While the results of the election are still uncertain, one thing is all too clear: Congress has allowed the nation’s chief pipeline safety regulator to lapse without reauthorization for 400 days.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) was up for reauthorization late in 2019. That reauthorization is important on two fronts: funding and policy. Due to a quirk in federal rules, the agency is allowed to continue at its previously set funding level when no reauthorization bill passed. This means that the agency has not been shuttered. On a policy front, however, no new guidance, priorities, or objectives were given to this key safety agency.

The lack of guidance is so significant that the head of the agency penned an article nine months ago calling on Congress to take action.

Since PHMSA was last reauthorized, by a deliberate policy-oriented act of Congress rather than mere funding continuation, technology has advanced considerably. Not only has the technology needed for safe pipeline operation improved, but the tools needed to prevent damage have become more affordable, accessible, and important.

Excavation is the leading cause of pipeline damage. This means that individuals and construction crews using power tools and industrial equipment break ground above vulnerable pipelines all too often. These damage incidents are costly, deadly, and ultimately avoidable.

In 2019 alone, it is estimated that excavation damage cost the U.S. over $30 billion. Damage to pipelines, telecommunication lines, wires, cables, and other underground infrastructure occurred approximately 532,000 times. These half a million damage incidents are avoidable if excavators, locators, and utility operators use the latest technology and best guidance from regulators.

The chief regulator, however, has not had new guidance in years. Despite a five-year trend of rising excavation damages – significantly impacting pipelines – Congress has not acted. Despite over $30 billion in annual damage, Congress has not provided new regulatory priorities and guidance.

Not all of the damage prevention issues falls to PHMSA, nor on Congress. To a great degree, voluntary industry action controls the damage prevention process. Beyond that, state legislatures and regulators put rules in place to promote safety. These have not reversed the trend in damage.

In the last reauthorization of PHMSA, Congress mandated that the agency study improvements in technology for the damage prevention process. A year later, PHMSA reported its findings to Congress. That report included technology and practices proven to reduce damage up to 67 percent. It is only natural that a new reauthorization would incorporate these findings into guidance and rules that this and other technology be incorporated in the damage prevention process going forward.

Today, no state has voluntarily incorporated this technology described in the PHMSA report. Now that 400 days have passed with no reauthorization, it is time for Congress to seriously consider providing PHMSA with a real, policy-focused reauthorization. In it, Congress should consider the five-year trend of rising damages, the enormous $30 billion annual cost of excavation damage, and the industry and state decisionmakers’ lack of progress in this area.

Congress should not delay another day. It should give PHMSA the guidance it needs to prioritize damage prevention, provide certainty to the regulated parties, and lay the groundwork for meaningfully incorporating technology into minimal enforceable rules across the nation.

Click here to read our 2020 Damage Prevention Report Card.



Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


*This story was updated with to reflect the passage of PHMSA reauthorization included in a year-end omnibus bill. The original post included a running clock, which has now been stopped. 


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.