- Associated Press - Monday, January 19, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Aaron Morman is the state’s only intrastate natural gas pipeline inspector. He covers about 6,000 miles of gas lines in the state doing a number of inspections on things such as records, operations, maintenance and operator qualifications.

“I spend a lot of time on the road,” he said. “We’re booked up pretty solid all the time.”

Morman told The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1wcdqFV ) that the Public Service Commission feels the state could help do a better job of watching the pipeline.

Commissioner Brian Kalk said the PSC has asked legislators to approve between $1 million and $1.5 million for its pipeline inspection program. With the funding, 1.5 positions will be added for natural gas inspections in order to keep up with the current growth. A new program for inspecting hazardous liquids pipelines would also be added with 3.5 employees.

If approved, hiring will start in June. The new employees will supplement the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration inspectors currently doing interstate and intrastate hazardous liquid pipeline inspections in the state.

Intrastate, gathering and interstate pipelines all have to meet the same federal construction standards and inspections done by state employees.

Under state law, the PSC has authority over intrastate lines while the Department of Mineral Resources has authority over gathering lines. Kalk said an intrastate pipeline is any line 8 inches or more in diameter that starts and ends within the state.

Kalk said, years ago, the PSC started inspecting intrastate natural gas pipelines but left the inspection of hazardous liquid lines to PHMSA. At that time, the amount of intrastate hazardous liquid pipeline was less than 100 miles.

According to PHMSA data, there was 664.5 miles of intrastate hazardous waste pipeline in the state at the end of 2013, 653 miles of which carries crude oil.

Kalk said in areas such as Stanley, Watford City and Dickinson there are many pipelines ranging from 1 mile to 20 or 30 miles long.

Covering those miles - and many more - now are 24 PHMSA inspectors. Those agents are in charge of both the interstate and intrastate pipelines in North Dakota, as well as 11 other surrounding states.

When the Tesoro leak happened, intrastate pipelines were not set as a priority by PHMSA because the administration was busy trying to keep up with interstate lines.

Because of this, Kalk said, he does not think there are enough inspectors focusing on North Dakota’s growing infrastructure. He thinks a partnership similar to the inspections done on natural gas lines would help.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, also supports the idea of a state program.

“The state is generally able to provide a better service than federal agencies covering many states,” he said.

Morman, who serves as the inspection program’s manager as well as an inspector, said having more employees would also allow him to spend more time running the program and keeping on top of new regulations.

“It’s tough to do all of it,” he said.

If approved for the new employees, the PSC will file for a PHMSA grant, which will reimburse the state for 60 to 80 percent of the cost of the inspection program. This reimbursement would help cover costs from salary to travel, a PHMSA representative said.

The state employees will undergo three years of federal training. Within the first year, the new hires will start doing inspections. In year two, the trainees will be given more responsibility.

Kalk said the challenge is retaining personnel. The state is losing inspectors to private industry that pays better salaries.

“It’s a challenge to hire and retain because they become so valuable to the oil and gas people once they’re trained because they don’t want spills either,” he said.

Other states and PHMSA face the same hiring issues.

“It’s especially hard in North Dakota because there are so many private companies willing to pay more money than the state can offer,” Morman said.

Kalk’s advice to legislators: “Don’t try to do it on the cheap. You’re not going to hire an inspector at $50,000 a year.”

Kalk said he has many legislators on board for the need but they have to convince them on salary. He said salaries need to be $100,000 or more in order to be competitive.

“It’s hard for the state to compete on that level,” said Morman, adding that a competitive salary will be important to making the new program work.

Morman said private industry may offer thousands of dollars in sign-on bonuses to potential employees who have gone through the federal PHMSA training. As long as the state offers a decent salary, though, he said he thinks employees will stay with the state once they get here.

“We’ve just got to keep boots on the ground,” Kalk said.

The need will still exist even though the price of oil has caused a slowdown because the additional inspectors will cover current needs not future ones, according to Kalk.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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