NSPE’s Work Continues on Pipeline Safety

November/December 2019

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
NSPE’s Work Continues on Pipeline Safety

BY STEPHANIE HAMILTON

NTSB CHAIRMAN ROBERT SUMWALTNTSB CHAIRMAN ROBERT SUMWALT BRIEFS MEDIA AFTER THE SEPTEMBER 2018 PIPELINE EXPLOSION IN MASSACHUSSETTS.

On PE Day, NSPE members across the country met with elected officials and their staff to talk about pipeline safety in the wake of last year’s fatal explosion in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts. Two months later, work on pipeline safety continues, and there have been some positive developments, but there is still work to be done.

On September 24, the National Transportation Safety Board met to discuss its investigation into the Merrimack Valley explosion. Over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour meeting, the board discussed, in detail, the events leading up to, and consequences of, the explosion. NTSB staff chastised Columbia Gas for failing to conduct an adequate risk assessment. “[T]here was a risk and it’s a known risk within the industry that a pipe replacement project can result in a catastrophic incident,” said Robert Hall, NTSB director of the Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations.

At the end, the board unanimously proposed and adopted 14 findings, including that Columbia Gas’ “constructability review process was not sufficiently robust,” resulting in catastrophic omissions that went undetected.

Of equal importance, the NTSB found that “requiring a licensed professional engineer to stamp plans would illustrate that the plans had been approved by an accredited professional with the requisite skills, knowledge, and experience to provide a comprehensive review.” Additionally, the board unanimously approved a recommendation calling for all 31 states that have an engineering license exemption for public gas utilities to eliminate that exemption and require a professional engineer to approve all future natural gas infrastructure projects.

NTSB’s acknowledgement of the importance of licensure is a big win for NSPE, its members, and the profession. It’s a clear recognition from a top safety organization that the profession’s rigorous education, testing, and experience requirements do in fact protect the public health, safety, and welfare. NSPE is grateful to have had the opportunity to educate NTSB staff on the value of licensure and its role in protecting the public.

Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t appear to be listening. Despite our best efforts to advance a bill (S. 1097) to end the licensing exemption for gas utility pipelines, legislators had other priorities. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, the bill’s author and primary sponsor, recently agreed to remove the bill’s exemption provision in order to roll the remaining language into a larger pipeline safety bill (S. 2299). Markey’s staff indicated to NSPE that the provision was removed in an attempt to gain bipartisan support for the larger bill; some lawmakers consider the licensing requirement an unnecessary burden on business.

Industry pushback regarding elimination of the exemption generally comes in two forms: 1) “There aren’t enough licensed engineers available to fulfill this requirement,” and 2) “We don’t want to be forced to get the approval of a professional engineer who has less knowledge of our system than the engineers who already work for us.”

Rather than debate the validity of these concerns, in our conversations with industry representatives and congressional staffers, we have suggested a simple solution—gas pipeline operators could begin encouraging (and even covering some of the cost for) their current engineers to become licensed.

To be clear, the language in S.1097 doesn’t require pipeline operators to employ licensed engineers; it simply requires them to have a professional engineer review pipeline construction and maintenance plans. But NSPE believes there’s also a common-sense and cost-effective way for pipeline operators to adhere to S.1097 language, were it to become law. Operators could simply identify existing employees who already meet most engineering license requirements (especially the education and work experience components, as they’re the most expensive and time-consuming), and work with them on taking the final steps to earn their license.

We agree with the American Gas Association’s statement that “a PE license by itself is not a substitute for industry-specific experience and first-hand knowledge needed to understand natural gas systems and make decisions related to public safety in this field.” That’s why NSPE has been advocating for existing gas utility pipeline engineers to become licensed. If the gas utility industry wants to provide guidance to gas pipeline operators and their employees on state engineering licensing requirements, NSPE would be pleased to provide assistance.

Stephanie Hamilton is NSPE’s manager of government relations and advocacy.