Consultation Zones

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Since 1950, the population of the U.S. has more than doubled to include close to 310 million people.  The effects of this incredible growth, which has its roots in the post World War II boom years, can be clearly seen in the ever-expanding trends toward urban renewal and suburban development.

Farmland that was once considered rural is now being developed and incorporated.  Quiet towns are a hive of activity, boasting new housing subdivisions, shopping centers and schools and the services that are required to support it all. While this growth has been inevitable, and in most cases welcome, it has necessarily encroached on existing pipeline infrastructure that was formerly located in rural areas away from residential and commercial centers. Although pipelines are considered to be the safest mode of transportation for our energy resources, and the probable occurrence of an incident is very low, the potential impact is greater in a more heavily populated area.

Recently, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration initiated an effort to address encroachment on pipeline rights-of-way. Their purpose was to develop recommended practices that can be utilized by local communities and government entities to address those issues related to rapid population expansion as this growth occurs near existing transmission pipelines. The group, named the Pipeline and

Informed Planning Alliance, or PIPA, issued a report entitled “Partnering to Further Enhance Pipeline Safety In Communities Through Risk-Informed Land Use Planning”, which issued recommendations developed by stakeholders who agreed to the concepts through a consensus process.

One of the key concepts that resulted from the group’s activities was the establishment of a consultation zone, or an area of development within a specifi c distance of a pipeline that warrants additional communication between certain stakeholders, namely the pipeline operator and the developer, before the project is allowed to move forward. By way of the PIPA document, local governing authorities are encouraged to develop planning ordinances that require a developer to review their plans with the transmission pipeline operator in advance of receiving approval for the project. The process affords both the developer and the pipeline operator an opportunity to discuss the project and its potential impact on pipeline integrity and community safety in the hope of addressing the project’s potential for impact to stakeholders’ interests before construction begins.

The establishment of consultation zones allows local communities to balance the needs of the different stakeholders when making planning decisions in regard to the location of new facilities.  For pipeline operators, ensuring the integrity of pipelines and mitigating the risks to the safety of these facilities is the top priority. The pipeline’s design and the on-going maintenance activities that are conducted by operators directly effect the system’s level of integrity. Communities have a vested interest in promoting safe practices that lessen the impact of any development on existing infrastructure, while at the same time, maximizing flexibility for developers who are designing future projects to ensure the security of their investment.

If after the consultation, the stakeholders agree that the project does not pose an additional risk to the pipeline or the community, or if the project is altered in a way that is satisfactory to all parties, those in the community and other stakeholders as well, then the project moves forward in harmony. But in the event that parties cannot agree, for whatever reason, local officials could be given additional information about the area and the impact the proposed project could have on safety related issues and the integrity and general operations of the system while still in their decision making process, before projects are approved or permits issued.  Whatever the case, the community benefits from the additional communication and increased planning.

One key to good planning for any local governing body lies in having comprehensive knowledge of where transmission pipelines are located in your community. The National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS) contains information on the location of all transmission pipelines in the country. To view NPMS, or to learn more about pipelines in your county, visit www.npms.phmsa.dot.gov. Government officials may also secure special access to the site, which will provide information that is additional to that which is available to the general public.

Once transmission pipelines have been identified, the governing body should then contact any operators in the area to discuss the system and establish an appropriate consultation zone based on the facts and circumstances that are pertinent to the facilities in their area. At this point, the consultation zone itself, and the process by which stakeholders are required to communicate if development were to be proposed in the consultation zone, can be codifi ed in an ordinance or appropriate permitting process.

Additional guidance relating to consultation zones and land-use planning can be found in the PIPA report, which can be viewed here. The document provides resources and a variety of material for further reference as well as a framework for developing a land-use planning process when transmission pipelines are near an area of development.

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