U.S. pipeline regulators are “like the college student who does his research at frat parties rather than in the library.”
That’s the conclusion drawn by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) from a detailed review of the records of the federal government body charged with investigating and preventing pipeline spills.
The study found that staff of the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) spend nearly three times more time attending industry-sponsored events and conferences than it does responding to pipeline spills, ruptures and blasts. PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass commented:
“Its records show PHMSA officials spending much of their time schmoozing with oil executives in fancy hotels and convention centers. PHMSA sees itself not so much as a regulator but as an arm of industry and these travel figures reflect that corporate dominance.”
Between 2007 and 2012, the 500 members of PHMSA staff spent 3,000 person-days attending conferences and industry meetings, compared to 970 staff days responding to significant pipeline incidents.
In the same period there were nearly 300 incidents, such as a spill, explosion or breakdown, where PHMSA dispatched no one to conduct a follow-up inspection.
Each year in the U.S., there are more than 100 “significant” pipeline spills involving loss of life, injuries, fire and/or major spillage. Yet the agency has not conducted a single surprise exercise for more than eight years, and has inspected less than a fifth of the 2.6 million miles of pipeline it regulates. It has implemented almost none of the measures urged by the National Transportation Safety Board following the Kalamazoo Michigan oil spill and the San Bruno California gas explosion, both of which occurred in 2010.
As Kathryn Douglass says, “The record indicates this agency does a much better job of protecting industry than it does protecting public safety.” She added that PHMSA’s approach to pipeline safety “is like searching for gas leaks with a lit candle.”