our federal and state inspectors, covering critical safety courses.

Additionally, since the onset of the pandemic, PHMSA’s State Programs Division, under Zach Barrett’s leadership, has continued to work remotely with you all to conduct program evaluations, damage prevention enforcement reviews, and grant application reviews—more on that later.  We’re very appreciative of Zach’s efforts in holding weekly calls with NAPSR members to address any state issues.   

We’re also very proud of our field staff’s efforts to continue conducting inspections, investigations, and stakeholder outreach in the best way possible, navigating many travel restrictions and social distancing challenges. 

These collective efforts exemplify the type of new and increasingly complex challenges that all of us must navigate on a daily basis. While our mission includes an ever-increasing amount of pipelines entities to oversee, and new associated challenges, we largely achieve results with relatively fewer resources. 

This in itself is a feat, and it’s incumbent upon each of our organizations to in our own way inform the American people and the people in each state, that we are continuously doing more with less. That each of our offices’ unsung team members are, day-in, and day-out delivering vital safety outcomes for the public.

Telling this story is not an easy thing to do. And for many of us, patting ourselves on the back may not seem necessary—after all, we are committed to our work regardless of the kudos we get for doing our jobs. But sharing our every day successes is important for the public to understand and appreciate the value that we deliver every day. So this is a priority for me and I hope we can support each other in sharing the work that we do.

New Statutory Obligations

As you know, last year, with broad bipartisan support, Congress enacted a major new pipeline safety reauthorization legislation—the 2020 PIPES Act. 

While PHMSA’s mission of safety and environmental protection—had largely not changed in nearly a half-century, the new PIPES Act, explicitly expanded our mission related to protecting the environment. This was one of dozens of new provisions and mandates from Congress that largely come without additional resources for us or you. Which means we will have to continue to do more with the resources we have.

In addition, Secretary Buttigieg’s priorities includes recovering from the pandemic by building back better through infrastructure investments, maintaining our safety mission, and adopting climate change mitigation measures, across the Department.  

In practice, the concept of an “acceptable level of release into the environment” is a long-outdated concept—for gas and for hazardous liquids.  We must work to change the industry’s thinking about small releases, because they, too, add up, and can—and do—have a big impact on the environment.

This underscores the importance of addressing the causes of all incidents including excavation damage to pipelines. Having effective state damage prevention programs is very important both from safety and from climate solution perspectives. Because, as we know, excavation damage to pipelines continues to be one of the leading causes of pipeline accidents, PHMSA strongly encourages all states to do all you can to reduce these damages and the resulting safety and environmental consequences 

Just a couple of months ago, we commemorated the 22nd anniversary of the Bellingham, Washington pipeline failure. As you know, part of the root cause of that accident was excavation damage occurring years before the failure—and resulted in three tragic fatalities.  I know we all will continue to remember that day and remain dedicated and vigilant in working to constantly build and improve on our pipeline safety protections.  Following this meeting, I will be visiting Bellingham and speaking with folks from the Pipeline Safety Trust and others regarding our role in preventing a horrific tragedy like that from occurring again. 

With respect to greenhouse gases (GHGs) —specifically methane—Congress was clear—we must not just reduce these emissions, rather the sector must do all it can to minimize these emissions.     

In considering how we plan to move forward with this effort, I’d like to briefly focus on several sections of the PIPES Act that touch very closely on the states’ jurisdiction; and I know Alan and John will be discussing these important topics as well. 

Under Section 112 of the PIPES Act, Congress requires PHMSA to prioritize completion of our rulemaking on gas transmission and gathering pipelines.  This is certainly at the top of our rulemaking agenda, along with publication of the Valve Installation and Minimum Rupture Detection Standards final rule; we anticipate significant movement on these rules in the coming weeks and months. We are also busy working on a number of other rules that John will cover in detail with you later today. 

Section 113 of the PIPES Act requires that, by December of this year, PHMSA issue final regulations requiring certain classes of operators to conduct leak detection and repair programs in order to “(a) meet the need for gas pipeline safety and (b) protect the environment.”

Another PIPES Act mandate, found in Section 114, is to work to minimize releases of natural gas from pipeline facilities.  This is a tremendously important, self-executing provision of the law that operators are required to comply with by December 27, 2021.  

As you know, on June 7, 2021, PHMSA issued an advisory bulletin underscoring to pipeline and pipeline facility operators, requirements to minimize methane emissions in their systems.  The advisory bulletin directs pipeline operators to update their inspection and maintenance plans to address the elimination of hazardous leaks. Operators are directed to minimize natural gas releases, both fugitive and vented, from pipeline facilities. Also, they are to address replacement or remediation of facilities that historically have been known to experience leaks. 

And, as I’m sure you all have been considering, the expectation is that state and federal regulators will have evaluated these plans in 2022, and no later than December 28, 2022.

Another section where we will see an impact on state programs is Section 117 of the Act. This requirement to amend the auditing programs for drug and alcohol regulations in Part 199 is aimed at improving efficiency between state and federal programs. It aims to do this by minimizing duplicative audits of the same operators—and the contractors working for those operators—under different programs. Linda will elaborate on this later. 

One of the most significant impacts on state programs will come from the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act—this includes Sections 202 through 206 of the PIPES Act.  These requirements focus on updates to gas distribution regulations—and they will put a substantial burden on state programs to ensure compliance.  The rules coming out of these mandates are expected to apply to operators of more than 2 million miles of gas distribution piping.  According to the statute, the rule is to focus on managing over-pressurization risks on low-pressure systems, aging infrastructure, and operator practices.

These, and other, mandates require all of us to promote pipeline safety and to take aggressive action in the reduction of methane emissions from pipelines and pipeline facilities.

But we know these are just first steps.  Not only do we have to work to reduce GHG emissions and to make sure that the nearly 3 million miles of pipeline are safe to transport current energy commodities, but we also need to ensure that we are focused on developing and building the infrastructure to transport fuels of the future. 

Moving forward, we are considering these mandates in conjunction with how our rulemakings and agency decisions will affect the communities of tomorrow and specifically communities that have traditionally been overlooked and underrepresented.  The Administration’s “whole-of-agency” approach to environmental justice intends to ensure that those are most vulnerable are considered in the work that we all do.  We welcome your input on how we can do this in your states efficiently and effectively. PHMSA in turn is dedicated to keeping a strong focus on using transportation as an engine for equity.  

And while PHMSA continues to advance pipeline safety through training, regulation, inspection, and enforcement, many of the root causes of incidents are best addressed through research and technological innovation.  

In February 2021, PHMSA posted a research announcement soliciting new research ideas to help prevent pipeline threats and improve leak-detection capabilities, remote-sensing capabilities, and technologies related to LNG facility safety.  PHMSA will fund approximately $5.7 million dollars of new projects for this fiscal year.

Furthermore, PHMSA is planning to host a research and development public meeting this fall, focusing on transportation of hydrogen by pipelines, among other R&D areas.  As we look to help position the energy sector, and our Nation, to adopt the infrastructure of the future we hope to engage with many industry stakeholders on new technologies and efficiencies.  This includes system upgrades to allow for the transport of hydrogen and other renewables to support our growing economy and create good-paying jobs for American workers.

Let me say a few words on cybersecurity in light of the recent attack on the Colonial pipeline system.  The Biden Administration, including all levels of the executive branch of government, are working to ensure that appropriate cyber security measures are in place and that the industry is taking this threat very seriously.  For our part, PHMSA is coordinating with TSA and other federal agencies to ensure there is a collaborative and efficient approach to monitoring, inspecting, and promulgating regulations related to cyber security in the pipeline industry.  Alan will touch on these efforts to support pipeline safety in this area, as well. 

We all know that pipeline safety is a shared responsibility. With this in mind, PHMSA was pleased to be able to provide its state partners a total of $61 million dollars in 2020 Pipeline State Base Formula Grants, which allowed an average of approximately 70 percent funding of programs.  In 2021, we anticipate awarding $58 million dollars.  We have also secured Administration support for increasing the Pipeline State Base Grants to cover closer to 80% of states’ actual costs in future budget requests.  And we’ve secured Administration support for increasing funding of One Call Grants and State Damage Prevention Grants. 

Finally, the Biden-Harris Administration, helped secure provisions in the new bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to modernize legacy, high-risk, gas distribution pipes.  The bill includes $1 billion for a new “Natural Gas Distribution Infrastructure Safety and Modernization Grant Program” to help replace cast iron and other pipelines which are prone to safety issues, leaks, and fugitive methane emissions, located in community owned gas distribution systems. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will also invest nearly $2 billion to modernize and secure federal, state, and local IT and networks; protect critical infrastructure and utilities; and support public or private entities as they respond to and recover from significant cyberattacks and breaches.

This provisions along with many others, will strengthen our nation’s infrastructure resilience, improve safety, and, in the long run contribute to a more prosperous economy for all.


Conclusion

I’d like to personally thank Jonathan Wolfgram and Pete Chase for being valued members of our pipeline advisory committees. Your insights and commitment to pipeline safety are commendable and much appreciated.  I’d also like to express my appreciation to Mary Zanter, as NAPSR’s chair this past year, for her leadership and vital work in maintaining state pipeline safety efforts during this unprecedented time.  We are also appreciative of Mary’s participation in our public meeting on leak detection and repair criteria back in May.  

I will close in saying that I look forward to getting to know you, work with you, and to do all that I can to support your pipeline safety programs.


Remarks of Acting Administrator Tristan Brown Before the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives | PHMSA (dot.gov)