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Editorial comment

Agency and urgencyThe first episode of the first season of HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’, which premiered in 2012, focused on fictionalised breaking news coverage of the tragic Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in 2010. The coup for Will McAvoy’s news team is tracking down an employee of the Minerals Management Service (MMS – now defunct). On air, Will extricates from the employee an admission that only 56 inspectors were in charge of overseeing the 35 591 oil wells in the Gulf:

‘“That’s 635 wells for each inspector. The wells are required to be inspected once a month – is that correct?” “The drilling wells, yes.”“Is it possible with so few inspectors and so many wells, to properly inspect each platform as scheduled?”“Our – our budget’s very limited.”“A single inspector would have to thoroughly review two wells a day, six days a week for a year.”“I know.”’

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I was reminded of this grilling when I read reports about the recent questioning of Stacy Cummings, the interim Director of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency (PHMSA). PHMSA is the US Department of Transport agency responsible for the approximately 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipeline in the US. Cummings has been under fire about the slow rollout of new congressionally ordered safeguards. In 2011, Congress gave PHMSA 42 mandates concerning the use of leak detection systems on pipelines, the use of automatic and remote-control shut-off valves and new directions on how quickly pipeline operators must notify the authorities in the event of a spill.

The regulator is yet to carry out all of the mandates; in fact, Cummings is facing criticism for the agency’s failure to enact a full 16 out of the 42 measures.

At a hearing in mid July, members of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee (part of the Energy and Commerce Committee) questioned Cummings on the delays. “How do you grade your performance?” Rep David McKinley asked. “Do you think it’s a passing grade? Is it a ‘C’? a ‘B’? ... Did you do what you were asked to do? What’s the schedule? Are you going to finish at the end of this year?” and it goes on. Cummings testified in writing that the PHMSA is on the case: “we share your concern and sense of urgency... we have a plan to complete every one of these mandates.”

Concerns about reporting and pipeline safety are particularly under the spotlight in the US this summer, following a spill from a Plains All American pipeline in California on 19 May that leaked some 340 000 l of oil, some of which reached the Pacific Ocean. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has asked for Plains to provide detailed information on the maintenance of the failed pipeline.

One member of the committee expressed concern that some of the un-implemented parts of the 2011 mandate could have made a difference in the recent California spill – for instance, the requirement that pipeline operators notify the National Response Center within one hour of confirming the existence of a spill. Records seem to show that Plains called almost three hours after a spill was detected.

It’s PHMSA’s sense of urgency that is being called into question at the moment: is the agency pushing through new regulations quickly enough and is it reacting to growing public concern over pipelines?

Pipeline operators are asked to take voluntary steps to promote safety while PHMSA works on implementing reports and regulatory framework, and this can be hit and miss: operators can be hesitant to commit to new rules in light of short reauthorisation terms. Why follow through with proposed rulemaking if you think the goalposts might have moved by the time you finish?

Here’s one reason why: news teams are always watching.

For more on PHMSAs integrity verification process, turn to the T.D. Williamson article on p.109.

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