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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Remarks of Acting Administrator Tristan Brown at API's Midstream Committee Meeting

May 26, 2021


Good morning.  Thanks for that kind introduction and thank you to the Committee for the opportunity to speak today about 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 cyber-attack—involving the Colonial Pipeline system.

As many of you 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 and the 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 some of the immediate supply issues—as well as reviewed plans to get the full system back up and running. None of this had ever been done before on the scale that was necessary at the time.  

Following the Colonial incident, President Biden 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, and strengthening the United States’ ability to respond to incidents when they occur.  

This problem is not one that will be solved unless the public and private sector work together.  And it is one the American people expect action on from the public and the private sectors. In the days and weeks ahead, we look forward to working with you to help strengthen your operations and reduce risks from cyber threats.

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 it, to ensure our investments provide lasting benefits. As Secretary Buttigieg and the President have been saying for a long time now, we need to invest in our infrastructure to ensure greater resiliency across the board—including from cyber-attacks.

When I visited with API in conjunction with AOPL last month, I noted I like to give the bottom line up front, or the “BLUF.” So here it is.

  • Safety is always our #1 priority, and the entire industry should be continuously working towards zero pipeline and hazardous material releases.  
  • Safety can and should be an area of collaboration—particularly with respect to safety management system (SMS) adoption.
  • It is our responsibility to work together to address greenhouse gas emissions, reduce leaks and spills, and advance environmental justice. 

As we work to rebuild our economy, we must ensure equitable decision making by expanding stakeholder engagement to ensure all voices are heard, and we must seek to position our industry for the future by upgrading systems to support renewable energy initiatives. 

When we discuss safety as a top priority, we have to include the development and implementation of Pipeline Safety Management Systems.  PHMSA believes that one way to continuously improve pipeline safety is the adoption of a robust SMS, underpinned by a strong safety culture, by every pipeline operator.  The SMS framework should be built into all processes of the companies involved, from the time a pipeline is designed, and on through start up, operation, maintenance, and even abandonment.  

It has been six years since API’s RP 1173 was issued, and many of you have done a good job urging your colleagues to start the journey – but too many companies have not.  Other companies may give it lip service, not understanding that SMS is only effective to the extent that leadership understands and embraces the concepts.

As this group knows, 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 Marshall, Michigan; Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts; Huntersville, North Carolina; and others—where preventable mistakes metastasized through the system and ultimately led to human and environmental tragedies.  Although there may not be a single silver bullet, we know that a sound integrity management plan combined with a solid SMS can prevent harmful incidents like we have seen at Refugio Beach, California, and recently in Linden, New Jersey.  

When I was working in the Senate, I had the opportunity to personally meet with the families of victims of the 737 MAX tragedy. That experience was seared into my memory.  This is particularly because some other industry representatives admitted that they were shocked that Boeing hadn’t implemented SMS prior to the 737 MAX disasters even though SMS had long been pushed in the aviation manufacturing and railroad industries.

The tragic incident in Merrimack Valley in 2018 almost resulted in an SMS mandate from Congress.  Industry should not wait for another tragedy to do the right thing here. 

As some of you may know, a provision of the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act of 2020 requires that PHMSA submit a report to Congress on the progress that gas distribution system operators have made in implementing SMS.  While the focus is on gas distribution because of Merrimack Valley, the industry as a whole is expected and encouraged to adopt a strong SMS framework and safety culture.

Progress on this will result in progress in dealing with one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced—a rapidly changing climate. 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 vastly more significant than carbon dioxide pollution.  The onshore oil and gas sector is the largest domestic industrial source of methane emissions.  

Last month, President Biden pledged a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  Contemporaneous new reports echo countless previous reports that have emphasized the threat that global climate change poses to our economy—is in the trillions of dollars.  As many of you know, the markets are increasingly baking climate change factors into financing decisions. Congress, for its part, undertook rare, bipartisan action to enact the PIPES Act last December—demanding progress in reducing methane emissions.

PHMSA is focused on implementing this directive as part of the Biden-Harris Administration whole-of-government approach to climate action. And we are focused on doing this while also promoting environmental justice.  

Keep in mind, the concept of an “acceptable level of release into the environment” is a long-outdated concept—for gas and for 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.

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.”  While this first effort is directed toward gas releases, similar concerns apply to liquid pipelines, and the message is clear.  The historical environmental costs of doing business are no longer acceptable, and that means we will need to change how we think about doing business. 

Many of you are aware that PHMSA recently held a workshop as a first step towards meeting one of the congressional mandates in the PIPES Act.  The meeting enabled us to gather information and feedback from the public, industry, other government agencies, the technology sector, and other stakeholders.  The focus was on what PHMSA should consider while we evaluate efforts to advance safety and reduce methane emission from the jurisdictional pipeline infrastructure through leak detection, quantification, evaluation, and mitigation.  

Those of you that participated in the workshop will note that we specifically brought in representatives from various stakeholder groups.  That’s because we are considering how our rulemakings and agency decisions affect traditional stakeholders but also underrepresented communities.  This whole-of-agency approach to environmental justice is something that many other agencies and departments are focused on, and we welcome input on how we can do this efficiently and effectively.  

We know, for example, that much of our Nation’s aging—and higher risk—infrastructure is located close to minority and low-income populations.  And this infrastructure often has disproportionately high and adverse effects on human health, safety, and the environment.  

So, we are committed to continuing the push to upgrade, replace, and repair aging, high-risk infrastructure.  Regarding the larger PHMSA oversight program,

  • We continue to focus on how operators implement pipeline integrity management, as we have seen that issues remain with operators not implementing the program in a way it was intended; 
  • We consistently promote industry efforts to improve methods to identify and address slow leaks beyond the current physical detection limits.  We will use all available means, in addition to investing in research to address this area; and 
  • In addition to our work to enable current infrastructure to continue to safely supply energy to the public, we seek to position America to adopt the infrastructure of the future.  This includes upgrading systems to transport hydrogen and other renewables, which will support the Administration’s climate and job creation priorities. 

As I wrap up, I know there is always interest in PHMSA’s regulatory agenda and rulemaking efforts.  Congress has made sure our regulatory plate is full and our team has been very busy trying to advance the final rule for rupture detection and valve installation – a subject that I am sure we are all interested to see completed.  

We’re also looking at research and technology in the areas of leak detection, quantification, evaluation, and mitigation.  Although initial efforts may be focused on gas, improvement in detection of liquid releases is desperately needed as well.  Expect to hear more on these efforts soon. 

Thank you all for your time today, and I look forward to continuing the work that PHMSA and this committee are doing to move pipeline safety forward.



Last updated: Wednesday, May 26, 2021