DOT’s Federal Pipeline Safety Program: Background and Issues for Congress

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The U.S. energy pipeline network includes approximately 3.3 million miles of onshore pipeline transporting natural gas, crude oil, and other hazardous liquids. Over the past decade, major safety incidents in California, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and other states have drawn criticism from stakeholders and have raised concerns in Congress about pipeline safety regulation. The 2021 ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline has also drawn attention to federal pipeline security activities, including agency roles and the linkage between pipeline safety and security.

The federal safety program for onshore pipelines is administered by the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which relies heavily on state partnerships for inspection and enforcement. PHMSA’s pipeline safety program is authorized through FY2023 under the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2020 (PIPES Act, P.L. 116-260, Div. R). President Biden’s requested FY2024 budget for pipeline safety is $228.23 million, roughly 20% above the FY2023 budget authority. The FY2024 request includes $89.56 million for grants to fund state pipeline inspection and damage prevention programs, up from $68.06 million in FY2023. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA, P.L. 117-58) appropriated $200 million annually through FY2026 for PHMSA’s new Natural Gas Distribution Infrastructure Safety and Modernization Grant Program.

To promote regulatory compliance, PHMSA conducts programmatic inspections of management systems and procedures; inspects facilities and construction; investigates safety incidents; and maintains a dialogue with pipeline operators. The agency clarifies its expectations through orders, guidance manuals, and public meetings. It also administers a pipeline safety research and development (R&D) program to address emerging risks and new technologies. PHMSA works with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on pipeline security and incident response.

As oversight of PHMSA’s pipeline safety program continues, Congress may examine PHMSA staffing, which faces persistent shortfalls affecting the agency’s ability to inspect pipelines and revise its regulations. Other potential topics for congressional oversight could include:

  • the implementation of PHMSA’s new distribution modernization grant program;
  • the effects of the agency’s 2021 rule for natural gas gathering lines, bringing 425,000 miles of gathering lines under regulation;
  • PHMSA’s implementation of the PIPES Act mandate expanding PHMSA’s traditional safety mission to include climate considerations;
  • what role PHMSA might play in any future TSA pipeline security initiatives;
  • updates to outdated safety standards for liquefied natural gas facilities, and pipelines carrying carbon dioxide, hydrogen, or hydrogen-methane blends;
  • PHMSA’s issuance and oversight of standards exemptions via Special Permits; and
  • PHMSA’s implementation and coordination of pipeline safety R&D through its own grants, operator demonstrations, and programs at other federal agencies.

In addition to these issues, Congress may assess how the many elements of U.S. pipeline safety fit together in the nation’s overall approach to protecting the public and the environment. Pipeline safety necessarily involves various groups: federal and state agencies, tribal governments, pipeline associations, large and small pipeline operators, local communities, and other interest groups. Reviewing how these groups work together to achieve common goals or resolve conflicting approaches could be an overarching concern for Congress.

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