OPINION

PHMSA Proposal Essential to Pipeline, Worker Safety

It is undeniable that the U.S. energy revolution is benefiting workers along the natural gas and oil supply chain as well as consumers across America. We all rely upon affordable, American-made petroleum products to fuel our cars, heat our homes and power our modern lives. 

Less obvious, though, is the essential and unseen role that pipelines play in enabling the economic and environmental progress associated with our growth in domestic energy production.

Over the last five years, as our domestic energy production has grown, so has the nation’s pipeline network. U.S. pipeline mileage increased by 12 percent to accommodate rising output, and total crude oil and petroleum products delivered by pipeline have increased by more than 6.5 billion barrels. At the same time, pipeline incidents impacting communities or the environment are down by 21 percent, and pipelines remain the safest way to transport energy for everyday use. 

Employment in the sector has also grown to meet this increased production. In January, employment in the oil and gas pipeline sector hit an all-time high, growing more than 40 percent in the previous five years. Our two unions and our employers invest millions of dollars every year to ensure that our members are the safest, most productive workers building and maintaining pipeline in the industry, and we have been doing so for generations. 

In fact, the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters created the first registered apprenticeship program in the United States. Each year, the UA spends over $250 million in training alone at cutting-edge facilities that many would expect to see at a leading college or university. 

Last year, the International Union of Operating Engineers christened a 265-acre, state-of-the-art training facility in Crosby, Texas, for its members across North America. In its first year of operation, the International Training and Education Center trained nearly 6,000 IUOE members at the facility, which also serves as the new home for the union’s national pipeline training program. 

Safety is the top priority for the builders, owners and operators of oil and gas pipelines. Every day, our unions are improving our capacity to meet the needs of the sector and its changing technology. It is critical that the country’s legal and regulatory framework keeps pace. The Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s Pipeline Safety Reauthorization proposal serves as an example of legislation that addresses the interests — and promotes the best practices — of both industry and government. 

By updating regulations that reflect 21st-century construction techniques, this proposal would provide pipeline operators with the flexibility to use advanced technologies to manage risks and allocate resources, resulting in safer and more productive workplaces for thousands of American workers. Reauthorizing this safety program would also secure existing pipelines, protect dedicated craftworkers and first responders and safeguard neighboring communities. 

American pipeline operators already employ cutting-edge technologies to enhance the efficiency of their processes. State-of-the-art data modeling allows scientists and engineers to assess pipeline infrastructure in real time, making necessary adjustments to the flow of energy products instantaneously. In addition, unmanned aircraft systems and “smart pig” inspection tools, such as ultrasonic and magnetic flux technologies, are improving predictive capabilities for leak detection and material repairs. 

Operators also adhere to a series of industrywide recommended practices and safety standards. These standards drive the best practices for managing the nation’s pipeline infrastructure. 

Strong partnerships between construction unions and pipeline contractors have modernized and expanded pipeline training programs to maximize safety for operating engineers and pipefitters as we deliver an essential element of modern life: fossil fuel products. Now we need Congress to do its part and modernize the pipeline safety law. 

While federal statutes prohibit damage or destruction to interstate pipeline infrastructure, these actions can lead to dangerous consequences for pipeline workers, local residents and the environment. Recently, activist tactics have become increasingly brazen in an effort to halt pipeline development projects. 

These tactics rightfully draw the scorn of political observers on all sides of the energy debate.  However, it needs to be recognized that these actions are not simply a form of political expression, but rather a serious violation of criminal law. 

The penalties associated with these actions should take into account the risk to workers, communities and the environment. This criminal behavior undermines the efforts of workers, contractors and owners that have committed themselves to build and maintain the safest pipeline network in the world, using the latest technology, techniques and best practices. 

State legislatures have streamlined statutes that enhance safe operations and protect the environment. Congress should do the same. Congress should approve PHMSA’s Pipeline Safety Reauthorization proposal, which will update and modernize the nation’s legal framework for this growing, safe and essential energy infrastructure. 

Pipelines — and the tradespeople who build, operate and repair them — are an integral part of America’s energy supply chain, and their proper upkeep is essential to bettering the workplaces of our members and advancing the 21st-century energy economy.

 

James T. Callahan is general president of the International Union of Operating Engineers. Mark McManus is general president of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters. Together, the unions represent nearly 800,000 workers and both are signatory to the National Pipeline Agreement.

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