The problem, critics argue, is that today's gathering lines no longer match their old description. Driven in part by the rising demands of hydraulic fracturing, operators have built thousands of miles of new lines to transport gas from fracked wells. Despite the fact that these lines are often just as wide as transmission lines (some up to 2 feet in diameter) and can operate under the same high pressures, they receive little oversight.
Operators use a risk-based system to maintain their pipelines – instead of treating all pipelines equally, they focus safety efforts on the lines deemed most risky, and those that would cause the most harm if they failed. The problem is that each company use different criteria, so "it's a nightmare for regulators," Weimer said.
However, Andrew Black, the president of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, a trade group whose members include pipeline operators, said that a one-size-fits-all approach would actually make pipelines less safe, because operators (not to mention pipelines) differ so widely.
"Different operators use different pipe components, using different construction techniques, carrying different materials over different terrains," he said. Allowing operators to develop their own strategies for each pipeline is critical to properly maintaining its safety, he contended.
Limited Resources Leave Inspections to Industry
Critics say that PHMSA lacks the resources to adequately monitor the millions of miles of pipelines over which it does have authority. The agency has funding for only 137 inspectors, and often employs even less than that (in 2010 the agency had 110 inspectors on staff). A Congressional Research Service report found a "long-term pattern of understaffing" in the agency's pipeline safety program. According to the report, between 2001 and 2009 the agency reported a staffing shortfall of an average of 24 employees a year.
A New York Times investigation last year found that the agency is chronically short of inspectors because it just doesn't have enough money to hire more, possibly due to competition from the pipeline companies themselves, who often hire away PHMSA inspectors for their corporate safety programs, according to the CRS.
Given the limitations of government money and personnel, it is often the industry that inspects its own pipelines. Although federal and state inspectors review paperwork and conduct audits, most on-site pipeline inspections are done by inspectors on the company's dime.
The industry's relationship with PHMSA may go further than inspections, critics say. The agency has adopted, at least in part, dozens of safety standards written by the oil and natural gas industry.
"This isn't like the fox guarding the hen house," said Weimer. "It's like the fox designing the hen house."
Operators point out that defining their own standards allows the inspection system to tap into real-world expertise. Adopted standards go through a rulemaking process that gives stakeholders and the public a chance to comment and suggest changes, according to the agency.
Questions have also been raised about the ties between agency officials and the companies they regulate. Before joining the agency in 2009, PHMSA administrator Cynthia Quarterman worked as a legal counsel for Enbridge Energy, the operator involved in the Kalamazoo River accident. But under her leadership, the agency has also brought a record number of enforcement cases against operators, and imposed the highest civil penalty in the agency's history on the company she once represented.