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Acting Administrator Tristan Brown's Keynote Remarks to the Pipeline Safety Trust's 2021 Spring Conference

May 18, 2021

Good morning—and good afternoon to those on the East Coast.  Thanks for that kind introduction, Bill.

Let me begin by thanking you and the Pipeline Safety Trust for the invaluable work you do.  For decades, PST has served as a critical voice for the public’s interests and constructively helped inform the work we do at PHMSA. A fun fact about me, I actually attended college with one of your board members—Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation. As a fellow native Michigander—I know how lucky we are to have such a fierce advocate for pipeline safety and for protecting the Great Lakes. 

Today, I look forward to sharing some thoughts on our shared goal of advancing pipeline safety and, more specifically, on how we can improve gas pipeline leak detection and repair, and the best ways we can reduce methane emissions from our pipeline systems.  But I want to first begin by discussing the events of last week—involving the Colonial Pipeline system. 

As many know, Colonial operates one of the largest pipeline systems in the country, which provides nearly half of the fuel consumed on the East Coast. On Friday, May 7th, we learned that Colonial had shut down their entire system. 

Within hours, the White House and the lead agency—the Department of Energy—convened an interagency working group tasked with helping address both the cyber threat as well as fuel supply issues. 

Agencies across the federal government including PHMSA worked round- the-clock, all weekend and into the week. PHMSA, for its part, reviewed and provided technical assistance on manual pipeline operation plans—that helped alleviate immediate supply issues—as well as reviewed plans to get the system back up and running, as a whole—all of which had not been done before at the scales that were needed last week.  

Last week, the President issued a Cybersecurity Executive Order that makes a significant contribution toward modernizing cybersecurity defenses by protecting federal networks, improving information-sharing between the U.S. government and the private sector on cyber issues, and strengthening the United States’ ability to respond to incidents when they occur.  

In the days, weeks, and months ahead, we as an agency—and we in the federal government—will be looking at what more we can do, and what we expect the private sector to do, to reduce the risks of incidences like this to the public. 

As the President and Secretary Pete have been saying before, during, and after the cyber attack, we need to invest in our infrastructure to ensure greater resiliency across the board—including from cyber-attacks. The Colonial Pipeline incident provides yet another example of the need to not just replace our infrastructure but to envision ways we can future-proof, to ensure our investments provide lasting benefits for generations to come. 

Now as an agency, PHMSA is focused on pipeline and hazardous materials. Our mission is to protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials that are essential to our daily lives.  Our Nation’s pipeline system consists of 2.8 million miles of transmission, distribution, and gathering pipelines.  In addition to regulating the safety of our pipeline system, PHMSA, comprising just under 600 employees, also regulates 1.2 million shipments of hazardous materials that move by air, water, rail, and highway every day—which includes electric vehicle batteries—and areas where we have a renewed and elevated focus.  

For those who like the bottom line up front (the BLUF) on what PHMSA is focused on, here’s the quick takeaway for you: Safety remains job one but we are also focused on an agency-wide approach to addressing the climate crisis while promoting environmental justice and equity—and always mindful of the Administration’s focus on job creation.  Toward these ends, we are dedicated to making regulatory choices that are based on data, and to ensuring that transparency and engagement with all stakeholders are the hallmarks of our work. 

As Secretary Pete has noted in testimony before Congress, we’ve wasted no time here at the agency staffing up to be ready for our robust agenda. We’re hiring the agency’s first Senior-Level National Environmental Policy Act Advisor; the agency’s first environmental economist position, we’re more than doubling the regulatory attorneys on staff to account for our ambitious regulatory agenda, and we’re increasing our inspection staff by 20% over the next few years. 

Just a few weeks ago, in conjunction with Earth Day, President Biden pledged a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Contemporaneous new reports echoed countless previous reports that have emphasized global climate change threatens our economy—to the tune of trillions of dollars.

Numbers in the trillions are abstract for the human brain—because our brains are not capable of conceptualizing such quantities. In that context, discussing problems and solutions at meetings like this can seem abstract, too— the impacts that we foresee and are attempting to mitigate are distant—in the future. But for the countless lives that will experience upheaval and devastation as a result of global climate change now and over the next few decades, climate change will not be abstract. That is why Congress’ urgent effort to pass the PIPES Act last winter—demanding progress in reducing methane emissions matters… and it’s why your work to push the envelope on safety and environmental standards matters.

With that in mind, PHMSA held a public meeting two weeks ago as a first, and important step towards meeting one of the congressional mandates in the PIPES Act—to minimize methane emissions from our nation’s pipeline system. Shout out to Bill Caram and all of the public interest stakeholders that attended and participated in our panel discussions. We received positive feedback across the board and I know it was helpful in our efforts to develop a rule this summer.  

As we know, natural gas is composed primarily of methane.  Therefore, gas pipeline leaks and other releases of natural gas emit methane into the atmosphere and change our climate—with an impact that—pound for pound—is multitudes more significant that carbon dioxide pollution.  In fact, the onshore oil and gas sector is the largest domestic industrial source of methane emissions.  

With this in mind, The PIPES Act of 2020 required that by December of this year, PHMSA issue final regulations requiring certain classes of operators to conduct leak detection and repair programs in order to “(a) meet the need for gas pipeline safety and (b) protect the environment.

Another PIPES Act mandate found in Section 114 of the Act, is to work to minimize releases of natural gas from pipeline facilities.  This is a tremendously important, self-executing provision of the law.  PHMSA is in the process of issuing an Advisory Bulletin to remind all pipeline operators that they must comply with this provision by no later than December 27, 2021. 

Keep in mind, the concept of an “acceptable level of release into the environment” is a long-outdated concept —for gas or hazardous liquids. We must change how we think about small releases, because they, too, add up, and can—and do—have a big impact on the environment.

Section 114 also requires PHMSA to conduct a study, then report to Congress, on the best available technologies and practices for preventing or minimizing the release of natural gas.  

In Section 113 of the Act, Congress also requires PHMSA to prioritize completion of our rulemaking on Gas Transmission and Gathering Pipelines. PHMSA looks forward to receiving your input on ways we can improve safety and cut emissions through this rulemaking.

Clearly, these mandates require all of us to work together to promote pipeline safety and take aggressive actions to reduce methane emissions from pipelines—both fugitive and vented.

We are also considering these mandates in conjunction with how our rulemakings and agency decisions affect underrepresented communities.  This whole-of-agency approach to environmental justice is something that many agencies and departments are focused on, and we welcome your input on how we can do this efficiently and effectively. As we discuss options during the next few days, and into the future, we will keep a strong focus on using transportation as an engine for equity.  

We know, for example, that our Nation’s aging—and higher risk—infrastructure is primarily located in less-recently developed and often disadvantaged communities and urban areas.  Through our safety work, we will continue to promote the upgrading, replacement, and repair of aging, high-risk infrastructure.  This especially includes infrastructure such as cast iron pipelines in cities.

Now, I would like to spend a few minutes talking about pipeline Safety Management Systems (or SMS).  PHMSA believes that one way to continuously improve pipeline safety is for every pipeline operator to adopt a robust SMS, underpinned by a strong safety culture.  The SMS framework should be built into all company processes, from the time a pipeline is designed, and on through start-up, operation, maintenance, and even abandonment.  

And, as you know, a strong culture of safety is needed to make any SMS program work in practice.  A culture-based approach to safety is driven by individual values and accountability, where everyone knows that safety is paramount, even when it means increased marginal costs to operators.  Because in the long run, the overriding goal of “safety first” is good for employees, good for the public, good for the environment, and good for operators and investors. 

This is evident from past accidents —like those in Bellingham, Washington; Marshall, Michigan; Pelham, Alabama; Merrimack Valley; Huntington, North Carolina; and others —where preventable mistakes metastasized through the system and ultimately led to human and environmental tragedies.  A sound integrity management plan combined with a solid SMS can prevent harmful spills like we have seen at Refugio Beach, California, and recently in Linden, New Jersey. 

Regarding the larger PHMSA oversight program, we are continuing to focus on how operators implement pipeline integrity management, as we have seen that issues remain with operators not implementing the program in the way it was intended; 

We will promote industry efforts to improve methods to identify and address slow leaks beyond the current physical detection limits, using all available means, in addition to investing in research to address this area; and 

We will continue to broaden the means by which we receive input from ALL stakeholders —including public advocacy groups like PST, tribes, labor unions, environmental groups, and others.  

As I wrap up, I know there is always interest in PHMSA’s regulatory agenda and rulemaking efforts.  Our team has been very busy trying to advance the final rules for rupture detection and valve installation, as well as for gas gathering pipelines.  Expect to hear more on this front soon. 

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also thank Bill Caram for volunteering to be a member of PHMSA’s Liquid Pipeline Advisory Committee (LPAC).  The work of our advisory committees is an important part of our rulemaking process. 

Thank you as well to Carl, Rebecca and all of the Pipeline Safety Board and volunteers out there. While it may still be Bambi vs. Godzilla, you help our agency and our state pipeline agencies carry out such important work. Your voice is important to us and to the countless Americans who benefit from the improved safety measures that you’re constantly working towards.