During a busy time for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA or the Agency), and while Congress considers reauthorization legislation, there have been several significant personnel changes at the Agency. In early April, Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Foxx appointed Teresa Gonsalves as new chief counsel for PHMSA, who comes from the Office of Personnel Management and U.S. Postal Service. In addition, longtime PHMSA Associate Administrator Jeff Wiese departed last week after more than 17 years with the Agency that included oversight of major initiatives such as integrity management and public awareness programs. PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez, new to the Agency herself as of last August, is expected to name an Interim Associate Administrator for Pipeline Safety, while the Agency searches for a permanent replacement. PHMSA Deputy Associate Administrators, Alan Mayberry and Linda Daugherty, are expected to share that role in the interim. Other changes include a new Director of Training at the Agency’s Training and Qualifications Center and establishment of an Accident Investigations Division (expected to start up later this year).
New PHMSA management personnel have big shoes to fill and face a heavy workload despite constrained budget and staffing resources. They inherit numerous overdue Congressional mandates, NTSB recommendations, Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Government Accounting Office (GAO) recommendations, as well as forthcoming mandates from the current Pipeline Safety Act reauthorization. In addition, the Agency is already immersed in completing its fourth year of integrated audit inspections, reviewing and responding to industry comments on expansive new rulemaking proposals, training its nearly one hundred new employee-hires, evaluating whether and how best to regulate underground natural gas storage and making improvements to oil spill response programs. Further, this is a dynamic period for the industry due to the abundance of domestic oil and natural gas resources and widespread opposition to new construction projects. Meanwhile, climate change commitments will place a significant emphasis on these energy sources to transition the country to increased reliance on renewable energy.
Pipelines continue to be the safest mode of transportation for oil and gas. The rate of pipeline incidents for both oil and gas pipelines has declined over the past 25 years, due in large part to new PHMSA regulatory programs and focus on enforcement as well as voluntary industry efforts within the framework of the Agency’s performance based regulations. To further improve pipeline safety, it will be essential for industry, trade groups, and PHMSA personnel to continue to work together.