PHMSA is proposing to amend its regulations applicable to natural gas distribution/service lines at 49 C.F.R. Part 192 to require expanded use of excess flow valves (EFVs) and manual service line shut-off valves (e.g. curb valves) in certain applications.  The Agency has released a pre-publication version of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM or the Notice) describing these changes, which will be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register.  Comments on the Notice will be due 60 days from publication, i.e. by September 13, 2015.

PHMSA first required EFVs for new or replaced service lines to single family residences (SFRs) in 2009, under a 2006 Congressional mandate.  In 2009, PHMSA also undertook an Interim Evaluation of whether EFVs should be required in other applications, to respond to a 2001 NTSB recommendation advocating installation of EFVs in all new and renewed gas service lines, regardless of a customer’s classification.  The culmination of PHMSA’s Interim Evaluation was the publication of a 2011 Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), in which PHMSA requested public comment on expanded use of EFVs in gas distribution systems.  The 2012 Pipeline Safety Act (PSA) amendments were then enacted, compelling PHMSA – after finalizing its evaluation of the NTSB recommendation – to require EFVs on “new or replaced distribution branch services, multifamily facilities, and small commercial facilities” by January 2014, if appropriate and where feasible.  49 U.S.C. § 60109(e)(3).   

The NPRM, issued more than 18 months after the deadline set in this 2012 mandate, proposes the following new requirements:

1. EFV Installation in Applications Other than Single Family Residences.  Currently, EFVs are required only on new or replaced gas lines serving single family residences (SFRs).  49 C.F.R. Part 192.383(b).  PHMSA proposes to amend Part 192.383 to also require EFVs on certain branched service lines serving SFRs, as well as service lines serving small commercial businesses and multi-family residences consuming gas volumes less than 1,000 standard cubic feet per hour (SCFH).  Any new or replaced service line in these types of applications would have to be equipped with an EFV under the proposed rule.  In addition, the proposed rule specifies that all existing customers who desire an EFV on a service line in one of the above applications have a right to request that an EFV be installed on their service line.  Operators would be required to notify customers of this right and, if they receive a customer request, to install an EFV at a mutually agreeable date.  The proposed rule leaves it to the appropriate State regulatory agency to determine who bears the cost of installation.

PHMSA nevertheless proposes to retain the current Part 192.383 exceptions to EFV installation requirements and to extend applicability of these exceptions to the additional service line applications covered in the NPRM.  In addition, the proposed rule would require only that EFVs be manufactured and tested by the manufacturer according to an industry specification or the manufacturer’s written specification, but would not prescribe the precise specification that must be used.

In response to the 2011 ANPRM, many industry commenters raised concerns about the potential for EFVs to trip inadvertently and to cause unnecessary service disruptions.  PHMSA responds to these concerns in the NPRM by emphasizing the importance of proper sizing and by stating that, rather than proposing a protocol for EFV installation, the Agency advises operators to install EFVs as directed by the manufacturer and as safe service requires.

2. Curb Valves on Large-Capacity Service Lines.  The proposed rule would also require operators to install curb valves or other manually operated valves for any new or replaced service lines with installed meter capacity exceeding 1,000 SCFH.  These valves would have to be accessible to emergency personnel needing to manually shut off gas flow to the service line in the event of an emergency. The proposed requirement is based on comments from industry in response to the 2011 ANPRM concerning the suitability of EFVs for larger commercial facilities.  According to the Notice, it is not technically feasible to expand EFV use to service lines operating at loads exceeding 1,000 SFCH, and curb valves provide best alternative to an EFV for these facilities.  The Notice explains that the 1,000 SCFH threshold proposed for this requirement is based upon PHMSA experience and comments to the NPRM, but the Agency invites further comment on whether the threshold is appropriate.

In the 2011 ANPRM, the Agency requested that gas distribution system operators address the costs and benefits of expanded EFV requirements in their comments, and it is anticipated that cost-benefit concerns will be a subject of many comments on the current Notice as well.  Interestingly, in 1992 Congress required PHMSA’s predecessor, the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA), to issue regulations prescribing the circumstances, if any, where EFVs were appropriate for natural gas distribution systems.  Pub. L. 102-508 (Oct. 24, 1992).  In response, RSPA issued a Final Rule in 1996, concluding there are no circumstances in which EFV installation should be required, primarily because “the costs far exceed the benefits of such installation.”  61 Fed. Reg. 31449 (June 20, 1996).  Several incidents since then, involving fatalities and injuries from service line ruptures that may have been averted by the use of EFVs, are likely to influence the discussion of costs and benefits in response to the current NPRM.