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Brian Kalk, Published February 18 2014

Letter: New approach to safety of ND oil, gas pipelines

Most North Dakotans believe the development of our energy resources has been good for our state. Oil, coal, wind and natural gas, along with our booming agricultural sector, and the best workforce in America, have combined to make us the envy of the nation. Our entire state has prospered, but with every opportunity comes challenges.

One challenge is public safety, as it relates to the transportation and delivery of oil. Currently, we do not have adequate pipeline capacity, a situation that is exacerbated by the refusal of the administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. So, our producers have had to rely on rail transit to move our oil. The answer is to increase our pipeline capacity. But, as the oil pipeline spill at Tioga demonstrates, there are challenges to ensure that our residents and their property are safe.

The Public Service Commission regulates natural gas transmission and distribution lines in North Dakota. These lines are inspected on a yearly basis and more often if required. The regulation of oil and hazardous liquid pipelines is handled, for the present, by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, or PHMSA. They inspect these pipelines roughly every three years. Currently, PHMSA does not have a federal inspector stationed in North Dakota.

Recently, a meeting was held between PHMSA and the PSC. One of the items discussed was the possibility that the PSC would institute, with the approval of PHMSA, a state-controlled safety program for oil and hazardous liquids pipelines within North Dakota. The federal officials said they would support such a program should the state meet federal requirements. It would mean that we would adopt existing federal pipeline standards and have qualified, trained state inspectors just like we do for our natural gas pipeline safety program.

We are not looking for new regulations. It will be our intention that these pipelines will be inspected by North Dakota inspectors and have a local “touch point” on the program.

We need to have the ability to move product, via pipelines, so as to lessen the dependence on rail transportation. The Casselton accident was too close for comfort. Pipelines, properly sited, constructed and maintained, are the best option to move our energy products. Our agricultural producers are being hampered by the lack of rail transportation of their products.

We will be in consultation with the governor’s office and the Legislature as we consider this proposal. The governor and the Legislature share our determination to improve and enhance safety and security as it relates to pipelines, both natural gas and oil.

Kalk is chairman, North Dakota Public Service Commission.