On January 23, 2013, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) released a report concluding that the Department of Transportation’s (“DOT”) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (“PHMSA”) should implement various recommendations that the GAO believes will help mitigate the consequences of pipeline failures.  The recommendations include: (1) improving incident response data in order to consider implementing a performance-based approach for incident response times; and (2) sharing guidance and information to help operators decide whether to install automated valves.

GAO’s report was conducted pursuant to the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certain, and Job Creation Act of 2011.  The GAO spoke with various operators and studied prior incidents to determine: (1) how pipeline operators can improve their response to incidents; and (2) the advantages and disadvantages of installing automated valves in highly populated and environmentally sensitive areas.

The first recommendation that the GAO made was to improve the reliability of incident response data and use that data to decide whether to implement a performance-based framework for incident response times.  The GAO noted in its report that while the PHMSA currently collects data related to incident response times, it does not accurately identify the response times.  The GAO concluded that the current data regarding response times is unreliable because operators are not required to report the time and date when the incident was identified, when resources arrived on site, or when the pipeline was shut down or restarted, all of which leads to an inconsistent interpretation of response times.

With regard to its second recommendation, the GAO noted that while PHMSA currently operates a variety of information-sharing activities, it does not collect or share information that other operators use when deciding whether to install automated valves.  The GAO noted in the report that automated valves decrease response time to an incident.  As such, the GAO stated that while automated valves cannot reduce the initial effects of an incident, they can mitigate the secondary effects.  In addition to highlighting the advantages of automated valves, the GAO also noted that automated valves can have extensive installation costs and can sometimes result in accidental closures.  Since the decision to install automated valves should be done on a case-by-case basis, the GAO concluded that this type of information should be shared with operators in order to assist them in determining whether automated valves are the best option for meeting a performance-based incident response goal.

The GAO provided the DOT with a copy of the report for review and comment.  The DOT made no comments and agreed to consider the recommendations.

A copy of the GAO’s report is available here.