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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

Interpretation Response #PI-23-0017

Below is the interpretation response detail and a list of regulations sections applicable to this response.

Interpretation Response Details

Response Publish Date:

Company Name: US Bureau of Land Management

Individual Name: Ms. Melanie Barnes

Location State: NM Country: US

View the Interpretation Document

Response text:

Ms. Melanie Barnes
State Director, New Mexico
US Bureau of Land Management
301 Dinosaur Trail
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87508

Dear Ms. Barnes:

In a letter to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) dated October 4, 2023 [Reference No.: 3745(0060/910)], you requested PHMSA provide a written response to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with respect to PHMSA's potential oversight of the Federal Helium System. Specifically, PHMSA evaluated whether the helium pipeline falls within the scope of the gas pipeline safety regulations at 49 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) § 192.1.

As stated in your letter, BLM has been working with the General Services Administration (GSA) to dispose of all facilities, equipment, and other real and personal property, and all interests in the same, held by the United States in the Federal Helium System. During the transition from government to private ownership there is a potential for regulating bodies to provide oversight within their jurisdiction. BLM is requesting information on the potential oversight by regulating bodies to provide open, transparent, and advanced knowledge of all aspects of future ownership to potential buyers, the Congress, and taxpayers.

Background

Your letter provides the following information regarding the Federal Helium System (System). The System is located near Amarillo, Texas and includes a helium storage reservoir, enrichment plant, helium pipeline (also referred to as the Federal Helium Pipeline), and other infrastructure owned, leased, and managed under contract by the Secretary of the Interior for the storage, transportation, withdrawal, enrichment, purification, or management of helium.

The System supplies crude helium to private helium refining companies, which in turn refine the helium and market it to consumers. It also stores privately owned crude helium gas within the helium reservoir that must be delivered to its owners under contractual agreements. The helium pipeline has been in service since the early 1960s and transports a mixture of 75 percent helium and 25 percent nitrogen gas from the helium enrichment plant to a private processing facility in Bushton, Kansas, along with other customers on its route. The helium pipeline operates between 600 and 1500 pound per square inch (psi) and has a maximum allowable operating pressure of 1800 psi.

You described the helium pipe material as coal tar-asbestos coated, carbon steel mains. You stated that the pipeline is approximately 425 miles in total length with the following segments:

  • 187.5 miles of 8-inch diameter pipe;
     
  • 227 miles of 4-inch diameter pipe; and
     
  • 12 miles of 3-inch diameter pipe.

You mentioned that the helium pipeline was designed and constructed in accordance with the ASME/ANSI B31.8 standard. While presently used to transport helium, you noted it could be suitable for conversion to a "gas transmission" pipeline system without significant modification. You also provided certain design, welding, and valve specifications for the helium pipeline system.

You asked PHMSA the following questions, and PHMSA's response follows each question.

Question 1: Given all information provided here and in the reading room, does PHMSA have any regulatory oversight to any portion of the Federal Helium System? If so, can you please provide in detail to what extent and for which corresponding portion of the Federal Helium System?

Response to 1: The Federal pipeline safety regulations are applicable to the transportation of gas by pipeline facility operators. The gas pipeline safety regulations in 49 CFR Parts 191 and 192 define gas to mean "natural gas, flammable gas, or gas which is toxic or corrosive." Helium is an inert, non-flammable, non-toxic, non-corrosive noble gas. Nitrogen is an inert, non-flammable, non-toxic, non-corrosive gas. Therefore, based on the regulatory definition of "gas," PHMSA would not apply or enforce the pipeline safety regulations against an operator of the helium pipeline you described with the composition of 75 percent helium and 25 percent nitrogen gas.

You mentioned in your letter that the helium pipeline was designed and constructed to specifications such that it would be suitable for conversion and use as a "gas transmission" pipeline. If the pipeline is intentionally converted for use in the transportation of a regulated "gas," or the gas stream composition changes such that it meets the definition of a regulated "gas," including but not limited to methane or natural gas, the pipeline would likely fall under the Federal pipeline safety regulations in 49 CFR Part 192, including requirements for conversion to service at 49 CFR § 192.14. A conversion to service would only be required if the pipeline transports a regulated product.

Question 2: Should the Federal Helium System ownership be transferred/sold to a private entity will PHMSA still provide regulatory oversight to the Federal Helium System? If so, can you please provide in detail to what extent for which corresponding portion of the Federal Helium system?

Response to 2: For the reasons articulated above in the Response to Question 1, PHMSA would not apply or enforce the pipeline safety regulations against the Federal Helium Pipeline because it is not engaged in the transportation of a regulated "gas."

Question 3: Should PHMSA become/maintain regulating authority over any portion of the Federal Helium System how long will the new purchaser/owner be initially given to safely bring the current Federal Helium System to the regulating standard?

Response to 3: For the reasons articulated above in the Response to Question 1, PHMSA would not apply or enforce the pipeline safety regulations against the Federal Helium Pipeline because it is not engaged in the transportation of a regulated "gas."

PHMSA would encourage the new purchaser/owner to communicate early-on with PHMSA regarding any future plans to convert the helium pipeline to a regulated gas transmission pipeline in compliance with the Federal pipeline safety regulations.

If we can be of further assistance, please contact Tewabe Asebe at 202-366-5523.

Sincerely,

John A. Gale
Director, Office of Standards
and Rulemaking

Regulation Sections

Section Subject
192.1 What is the scope of this part?