Boston-area gas explosions should prompt reassessment of pipeline oversight

Rice University News & Media

The explosions and fires apparently triggered by overpressurized natural gas utility lines north of Boston last month should prompt federal regulators to review and reform how they maintain oversight of the nation’s pipelines, according to an expert in the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Credit: University
Rachel Meidl, fellow in energy and environment at the Baker Institute, outlined her insights in a new issue brief focusing on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). In “Post-Boston Incident: A PHMSA Enterprise Opportunity for Continuous Improvement,” Meidl writes that the Merrimack Valley explosions provide the agency with an opportunity to remodel its operations, re-evaluate transparency and collaboration across the agency and reform the way it reviews and develops regulations.
“The natural gas utility fires and explosions … are tragic and perhaps unprecedented,” Meidl wrote. “While preliminary investigative reports indicate overpressurized gas lines as the cause of the disaster, further examination by the PHMSA and other authorities will determine the root cause and contributing factors. Although PHMSA has delegated its authority for the regulation of intrastate pipeline facilities to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, PHMSA is ultimately responsible for issuing and enforcing minimum safety regulations for interstate and intrastate pipelines.”
PHMSA executes its mission through two primary safety programs: the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) and the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety (OHMS). “While each program office has distinct statutory authorities and two separate budgets, there are natural intersections in the day-to-day operations as well as priorities and initiatives originating from the White House, the secretary of transportation, Congress and other key entities,” Meidl wrote. “This divergence can trigger gaps in communication, distinct and conflicting initiatives and uncoordinated and separate policies and processes for rulemaking; regulatory review; employee training; research and development; outreach and …

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