Apr 21 4:36 PM

Gas and oil pipelines regulated by absentee agency

Pipeline accidents, like this deadly one in San Bruno, Calif. in 2010, have become more frequent, but actions against pipeline companies less so.
Paul Sakuma / AP

Who watches the nation’s vast and rapidly expanding network of gas and oil pipelines? Pretty much no one, it seems.

OK, that is not exactly true. The United States has the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which is nominally the regulatory body for interstate pipelines, but according to a story published today in Politico, the name might sound willing, but the body is weak.

“There is nowhere today the sense that the Office of Pipeline Safety is in charge,” remarked then-NTSB Chairman Jim Hall about a 1999 accident, and, as Politico tells it, that is still the story today.

There are many ways to illustrate the point, and Politico explores several, but some cold, hard figures toward the end of the piece paint a stark picture: “PHMSA started fewer civil penalty cases in 2014 than it had in almost a decade and proposed 73 percent fewer fines than a year earlier, even as the number of total pipeline incidents increased, agency records show.”

More incidents, fewer cases, fewer fines. And as detailed, the fines that are assessed start small and get smaller. “Companies often fight PHMSA’s penalties in proceedings that are closed to the public,” Politico reports.

Between 2002 and 2014, total damage from pipeline accidents reached $5.58 billion. Against that, the government collected $44.2 million in penalties — or well under 1 percent of the harm — according to PHMSA figures.

But fines are not just about recompense; they are about regulation. With such paltry penalties, the oil and gas industry, which has seen healthy profits in the fracking era, can easily chalk this up to the cost of doing business.

And what does such lax regulation look like? It sort of looks like January.


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter