Pipeline safety a must with shale-gas drilling

Even though a congressman boasts that his bill signed into law in January will assure steps are taken to safeguard new shale-gas pipelines snaking across Pennsylvania, safety regulators surveyed nationally say they still need convincing.

The state regulators’ fears, expressed to federal auditors about the public-safety threat from badly built or shoddily maintained pipelines, stand as a continuing concern for residents living amid Pennsylvania’s gas boom.

At issue is whether thousands of miles of pipeline stretched across rural areas will be subject to safety checks to safeguard against flaws or lax upkeep, given that federal law now exempts these lines from safety rules.

After an Inquirer series last year exposed the shortcomings in rural pipeline oversight, Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.) ushered through a bill that will add a handful of inspectors nationwide, provide new scrutiny to older pipelines, and double safety violation fines to $2 million.

“We worked hard to strengthen the enforcement of current laws and to fill gaps in existing laws where necessary,”  Shuster said.

But a new report from the research arm of Congress, the General Accounting Office, concludes that federal regulators need to step up their game when it comes to tracking the network of so-called feeder pipelines being built to ferry shale-gas from 3,000 wells in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Under current law, backed by industry lobbyists, there are miles of pipeline exempt from inspection because they run through less-populated regions.

The industry’s position is that it makes no sense to field inspectors in areas that one lobbyist characterized as the “far hinterland,” inasmuch as the risk of an explosion is lower than in urban areas, and pipeline companies have an economic incentive to maintain lines in good working order.

That’s going to be of less and less comfort, though, to state residents seeing an influx of shale-gas operations, with the prospect that up to 25,000 miles of pipeline could be built in their communities.

It’s troubling, for starters, that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration doesn’t exercise its authority to track the locations or safety records of the feeder lines.

The GAO report seized on that, and recommended — albeit tentatively — that the U.S. Department of Transportation collect basic data on the pipelines as a means to address safety threats. That should be the minimum step taken, though the idea is getting pushback from industry warnings about undue burdens on pipeline firms.

As part of the GAO’s survey of regulators in 39 states, auditors fielded concerns from Harrisburg regulators on the risk of excavators’ hitting unmarked pipelines. That’s just the type of risk that could be addressed through the better tracking of pipeline data that the industry has resisted. It also makes the case for the legislature’s new directive that drillers join the One Call system, designed to prevent digging explosions.

There’s at least some prospect of better pipeline oversight with the state Public Utility Commission’s plan to hire its own inspectors for feeder lines, even though training lags will mean it takes years to get up to speed. Folks in the “hinterland” can only hope it’s enough to keep them safe.