Audit of Texas natural gas pipelines finds many aren't inspected

A state auditor's report released this week found that the Texas Railroad Commission inspected only 65 percent of the highest-priority pipelines last year that were identified in the agency's annual inspection work plan.

The finding was just one of many in the audit, which determined that the Railroad Commission has "opportunities to strengthen" its Pipeline Safety and Damage Prevention program.

Specifically, the audit cited four areas that need work -- increasing inspections of pipeline systems ranked as the highest priority; increasing the accuracy and completeness of annual pipeline inspections, including reviews of pipeline operators' integrity management plans; following pipeline damage incidents and ensuring that investigations are completed before a case is closed; and strengthening certain information technology controls.

Texas has the largest U.S. network of natural gas pipelines, with about 270,000 miles of pipeline systems in the state. It was the site of two high-profile deadly pipeline accidents in 2010 -- one in Johnson County, where a crew installing electrical towers struck a natural gas line that erupted into flames, and one in the Panhandle, where a bulldozer struck a pipeline.

Nationally, pipeline inspections drew more attention after a September 2010 explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight and destroyed 38 homes.

"It's pretty interesting to see how well the states are doing on inspections. It's become a bigger issue around the country since the explosion in San Bruno occurred last year," said Carl Weimer of Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, Wash.

Last year, Weimer and another researcher were commissioned by the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods to study the city's growing natural gas pipeline system.

They warned that regulatory loopholes could cause problems as companies build more pipelines. But they also noted that state and city measures are in place that govern the pipelines

"The interesting part of the audit was there were 37,000 incident reports," Weimer said. "There was both good news and bad news. The bad news was the state hadn't gone through the process to close out all of the cases. The good news is Texas is one of the few states to even collect that type of information."

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