Pipeline Safety in the Time of a Pandemic

June 4, 2020 | by Sara Gosman

The Debate over Risk

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the nation to confront difficult questions about risk. For example, how much do we need to know about risk before we can act? What level of risk is acceptable? And who should decide? Much of the current policy debate regarding COVID-19 has focused on the asserted tradeoff between protecting public health and ensuring a thriving economy. Some have argued that less stringent public health measures are necessary to avoid damage to the economy. But focusing on the economy only increases risks to the most vulnerable even as the nation fails to constrain the true source of the economic meltdown—the pandemic. Moreover, it can increase intersecting environmental, health, and safety risks.

Ensuring Pipeline Safety

Take, for example, the safety of energy pipelines. As the community of Mayflower discovered here in Arkansas, these pipelines can rupture and wreak havoc on the environment and human health. There are 2.8 million miles of underground pipelines that transport crude oil, natural gas, and petroleum products across the country—a transportation network surpassing the length of surface networks such as paved roadways, commercial waterways, or rail lines.

Federal pipeline safety regulators have responded to the pandemic by telling pipeline operators that certain regulatory requirements—such as using trained workers—will not be enforced if the operator is unable to comply because of limited resources. Citing personnel resource constraints, the regulators have also extended the deadline for gas pipeline operators to comply with important new safety requirements.

Because of the pandemic, pipeline operators certainly face significant resource constraints and the potential loss of trained workers. The oil and gas industry as a whole has been hit hard by the global drop in demand for fuel. As production slows to match demand, resource constraints are likely to tighten. But relying on operators to employ enough resources to make pipelines safe is itself a policy choice. I’ve previously argued that pipeline safety law relies too heavily on managing spills and releases after the pipeline is in the ground, rather than taking preventative approaches such as siting pipelines away from communities and sensitive environmental areas. The pandemic further exposes how tenuous the current approach to safety is.

Extending the deadline for operators to meet safety standards also demonstrates that regulators are all too eager to move the safety bar to respond to resource constraints. There is nothing to suggest that it is infeasible for operators to comply with the new safety requirements—only that it may be more difficult or expensive given the economic effects of the pandemic. As I’ve discussed before, pipeline safety law contains a unique cost-benefit requirement that slows regulation and makes it more difficult to address pipeline risks. This extension comes after almost nine years of rulemaking—a process slowed because of arguments about cost.

In the language of pipelines, the pandemic is a kind of stress test that helps us understand the integrity of the system. The preliminary data suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated existing flaws in pipeline safety law. To protect people and the environment—rather than operators’ bottom line—these flaws must be fixed.

Sara Gosman is an associate professor at the School of Law, where she teaches and conducts research in the areas of environmental and energy law.