Pipeline Regulator Cutting Its Staff By 9 Percent Despite An Increase In Pipeline Spills In 2013

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The U.S. agency in charge of regulating pipelines and oil-shipping rail cars could shrink its staff by 9 percent by mid-June, if employees accept the buyouts the agency is offering them.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is offering buyouts to 33 employees on top of the 13 buyouts it offered at the end of last year, InsideClimate News reports. If all the employees accept their buyouts, the agency would experience a net loss of 40 workers (it hired six recently).

A PHMSA spokesman told InsideClimate News that the agency would continue to hire in other key areas, and that the buyouts were done to help manage the agency’s workforce in areas where a large percentage of workers are eligible for retirement. But some pipeline safety advocates are worried that, in this period of surging oil-by-rail activity and blossoming pipeline networks across the U.S., a smaller PHMSA could be bad news for fossil fuel transport safety.

“It seems like a lot of people … [and] an inopportune time,” Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust and a member of a PHMSA committee said. “They have all these Congressional mandates, they have all these requests from [the National Transportation Safety Board] to fix things, there’s been a series of incidents that they’re trying to investigate, and they’re even saying out loud how they don’t have enough inspectors and how they would like to do more.”

The buyouts come after the PHMSA warned last year that it was losing power over the pipelines and rail it oversees. Jeffrey Wiese, associate administrator for pipeline safety at PHMSA, said in September that his agency has “very few tools to work with” to enforce safety on pipelines and rail and that the entire regulatory process PHMSA is engaged in is “kind of dying.”

“Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty? No,” Wiese said.

PHMSA’s current staff is dwarfed by the sheer length of pipeline it’s meant to oversee: 135 federal inspectors and 375 state partners are in charge of regulating 2.6 million miles of pipeline across the U.S. and the nearly 3,000 companies who operate the pipelines. That pipeline mileage is only increasing — multiple pipelines are being proposed and approved in the U.S., many of which are required to go through a less stringent approval process than Keystone XL, since they don’t cross state borders. Weimer told ThinkProgress in March that it’s not just new pipelines that pose a safety issue, either — it’s the old pipelines, some of which have been in the ground for decades, that companies are updating by expanding or reversing their flow.

The pipeline agency is also shrinking its staff at a time when spill detection remains a problem for pipeline operators. A PHMSA-commissioned report found the majority of pipeline operators don’t want to upgrade their spill detection technology because they were afraid it would lead to more false alarms and higher costs. That reluctance persists in spite of the fact that, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation, it’s people who usually discover pipeline spills, not the pipeline’s leak detection equipment.

Last year was an active one for spills in the U.S., adding to critics’ fears about PHMSA’s recent cuts. More than 120,353 barrels of hazardous liquids, including crude oil and other petroleum products, spilled in 622 incidents in 2013, more than double the 45,934 barrels spilled in 570 incidents in 2012.