PHMSA has re-issued an Advisory, reminding gas and hazardous liquid pipeline operators of the potential for damage to their pipeline facilities caused by the passage of hurricanes.  The Advisory, which was originally published in 2011, explains that hurricanes can adversely affect pipeline operations and can increase the risk of pipelines becoming exposed or constituting a hazard to navigation in the case of underwater pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico.  According to PHMSA, such circumstances trigger an operator’s obligation to take appropriate corrective measures.  80 Fed. Reg. 36042, 36043 (June 23, 2015) (citing 49 C.F.R. Parts 192.613 (surveillance of gas pipelines); 195.401(b) (repairs on hazardous liquid pipelines); 192.613, 195.413 (underwater inspections of shallow-water gas and hazardous liquid pipelines)).

Pointing out the damage to oil and gas production structures caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 as examples, the Advisory reminds operators that a significant percentage of domestic oil and gas production and processing is prone to disruption by hurricanes.  PHMSA therefore urges pipeline operators to take the following actions to ensure pipeline safety:

  • Identify persons normally engaged in shallow-water commercial fishing, shrimping, and other marine vessel operations and caution them that underwater offshore pipelines may be exposed or constitute a hazard to navigation;
    • Identify and caution marine vessel operators in offshore shipping lanes and other offshore areas that deploying fishing nets or anchors, as well as conducting dredging operations, may damage underwater pipelines, their vessels, and endanger their crews;
  • Bring offshore and inland transmission facilities back online after a disruption, and check for structural damage to piping, valves, emergency shutdown systems, risers, and supporting systems.  Aerial inspections of pipeline routes should also be conducted to check for leaks in transmission systems and, in areas where floating and jack-up rigs have moved and their path could have been over pipelines, review possible routes and check for sub-sea pipeline damage where required; and
  • Take action to minimize and mitigate damages caused by flooding to gas distribution systems, including the prevention of overpressure of low and high pressure distribution systems.

Today’s Advisory is one of a series published by the Agency concerning the potential for damage to pipeline facilities caused by hurricanes.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, the Agency published a similar Advisory to gas and hazardous liquid pipeline operators, recommending the above actions, as well as a companion Advisory to gas distribution pipeline operators.  Similar guidance was issued in the wake of Hurricanes Andrew (1992), Georges (1998), and Ivan (2004).  Although guidance such as these Advisories are not legally binding or enforceable, the Agency’s references to these ‘general duty’ provisions in the regulations (as cited above) suggest that it may plan to rely upon these provisions in enforcement where operators fail to take the actions recommended in the Advisory.  The Agency has cited the general duty regulations as the basis for enforcement in the past where operators failed to discover or correct conditions that could potentially affect safe operations on their pipeline systems.  See, e.g., In re Colorado Interstate Gas, CPF No. 5-2008-1005 (failure to detect encroachments); In re ANR Pipeline Company, CPF No. 2-2008-1005W (failure to address undercutting of concrete matting over a pipeline); In re Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America, CPF No. 3-2005-1011 (failure to address exposed pipeline at a river crossing).