When a natural gas pipeline fire in Paradis killed one worker and burned three others in 2017, the Louisiana State Police fined the Phillips 66 company $22,000 fine for failing to report the incident immediately. The fire burned for four days before first responders put it out.
But the company ultimately didn’t pay any police fine, ending up with just a warning.
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That story is common, according to public records reviewed by the Louisiana Illuminator and Floodlight with The Guardian. State Police, which oversees pipeline safety in Louisiana, issued 34 fines and five warning letters in the past five years, and a quarter of the fines were reduced: three lowered, five replaced with warning letters and two dismissed. The fines that did stick were between $2,250 and $8,000.
Despite that record, gas companies in the state say they are being treated unfairly and have lobbied to loosen requirements around reporting pipeline leaks. Louisiana has more gas pipelines than state except Texas, and more gas pipeline projects are planned in the state to support the growing demand for U.S. natural gas exports.
The latest proposal, House Bill 549 from Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, was approved by the Legislature in the lawmaking session that ended last week and has been sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards. It is one of many efforts by the influential oil and gas industry to lessen regulation and keep its tax rates low. If Edwards signs the bill, the law would absolve companies from reporting natural gas leaks of less than 1,000 pounds, unless the leak causes hospitalization or death.
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Gene Dunegan, program manager for the State Police emergency services unit, defended the agency’s record on fines, saying it has reduced them when pipeline companies present reasonable explanations for failing to report leaks within an hour. While Louisiana law requires pipeline companies “immediately” to report leaks, it does not set a deadline; 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.”
Aside from potential harms to workers, gas leaks pose fire risks and can cause respiratory problems for people in nearby communities. Phillips 66 would not comment for this story. For its 2017 fire in Paradis, the company was separately fined $20,000 by the Department of Natural Resources.
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State Police issued an average of fewer than 10 tickets per year in the past five years.
One pipeline company’s name appears on the list more than any other: Centerpoint Energy, which was ticketed seven times in the past three years with fines totaling $38,750. Trey Hill, a lobbyist for Centerpoint, helped push McCormick’s bill through the 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 twice in 2020, also supported McCormick’s bill.
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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.
Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade environmental organization, said pipeline mishaps are already underreported. “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 Corporation Commission, but that state’s highway patrol may also file charges.
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 an April legislative committee hearing. “We’re not a first responder.”
John Porter, commander of the State Police emergency services unit, 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, a thousand 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.”
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