When a natural gas pipeline fire south-west of New Orleans killed one worker and burned three others, the Louisiana state police ordered Phillips 66 to pay a $22,000 fine for failing to immediately report the incident. The fire burned for four days before first responders could put it out.
But the company ultimately didn’t pay any police fine, ending up with just a warning.
That story is common, according to public records reviewed by the Louisiana Illuminator and Floodlight with the Guardian. The Louisiana state police – which oversees pipeline safety – issued 34 fines and five warning letters in the past five years. A quarter of those penalties were reduced: three were lowered, five were replaced with warning letters and two were dismissed. The fines that did stick were low, between $2,250 and $8,000.
Aside from the obvious potential harms to workers, gas leaks pose fire risks and can cause respiratory problems for people in nearby communities.
Phillips 66 declined to comment for this story. The company was separately fined $20,000 over the incident by the department of natural resources.
Despite the record of lax enforcement by the state police, gas companies in the state say they are being treated unfairly and have lobbied for legislation to loosen requirements around reporting pipeline leaks. Louisiana has more gas pipelines than any other state except Texas, and more gas pipeline projects are planned in the state to support the growing demand for US natural gas exports.
The proposal, House Bill 549 from Louisiana’s Republican representative Danny McCormick, was approved by Louisiana lawmakers and has been sent to the Democratic governor John Bel Edwards’ desk. It is one of many efforts by the influential oil and gas industry to avoid regulation and keep its tax rates low in the state. If signed into law, it would absolve companies from reporting natural gas leaks of less than 1,000 pounds, unless they cause hospitalization or death.
Gene Dunegan, the program manager for Louisiana state police’s emergency services unit, defended the department’s record on fines, saying it had reduced them when pipeline companies present reasonable explanations for failing to report them within an hour. While Louisiana law requires pipeline companies to “immediately” report leaks, it does not define a deadline for doing so. The state police ask companies to report incidents within an hour.
“Our goal is not to collect monies, but to keep the violation from recurring,” Dunegan said. “Most [companies] are proactive and implement needed changes and training prior to hearing from us, others not so much.”
The state police issued few tickets over the past five years – less than 10 a year on average. One pipeline company’s name appears on the list more than any other: Centerpoint Energy. The company was ticketed seven times over the past three years, totaling $38,750.
Trey Hill, a lobbyist representing Centerpoint, helped push…
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