President Trump signed another Executive Order (EO) on January 30, 2017, entitled Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs. The new EO, applicable to the entire Executive Branch, including all federal administrative agencies, makes a straightforward directive: “…for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination.” The Order goes on to state that the costs associated with any new regulations may not exceed the savings realized by repealing at least two prior regulations (“the total incremental cost of all new regulations…shall be no greater than zero.”).
In his first days as President, Donald Trump has issued several directives to expedite pipeline and energy infrastructure projects and bring pipe steel manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Through an executive order, the President directed federal agencies to expedite environmental reviews and approvals for all infrastructure projects, with emphasis on “high priority” projects such as pipelines. In addition, the President issued two executive memoranda to renew and expedite the approval of two oil pipeline construction projects, the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). In another executive memo, Trump directed the Commerce Department to prepare a plan under which all new and repaired pipe used in the U.S. would be manufactured stateside. In issuing these presidential directives, the new administration has furthered prior commitments to support pipeline infrastructure and domestic jobs, but whether these directives can truly expedite the necessary remaining approvals for Keystone XL and DAPL remains uncertain in light of limited consequence of these executive directives (beyond the executive branch) and the inevitable legal challenges.
The Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report criticizing PHMSA’s implementation of Congressional mandates and recommendations from the NTSB, GAO and the OIG itself. The OIG’s findings paint a troubling picture of an unsophisticated agency. OIG highlights in particular the lack of sufficient procedures to track rulemakings and coordinate within various departments within the agency and with other intermodal agencies, resulting in delayed rulemakings and implementation of recommendations. While PHMSA has already been implementing organizational changes, the OIG notes that it is too soon to determine whether they will adequately address the Agency’s ability to meet mandates and recommendations in full and in time.
The Interagency Task force on Natural Gas Storage Safety formed last April in response to the massive prolonged Aliso Canyon gas leak, recently issued its report on the safety and reliability of underground natural gas storage. The report responds to a Congressional mandate in the recent reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Act. It includes numerous (44) recommendations to industry to reduce the likelihood of leaks at underground natural gas storage facilities and minimize the impacts of leaks when they occur. These recommendations are not binding, but PHMSA is required to consider them in issuing final rules pursuant to 2016 Pipeline Safety Act amendments. The report recommendations primarily address well integrity, risk management, and data gathering and recordkeeping, which are likely to be incorporated in PHMSA’s forthcoming interim final rule to establish minimum federal standards. The Agency plans to issue an interim final rule before the end of this year. As this will be a new area of regulation for the Agency, industry should be mindful of the various legal issues regarding jurisdiction, state regulation and preemption, and dual jurisdiction, among others.
PHMSA recently issued pre-publication copies of several rules and notices, which have now been formally published in the Federal Register, triggering various deadlines. On Friday, October 14, 2015, the Agency published (1) interim final emergency order rules authorizing the issuance of emergency orders to the entire industry in response to imminent hazards under certain conditions (effective immediately) and requesting industry comments within sixty days and (2) a final gas distribution excess flow valve rule, expanding requirements for excess flow valves in distribution service lines effective in six months. On Monday, October 17, 2016, the Agency for the first time published its civil penalty policy, noting that operators in enforcement proceedings may request a proposed civil penalty calculation in PHMSA enforcement actions.
A group referring to itself as “Climate Direct Action” claimed to have shut down five major cross-border oil pipelines in various states on Tuesday October 11, 2016: Minnesota (Enbridge Lines 4 and 67 near Leonard), Montana (Spectra Energy’s Express Pipeline near Coal Banks Landing), North Dakota (TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline near Walhalla) and Washington State (Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline near Anacortes). Enbridge confirmed that activists with bolt cutters broke into a valve station in Minnesota prompting them to shut down two pipelines as a precautionary measure. In total, four of the pipelines were temporarily closed and the fifth (Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline) was not in service when activists attempted to turn it off.
On October 11, 2016, PHMSA released a Policy Statement notifying owners and operators of oil and gas pipelines that it is finally making its civil penalty framework publicly accessible, and that respondents may now request proposed civil penalty calculations in enforcement actions. The Agency is already projected to issue the highest amount of proposed civil penalties in a single year in 2016, and this notice signals that it will “as appropriate, issue higher penalties in order to apply stronger deterrence and drive down incident risk.” PHMSA also confirms the increased penalty amounts as adjusted for inflation for violations occurring on or after August 1, 2016, as a result of the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015 (with maximum civil penalty per day now capped at $205,638 and $2,056,380 for a related series of violations).
The recent shut-down of Colonial Pipeline Company’s Line 1 in Alabama should remind the public and the government just how critical oil and gas pipelines are to America’s energy supply needs. As in most of the country, energy and food supplies are generally replaced on a short time frame, with three days being a typical limit on storage. Any disruption in service thus creates a shortage in essential services, in very short order. Gas prices in six Eastern states jumped quickly after the Colonial incident, due to increased costs and limits on product volume shipped by truck. Colonial is working diligently with PHMSA to investigate, repair and remediate the incident site, and, even as that work is ongoing, Colonial is constructing a temporary bypass line to restore service as quickly as possible. But Colonial’s Line 1 supplies upwards of 40% of all refined gasoline needs along the East Coast, and until pipeline service is restored, the effects will be noticed by a large percentage of the U.S. population.
Since the Administration denied a Presidential (border crossing) Permit to the Keystone XL Project in 2015, a number of regional, state or local objections to new pipeline construction projects have emerged around the U.S. Most of the protests have continued themes relied on by opposition to Keystone, including the claim that fossil fuels should remain in the ground in order to limit the impacts of climate change. Groups such as the Sierra Club and Earth Justice have acknowledged that they selected Keystone as a tangible subject to carry their climate change message, which is otherwise rather abstract. Ironically, the Keystone and subsequent protests seem to focus on oil and gas as more emblematic of fossil fuels than coal, and they ignore the significant safety advantages in transporting energy by pipeline as compared to any other method. In addition, they ignore economic and safety factors that counsel in favor of new pipeline construction, and avoid discussion about the realistic availability of alternative energy resources provide a majority of U.S. demand in the near future.
The Third Circuit held in a highly anticipated recent decision that state actions on water quality-related permits for interstate natural gas pipeline projects are reviewable only in the federal Circuit Courts of Appeals, in accordance with the Natural Gas Act (NGA). The case, Delaware Riverkeeper v. Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection et al., concerned petitions for review filed by environmental and conservation groups in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to challenge state permitting decisions for the Transcontinental Pipeline (Transco) Leidy project. Specifically, the groups challenged the decisions of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Departments of Environmental Protection (PDEP and NJDEP, respectively) to issue water quality certifications under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and, in the case of the NJDEP, other water quality-related permits required under State law.