In the first instance, we are starting the dialogue through offering gas awareness seminars for planning departments and development consent authorities (DCAs) – usually local government. These seminars will serve to get our audiences thinking about gas issues, and about gas infrastructure in their jurisdiction.
Ultimately, we are hoping that this dialogue will lead to legislative and regulatory change. Many state planning regulations require a DCA to consider any risks to a gas transmission pipeline, but they don’t actually mandate that pipeline owners are consulted. Indeed, the APIA Secretariat is occasionally contacted for information by developers who have been told that they need to assess the risks to and from a pipeline resulting from their development.
The fact that it is not mandatory for developers to consult with a pipeline owner in any state (except Tasmania) stands in stark contrast to the requirements for developments near electricity infrastructure. In New South Wales for example, when making any decision on a development near electricity infrastructure, a DCA is required to notify the infrastructure and give the owner 21 days to make a submission on the proposal. If pipelines could get this kind of provision in regulations, there would be much greater scope for negotiation and co-operation to achieve low-cost risk abatement solutions.
As always, the solution is not as simple as asking policy makers to extend the same consultation to gas transmission pipelines. Planning officials have indicated that they are open to the idea, but there is a significant issue that needs to be dealt with first – right now, there is no formal way for a DCA to know with certainty where gas transmission infrastructure is located in its jurisdiction. Even when the DCA is aware of the approximate location of the easement, their records may only show the titles which the easement passes through. A development decision may be being made on a title 10 m from an easement, but the title documents won’t show the pipeline as something that needs to be considered. On occasion, DCAs may not even be aware of a pipeline’s existence.
This seems an outrageous proposition for those of us who work in the pipeline industry. But pipelines are underground, out of mind and out of sight. Our industry’s outstanding safety record means that potential pipeline incidents are not on the radar of the general public or planners. While power lines and roads have issues that mean people don’t want to live near them (radiation concerns and visual pollution for power, noise pollution for roads), pipelines don’t have the same negative connotations, and are probably not viewed with an appropriate level of caution.
Planning officials aren’t willing to require mandatory consultation with pipeline infrastructure owners until systems are in place that ensure the necessary information is available to DCAs. This is understandable as right now pipeline owners have their own systems in place to liaise with local governments, but there is no consistency to the information being provided from company to company, and no formal industry-wide mechanisms in place to get the information out there.
Two parts to the solution
Firstly, I’d like to develop an industry Code of Practice for liaising with DCAs. It could set out systems such as frequency of meetings, information to provide, relationship management and others. It doesn’t have to be an extensive document, but it can provide a basis for standardising this kind of liaison across the industry, and companies that adopt the Code of Practice may be able to expect consultation from DCAs in return.
Secondly, I think the industry needs to seriously think about developing a single database with GIS information for all gas transmission pipelines. Through the database we could provide information not only on pipeline location, but information on possible impact zones for a pipeline.
We could provide access to this database under licence to DCAs, government agencies and other parties. The licence conditions would enable the industry to control the terms under which the information is provided and how it is used. Such a database could be referenced in legislation and regulations, requiring a DCA to consult with the owners/operators of any pipeline that is in the database.
Other parties that would be interested in such a database include technical regulators. I understand attempts have been made in the past by technical regulators and emergency authorities to establish digital databases of infrastructure in their jurisdictions for information purposes, and these attempts have largely been unsuccessful. I would expect that regulators will not be content to continue to operate without digital GIS information of the pipelines they regulate, and if the industry provides a solution, it can be done so on our terms.
Developing a database would be a big step for the industry, one that may be too big at this time. But if we are serious about getting mandatory consultation from DCAs and other agencies, we need to provide the information they consider necessary.