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Remarks of Howard "Skip" Elliott Before NAPSR's Annual Board of Director's Meeting

September 15, 2020

Good morning and thanks for inviting me to your virtual conference to discuss PHMSA’s work to advance pipeline safety and the important role that organizations like NAPSR and its members play in that vital effort.  

Before I begin, I’d like to thank the leadership of NAPSR, as well as that of PHMSA’s Office of Pipeline Safety, for their efforts to continuously strengthen the partnership between PHMSA and the States.  

This partnership is critical in advancing the safety of our nation’s energy infrastructure.  Of the Nation’s 2.8 million miles of pipelines, eighty percent of these miles fall under the purview of States.  That’s an impressive figure, and it underscores the importance of our collaboration.  

In addition to a nationwide pipeline safety responsibility, PHMSA, an agency comprising just under 600 employees, also regulates the 1.2 million daily shipments of hazardous materials that move by air, water, rail, and highway.  That’s about 14 hazmat shipments every second of every day.  

These figures represent the scope of PHMSA’s work during normal times, but let’s put that in context with the difficult circumstances of the past six months.  Our nation’s transportation system has had to cope with unforeseen stresses, from the COVID-19 public health emergency, and more recently, the devastating impacts of Hurricane Laura – one of the most powerful storms of the year so far.

Not surprisingly, PHMSA, its state partners, and the pipeline industry were well prepared for Hurricane Laura.  Our collective and effective responses continues to be possible because of the important preplanning and ongoing communication that goes on among all stakeholders.  

In this regard, I’d like to specifically thank Steve Giambrone, the Pipeline Division Director at the State of Louisiana, for all the work that helped to ensure continued safety.  Today, we continue to wish him well, as we also do for those focused on pipeline safety in Mississippi and Alabama as they deal with the impacts of Hurricane Sally. 

Let’s look now to the other, ongoing difficult circumstance – the national COVID-19 public health emergency.  

States have continued their pipeline safety oversight despite COVID-19 setbacks, reaching out to operators remotely, and conducting critical construction inspections while taking all necessary health precautions.  I’d like to take this moment to acknowledge your collective resilience and perseverance. 

Among many other actions taken, States have implemented teleworking to provide business continuity, and, have continued to investigate incidents and corrective actions to assure pipeline safety as the health emergency continues.  At the same time, States have worked with operators to implement stays of enforcement for regulations which could not be complied with due to the issues related to this health emergency.

For its part, PHMSA has worked to find creative ways to continue its safety operations. While COVID-19 forced us to cancel in-person classes at PHMSA’s Training and Qualifications Center, it did not dampen our training and Qualification Division’s spirit and drive to teach. 

Training continued virtually for our federal and state inspectors, covering critical safety.  To date, more than 400 students have attended 16 courses delivered online.  

Since the onset of the pandemic, PHMSA’s State Programs Division has worked closely with you to conduct program evaluations, damage prevention enforcement reviews, as well as grant application reviews -- all of it remotely.  They’ve also held weekly calls with NAPSR to help address any State issues they can.   

Additionally, despite travel restrictions and social distancing challenges, our field staff continues to conduct their important safety work, including inspections, investigations and stakeholder outreach.  PHMSA inspectors adapted to the restricted conditions by leveraging technology to conduct virtual inspections.  Accident and incident investigations were adjusted similarly, although some investigators did deploy to significant incident sites when needed. 

I’m happy to share that an assessment of inspector performance criteria gathered through PHMSA’s new automated Work Management System revealed that PHMSA’s pipeline inspection workforce maintained its pace of inspections at the same level as those completed prior to the health emergency. 

But, while we’ve persevered through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual inspections are not the same as in-person inspections.  And, perhaps only time will tell how effective we’ve all been during the months when the pandemic controlled the quality of our lives and our work.

During the past six months, PHMSA’s also taken extraordinary policy actions to facilitate the safe operation of pipelines in response to the COVID public health emergency.  

For example, on March 20th, PHMSA issued a Stay of Enforcement to temporarily halt the enforcement of compliance with operator qualification, control room management, and employment drug testing requirements.   We also encouraged the States to consider suspending certain enforcement efforts in the interest of public and employee health while maintaining pipeline safety activities. 

On April 22nd, PHMSA published a Notice of Enforcement Discretion for certain requirements of our new Gas Transmission Pipeline Rule.

These actions were designed to safeguard the public and environment by providing operators with needed flexibility to perform critical pipeline operations and maintenance activities in a manner appropriate to the COVID-19 emergency.  Again, we appreciate working with you through these tough times.  

As we look ahead to a more normal future, the next point I’d like to discuss focuses on the promulgation of needed and sensible regulations. We’ve made a great deal of progress in this important area of our safety mission.  

Over the last 4 years, PHMSA’s updated regulations to account for newer technologies, implemented the President’s regulatory reform agenda, and supported pipeline operators by helping them place resources where they’re most effective for safety.  

Since the last NAPSR meeting, we’ve taken forward-leaning actions to help ensure pipeline operators invest in continuous improvements to pipeline safety and integrity management.  

It’s important to note that our rulemaking responsibilities have reached beyond just regulatory reform.   On one memorable day – October 19, 2019 – PHMSA published three major rules in a single day.

Each one closed an open Congressional mandate from the Pipeline Safety Act of 2011, as well as recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board. The gas transmission, hazardous liquid, and enhanced emergency order authority rules represent significant revisions to federal pipeline safety laws and improve the safety of our nation’s energy infrastructure. 

While we’ve made great progress, our work is not over.  As technology and the markets evolve, our safety programs must evolve with them.  This means constantly reviewing and updating our regulations to minimize regulatory burdens, improve safety, and encourage a strong safety culture.  

As I keep saying, pipeline safety is a shared responsibility.  Acknowledging the extent of the pipeline mileage falling under your purview, PHMSA is pleased to be able to provide its State partners a total of $61 million dollars in Pipeline State Base Formula Grants, an increase of almost $5 million dollars over last year.  PHMSA is also pleased to award $9 million dollars to support Underground Natural Gas Storage, Technical Assistance, One Call, and State Damage Prevention programs.

While PHMSA continues to advance pipeline safety through regulation, inspection, and enforcement, many of the root causes of incidents are best addressed through research and technological innovation.  

That’s why PHMSA intends to augment its current safety program by hosting pipeline research projects at DOT’s 52-square mile Transportation Technology Center (TTC) in Pueblo, Colorado, where we can more efficiently facilitate and encourage innovation, enhance pipeline safety, and establish a world-class pipeline safety research and testing site.

The proposed Research, Development, and Testing Facility will enable PHMSA to go from being a back-seat R&D supporter to a leader and active collaborator of innovation.  This initiative will enable PHMSA to initiate cooperative research with academic and private sector partners to further pipeline safety technology development and implementation. 

PHMSA’s confident that this research and testing facility can catalyze a transformational change in pipeline safety.  More importantly, it will accelerate our journey to zero incidents.  

PHMSA’s already utilizing the TTC to conduct fatigue testing on pipe transported by rail to help determine ways to reduce risks to pipeline integrity.  We’re also conducting research at the TTC to test and compare the load and stress effects on cased and uncased pipelines installed under railroad tracks to determine if casings are required.

We’re very excited about the prospects of our R&D at the Transportation Technology Center.  The site will support the development of new technologies and advance stakeholder knowledge related to a wide range of pipeline safety issues.

I’d like to now discuss a matter that is of vital importance to PHMSA and our nation’s pipeline safety.  As most of you know, the House and Senate have continued to deliberate on a bill to reauthorize PHMSA’s Pipeline Safety Program.  Our pipeline safety program’s prior authorization lapsed in September of last year, and it’s crucial that Congress moves a bipartisan plan forward.  

Please know that we will continue to work with Congress to obtain a pipeline safety reauthorization bill that will continue to encourage innovation, greater stakeholder collaboration, and updated practices to prevent future incidents.

In the three years that I’ve been at the helm of PHMSA, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with many people who share an inspiring commitment and dedication to safety – not only in PHMSA, but throughout the larger community at gatherings like this one.

I’m always most comfortable when I’m able to get into the field, where I can see first-hand safety in action.  And I always return a bit rejuvenated, as I draw inspiration from what I see from the people who go to work every day and make safety happen. I look forward to getting out there once again when things are more normal.  

So, thank you again for the opportunity to share some of my observations with you today.  We appreciate our strong partnership in pipeline safety with NAPSR and commend everyone here for their commitment to what really matters – public safety and the protection of our environment.

Last updated: Tuesday, September 15, 2020