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 McCormick’s bill through the Louisiana legislature. Centerpoint contested a ticket for failing to notify state police of one natural gas release, but state police dismissed the fine before a judge could decide on the case, Hill said in a legislative meeting in April. Atmos Energy, which was fined by Louisiana state police twice in 2020, also supported McCormick’s bill.
Louisiana was among the first states to make trespassing on pipelines a felony, which pipeline companies have used to target environmental protesters and journalists. A federal judge recently allowed a challenge to Louisiana’s anti-protest pipeline law to move forward.
Pipeline incidents are already underreported, said Anne Rolfes, the director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental organization that opposed the Bayou Bridge pipeline. “These accidents are overlooked, business as usual,” she said.
In other states, the leaks are often overseen by energy regulators. In Oklahoma, for example, violations are enforced by the state’s Corporation Commission, but the highway patrol can also file charges against companies.
In Louisiana, the department of natural resources’ pipeline division regulates only much larger gas leaks in intrastate pipelines that carry toxic or flammable products. “Our role is to conduct an investigation after the fact,” Steven Giambrone, the pipeline division director, said in the April committee hearing. “We’re not a first responder.”
John Porter, the commander of the emergency services unit of the Louisiana state police, warned lawmakers that looser reporting thresholds could trigger public health concerns when smaller leaks happen in populated areas.
“If we have a gas leak at a major intersection, 1,000 pounds would be an extreme amount with vehicles traveling by, with pedestrians traveling by,” he said. “And all we’re asking is for notification for us so we can get the proper emergency services people out there to protect the public.”