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240,000 Miles of Ticking Time Bombs

Photo of Daniel Horowitz

A recent Associated Press article has shed light on the truth about a major loop hole in federal regulation of natural gas pipelines. The federal government knows nothing about thousands of miles of pipelines that tap natural gas flows released through the drilling method known as fracking.

Private companies have put in hundreds of small gathering pipelines in recent years to collect the new gas and oil supplies freed through the high-pressure drilling technique.

Nationwide, about 240,000 miles of gathering pipelines ferry the fuels to processing facilities and larger pipelines in top energy-producing states. Many of these pipelines course through densely populated areas, including neighborhoods in Fort Worth. Most of these lines are not regulated by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which means they are not regularly inspected for leaks, corrosion or adequate pipeline markers.

Emily Krafjack, who lives near the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania, said many local residents have no idea that the pipelines near their homes are not overseen by federal regulators. Gathering lines that run in the rural northeastern corner of the state receive no federal oversight if there are fewer than 10 homes within 220 yards of the pipeline. These are considered a Class 1 Rural Gathering Line.

"Who would ever think that they could run something like this next to your home and it wouldn't have any regulations attached to it?," said Krafjack, a former community liaison for Wyoming County, Pa., on gas issues.

Nationwide, there are about 200,000 miles of gas gathering lines and up to 40,000 miles of hazardous liquid gathering lines in rural and urban areas alike, ranging in diameter from about 2 to 14. But only about 24,000 of those miles are regulated, according to the report. Many of these lines operate at pressures greater than 500 psi.

The industry is not required to report pipeline-related fatality, injury or property damage information about the unregulated lines. PHMSA only collects information about accidents on the small subset of gathering lines that the agency regulates.

The pipeline agency is considering collecting more data on the unregulated gas gathering lines, but the plans are still preliminary and have met with some resistance from the natural gas industry. Agency officials are reviewing more than 100 public comments received about their proposal for gas lines, and also plan to propose a rule that will cover hazardous liquid gathering pipelines by the fall, said Jeannie Layson, a spokeswoman for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

PHMSA delegates some enforcement of its rules to state-level pipeline safety authorities. Those state-level agencies told the auditors that construction quality, maintenance practices, unknown locations, and limited or no information on current pipeline integrity all posed safety risks for federally unregulated gathering pipelines.

The expansion of hydraulic fracturing, which involves shattering rock thousands of feet underground with a combination of water, sand and chemicals, promises staggering yields, and drilling also comes with promises of job creation and economic opportunities.

The recent surge in drilling also has led California lawmakers to write new laws to increase oversight of the industry. Assemblyman Bill Wieckowski, D-Fremont, is sponsoring a bill now pending before a state Senate committee that would require gas and oil producers to disclose what chemicals they are using when they engage in hydraulic fracturing.

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