The U.S. Dept. of Transportation has issued a new regulation that aims to reduce hazards of pipelines that carry natural gas, carbon dioxide and other dangerous liquids. It would apply to new pipelines or replacement onshore lines that are 6-in. dia. or larger.

A key provision in the rule, released by DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on March 31, is a requirement that such pipelines have remotely controlled or automatic shutoff valves, or equivalent technologies. Congress mandated those safety features in a pipeline safety measure enacted in 2012.

The rule will take effect 180 days after it is published in the Federal Register, set for early April.

In announcing the new regulation, the department pointed to two pipeline accidents that occurred in 2010. One occurred when a rupture from a pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy LP in Marshall, Mich., released about 800,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.  DOT said the rupture, which caused about $1 billion in property and environmental damages, was not confirmed for 18 hours after control room operators received initial alarms

The other involved the rupture of a  Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) natural gas transmission pipeline in San Bruno, Calif. that caused an explosion, resulting in eight fatalities and injuries to 51 people. DOT said it took more than 90 minutes to halt the flow of gas.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board report on the accident, PG&E took 95 minutes to halt the gas flow and isolate the site of the rupture, a time that was "excessively long," NTSB said. It also said that use of automatic shutoff or remote-control valves would have shortened the time it took to stop the gas flow.

Other provisions in the new rule include a requirement that the pipeline operator must isolate a ruptured pipeline section “as soon as practicable,” but no more than 30 minutes after the rupture is identified.

DOT also said it expects the regulation to reduce emissions of methane, which is released during ruptures of natural gas pipelines.

The National Transportation Safety Board says that the new rule does improve pipeline safety but adds that the regulation doesn't go far enough. In an April 1 response to the regulation, the NTSB noted that the rule does not apply to existing pipelines and thus would not have helped reduce the harm caused by the San Bruno rupture and explosion.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said in a statement, "PHMSA's final rule does not meet the criteria specified in NTSB safety recommendations regarding valve and rupture detection completely." 

Homendy encouraged PHMSA to continue to address the NTSB's safety recommendations contained in its report on the San Bruno pipeline break and fire.

Amy Andryszak, Interstate Natural Gas Association of America president and CEO, said in a March 31 statement that the association and its member companies were “still reviewing the rule,” adding that the group is "generally supportive ... of rule-making that encourages safety, supports pipeline operators and reduces risk.”

American Petroleum Institute members are "committed to the goal of operating with zero incidents through robust safety programs, including the deployment of advanced inspection and leak detection technologies," said Robin Rorick, vice president of midstream policy. "While pipeline emergencies are rare, automated valve technology can be a valuable tool to safely and quickly respond to an incident.  He added that as the group reviewed the final rule, it would work with the government "to ensure automated valves are deployed safely and effectively."

Story updated on 4/2/2022 with NTSB comments.