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Fedorchak: PSC oversight evolving to meet changing demands

McKenzie County Economic Development Director Gene Veeder is all-too familiar with the impacts of the Bakken oil boom. At the recent Governor’s Pipeline Summit, Veeder said the greatest frustration for people in the Watford City area isn’t housing, day care shortages or flaring. It’s traffic.

Pipelines are the solution for this and so many other challenges of the oil boom. They will eliminate congestion, improve road safety and relieve pressure on the railroads. Pipelines will reduce the noise, dust and general commotion of energy activity and help North Dakotans co-exist more peacefully long term with a vibrant oil and gas industry.

As a public service commissioner, I work every day with my colleagues to regulate the pipeline industry in a way that promotes efficient, orderly and safe development and management of our state’s transmission pipeline infrastructure. It is a top priority for the PSC.

With the surge in Bakken oil production in the last five years, the PSC — like all state and local agencies — has worked to adapt our processes to best protect North Dakota people and places while also meeting the contemporary needs of business and industry.

We have consistently improved our siting and construction processes by:

  • Hiring additional engineers to manage the growing workload.
  • Creating a construction inspection program to employ third-party inspectors for every pipeline project who monitor construction and ensure high safety standards are met.
  • Collecting GPS data on all the infrastructure we site for use in mapping, planning and monitoring.
  • Simplifying the rules for making route changes during pipeline construction to best accommodate landowner requests without delays.
  • Pushing companies to use best available technology for spill prevention and detection such as flow meters, pressure sensors, stop valves and cathotic protection.

We’ve also worked to better manage and protect this infrastructure with an aggressive damage prevention program spearheaded by Chairman Brian Kalk. Third-party strikes are the most common cause of pipeline leaks, and the PSC has cracked down on people causing them. We’ve levied nearly 30 fines against contractors for damaging underground infrastructure and during the last legislative session the PSC successfully increased the maximum fine from $5,000 to $25,000.

In addition to improving pipeline siting, construction and protection programs, we are working to enhance pipeline safety. The massive oil spill near Tioga last year revealed obvious shortcomings in the existing federal intrastate crude line inspection program. The PSC had no oversight of that line, but if the Legislature adopts our proposal, we will take over the federal program that failed to detect problems that could have prevented or minimized that disaster.

The PSC has a strong record of managing the safety of our in-state gas pipelines. It’s time to put this same approach to work on crude oil lines and have North Dakota state employees who are accountable to our citizens overseeing the safety of the growing crude oil pipeline network in our backyard.

To further enhance safety, I am proposing a state-run rail safety plan to supplement the existing federal program that has long-served our rail industry. High-profile accidents last year show the federal program is stretched too thin and not responding quickly enough to the demands of crude-by-rail transport. A state program will provide more inspectors on the ground every day to help oversee the 3,000 miles of track in our state. They will focus on the key problem areas and help identify safety issues on the track, rail bed, operations or other potential faults before they cause an accident.

With the rate of innovation occurring in North Dakota, every day presents a slightly different twist for regulators like myself to consider. It is a dynamic time that demands we seize every opportunity to improve our processes, oversight and infrastructure. We are always seeking ways to do this work better so infrastructure can more effectively serve the oil and gas industry, better supply vital energy commodities to our fellow Americans and co-exist safely with North Dakotans for many decades.

Fedorchak is a Republican on the North Dakota Public Service Commission.