In a Federal Register notice made public August 15, 2016, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (“PHMSA”) issued an advisory bulletin to “all owners and operators . . . of hazardous liquid, carbon dioxide, and gas pipelines, as defined in 49 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 192 and 195” clarifying how pipelines that are no longer in use should be treated. The full text of the bulletin is available here. PHMSA indicated that this advisory is necessary because improperly abandoned pipelines have resulted in pipeline incidents nationwide.

According to PHMSA, pipelines not currently in operation but that are considered to have the potential for reuse at some point in the future are sometimes informally referred to as “idled,” “inactive,” or “decommissioned.” Some pipeline owners idle unused pipelines they plan to place in service in the future by simply closing valves, and so these pipelines still contain hazardous liquids or gas. PHMSA explained that “PHMSA regulations do not recognize an ‘idle’ status for hazardous liquid or gas pipeline.” If a pipeline is not properly abandoned and may be used for the future, PHMSA regulations consider it an active pipeline. Owners and operators of pipelines that are not operating but contain hazardous liquids or gas must comply with all relevant safety requirements, including periodic maintenance, integrity management assessments, damage prevention programs, and public awareness programs.

Likewise, owners and operators intending to abandon a pipeline – PHMSA regulations define the term “abandoned” to mean permanently removed from service – need to fully comply with requirements for properly abandoning a pipeline. The process and requirements for pipeline abandonment are found in 49 C.F.R. §§ 192.727 and 195.402(c)(10) for gas and hazardous liquid pipelines, respectively. These requirements include purging all combustibles and sealing any facilities left in place.

The bulletin also clarified that some owners and operators may properly purge a pipeline of combustibles without abandonment because of an expectation to later continue using the pipeline. The agency stated that it will accept deferral of certain activities, which might include actions impractical on most purged pipelines such as in-line inspection. PHMSA is currently considering procedures that would address methods owners or operators could use to notify regulators of purged but active pipelines. In the interim, owners or operators planning to defer certain activities for purged pipelines should coordinate the deferral in advance with regulators. All deferred activities must be completed prior to, or as part, of any later return-to-service.

PHMSA is aware that some pipelines may have been abandoned prior to the effective date of the abandonment regulations, and that companies may not have access to records of pipeline locations or whether they were properly purged of combustibles and sealed. Nonetheless, PHMSA stated that owners and operators have a responsibility to assure facilities for which they are responsible do not present a hazard. Regardless of the status of a pipeline, the agency noted, “[p]ipeline owners and operators are fully responsible for the safety of their pipeline facilities at all times and during all operational statuses.”