Billings Gazette: New federal pipeline law influenced by Yellowstone River oil disasters

Two Yellowstone River oil spills have reshaped national pipeline safety laws signed Wednesday by President Barack Obama.

The PIPES Act sets pipeline law and reauthorizes the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The law addresses two of Montana’s worst oil spills: the July 1, 2011, Silvertip Pipeline spill into the Yellowstone River near Laurel and the Jan. 17, 2015, oil spill into the Yellowstone River upstream from Glendive.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines carried PIPES Act in the Senate.

For the first time, pipeline companies will be required to have plans in place for dealing with oil disasters trapped beneath the ice. In January 2015, a Bridger Pipeline rupture beneath the frozen Yellowstone Riverdumped up to 50,400 gallons of Bakken crude into the river. Very little of the oil was recovered before the ice broke up and spring flows washed the oil downstream. The cancer-causing chemical benzene was released from the spill, contaminating the Glendive water supply.

“There are some incremental improvements. There are clarifications, like the ice section and calling the Great Lakes a high-consequence area,” said Rebecca Craven, of Pipeline Safety Trust, government watchdog based in Puget Sound.

Bridger Pipeline’s corporate parent True Oil of Wyoming had no plan for cleaning up ice beneath the frozen Yellowstone. The lack of preparedness can’t necessarily be pinned on federal law, because companies are required to have plans for adverse conditions, Craven said. But new language specifically states an ice plan is required.

For the first time, PHMSA will have the ability to issue an emergency order to all pipeline companies when it observes a problem with a particular pipeline that could be dangerous for all. In the past, regulators could issue an order only to a particular violator.

That new authority is significant, Craven said. In theory, when confronted by shallow pipeline left bare by river scouring, PHMSA could order all pipelines to be buried deeper.

In both the Glendive pipeline break and the pipeline break downstream from Laurel, the pipes were found exposed and broken on the river bottom, though pipeline owners True and Exxon had both reported their pipelines to be safely buried.

Exxon’s Silvertip Pipeline dumped 63,000 gallons into a runoff-swollen Yellowstone, killing wildlife and fouling river banks for 70 miles. No significant amount of oil was recovered. Exxon paid a $1 million fine for the disaster.

“In both of those cases, the rules currently required the operators to be aware and plan for any threats to their system,” Craven said. “So, If you’re in a situation like a very active fluvial system like the Yellowstone, whether its ice or bedload sediment moving, those are risks to those lines.”

Daines pointed to several sections of the bill that would require pipeline companies and the federal government to do more. The Government Accountability Office is required to report on the way companies manage hazardous liquid in high consequence areas, including water crossings. Pipeline age is among the things GAO is to investigate. Better monitoring during flooding is also required.

The Silvertip and Bridger pipeline breaks were the reasons behind the required report.

Montana has more than three dozen river crossings where pipelines are a concern. Many of those pipelines were re-bored to 35 feet beneath riverbeds after the Bridger Pipeline disaster.

Earlier, PHMSA was required to issue new regulations for leak detection and for automatic shutoff valves. A far away shutoff valve was partially blamed for the volume of the Silvertip oil spill.

The bill passed out of the Senate and House with strong support.

“A safe, secure and efficient pipeline infrastructure is critical for energy security, creating and maintaining jobs and providing safeguards to protect the environment,” Daines said in a press release last week when the bill was sent to President Obama.