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Editorial comment

What gets measured gets managed

The end of September found Volkswagen frantically backpedalling on its diesel emissions statistics, after an admission that it had used software to rig emissions tests in the US. President and CEO of Volkswagen’s US business, Michael Horn, has admitted that the company “totally screwed up” and that VW diesel cars had much higher emissions than the tests had suggested, due to a ‘defeat device’ that allowed VW cars to emit less during tests than they would while driving normally. The car giant is set to recall half a million cars in the US and faces fines and possibly criminal charges. The scandal reminds us that data can be troublesome: statistics can be such persuasive pieces of information, but all manner of things affect the integrity of the data (interpretation, context, confidence or margin of error intervals) and that’s when you harvest the data correctly in the first place!

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In August, Enbridge admitted that the data it provided to Michigan officials on the Mackinac Straits Line 5 pipeline over the course of a year long investigation was too complex for the taskforce to understand. In the face of criticism about data gaps from the Department of Environmental Quality and the Attorney General (who formed the taskforce together), Cynthia Hansen, Senior Vice President for Enbridge, explained: “They said there were information gaps because raw data isn’t good enough, and we agree – we need to do a better job of summarising.” An independent risk analysis of the two oil pipelines is now underway and Enbridge has pledged to package its safety data for state officials in a better way. While PHMSA may be able to digest pipeline data in large chunks, state officials are often less informed about the particulars and technical terms used. Enbridge is also looking at putting more information online, including data inspection history.

The recent focus on inspection data comes from growing concern about pipeline safety and, in particular, the transportation of heavy oil or hazardous materials across the US. Line 5 is considered by many to be a threat to the Great Lakes. Montana’s Yellowstone River is also a site of concern: calls have been made for enhanced mapping and location data for US pipelines at the recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing on pipeline safety in Billings, close to where a 2011 ExxonMobil pipeline spill contaminated the Yellowstone River, and where in January this year a Bridger Pipeline pipe spilled into the water supply.

PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez announced at the hearing that a new pipeline safety rule is set to be published very soon, having been approved by the White House in early September. The new regulations are expected to focus on high consequence areas, such as rivers or densely populated communities, where a spill or rupture would have the most impact. Also expected is an increased focus on inline inspection and up-to-date data.

Regionally, efforts are being made to tighten up on safety: Governor of Michigan Rick Synder has created a Pipeline Safety Advisory Board and entered into an agreement with Enbridge, preventing the transportation of heavy oil through the aforementioned Line 5. West Virginia senators have approved a US$782 000 fund from PHMSA to improve rail and pipeline safety. Pennsylvania has accepted a US$2.9 million grant from PHMSA to increase pipeline inspection and rule enforcement activities.

In other data news, Plains All American failed to keep adequate records of safety evaluations on pipelines, including the pipeline that spilled on the Santa Barbara coastline in May, according to federal inspectors. The company was unable to locate some portions of 2013 internal inspection data and did not keep acceptable records of pressure testing data.

PG&E is seeking to have some charges dismissed from the San Bruno ruling: despite a decision that the explosion was caused in part by flawed record keeping, PG&E argues that its employees did not deliberately fail to maintain records and that records violations happened too long ago to come under present jurisdiction.

Putting aside this equivocating, it’s clear that new safety requirements and further scrutiny of pipeline data will lead to safer oil and gas transport and more trust between operator and regulator.

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