No Limits on Pipeline Location, No Inspection

January 31, 2015

WHEELING - Monday's natural gas pipeline explosion in Brooke County led to the evacuation of two homes, with the flames' heat buckling siding on one of the structures.

In West Virginia, state law mandates that the actual natural gas wells be a minimum of 625 feet from a residence. But when it comes to the pipelines that transport natural gas, there is no such distance regulation.

West Virginia and Ohio environmental officials said most pipelines carrying natural gas to and from well sites, compressor stations or processing plants will not be regulated much at all once they enter service.

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When it comes to transport pipelines, there are two types - interstate, which run from one state to the next and are overseen by federal regulatory officials, and intrastate, which are pipelines that run within the confines of a state and are regulated by state agencies.

In West Virginia, regulation of intrastate pipelines falls to the state Public Service Commission. In Ohio, that agency is the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

West Virginia PSC spokeswoman Susan Small said the vast majority of Mountain State pipelines fall into what's known as "Class One," which means there are 10 or fewer occupied buildings within 220 yards on any side of the pipeline. This describes rural areas, home to most of the pipelines.

Small said the PSC does not regulate Class One pipelines, many of which connect natural gas wells to compressor stations and processing plants. Upon leaving the plant, the gas often enters a larger "transmission" pipeline, over which state regulators have authority to enforce federal regulations.

"We don't walk the line. We would inspect the company's records to make sure they adhere to federal regulations," she said, noting those regulations are established by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"It all comes down to PHMSA," Small added.

For interstate pipelines - such as the the ATEX Express ethane pipeline that ruptured and exploded Monday in Brooke County - PHMSA inspects problems with the line. PHMSA is the federal agency investigating the ATEX pipeline rupture.

Just where gas lines can be located - no matter their size - remains up to the homeowner and the company running the pipeline.

"We have no siting authority," Small said when asked about the locations of pipelines. "The right-of-way agreement is between the property owner and the company. Even if the landowner sells the property, the agreement stays in place."

In Ohio, the PUCO oversees pipelines that do not exceed state boundaries. Commission spokesman Matt Schilling said state sees a similar situation to West Virginia's.

"There is no specific setback for a pipeline. The lines need to reach the buildings they serve," he said. "We basically audit the company's inspections of itself. We make sure they do what they say they do."

Having pipelines near homes is unavoidable. However, landowners will have some discretion about how close larger lines can be.

"I wouldn't think you would want to put a high-pressure pipeline right next to a house," Corky Demarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said when asked about pipelines being located close to homes. "And if you get natural gas at your house, a pipeline has to take it there."

Demarco said the amount of pressure on lines close to homes will not be anywhere near what it is on an interstate pipeline.

R. Dennis Xander, past president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said some new property owners start building before they know where pipelines are.

"What I have seen happen frequently is that after a pipeline is built, some landowner builds next to a line. In West Virginia, there are limits as to how close I can drill a well to a structure. However, there are no limits as to how close someone can build to one of my wells," Xander said.



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