oil-pipelineOn a recent trip to Houston, Texas, I decided to rent a convertible and stay on the Gulf coast, commuting the three business days of my trip.  More than 10 miles of the commute were through oil refineries, literally stretching as far as the eye could see.  And, on the drive back to the airport, as I arced a soaring bridge on the East Sam Houston Parkway, it was all I could do not to stop at the apex and simply gaze in awe at the size of American oil.

So when I start looking up numbers and I read various sources estimating approximately 35,000 miles of small pipeline, 55,000 miles of crude oil trunk lines, and another 95,000 of refined product pipelines, I realize I know about as much relative to the gas I pump into my car as to the engine Detroit put under the hood of my Ford.

Thankfully, there are experts in oil pipeline design and maintenance.  This is a field where credentials begin with college degrees and where – I’m told by a big oilman from Texas – PhDs are common, due to the scale of operations and advances in technology.

Leading the safety charge for the federal government is the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  A recent investigation into a pipeline rupture involved experts from NTSB, US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a state Public Utilities Commission, and the pipeline owner.  The technical issues surrounded a variance between inside/outside fusion welding versus outside-only welding, and the research was into pipe welding standards and practices in effect at the time the pipeline was installed.

Expert witnesses in pipeline design and maintenance are also frequently seen on the Hill and at state capitols, providing testimony for events under investigation, industry standards, industry history, risk assessment, and proposed laws and regulations.  The types of proceedings in which these expert witnesses find themselves can be anything from testimony before a House Subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing on pipeline viability to written submissions to the Office of Pipeline Safety on an inspection of pipelines for compliance with federal, state, or industry standards.

Pipeline design and maintenance is a discipline where experts study materials and methods across decades, including the ever-present question of when something has aged out and must be replaced – often at significant capital cost and time.  One recent such operation in Alaska was conducted to support a request for a renewal of right of way, requiring experts at all stages from evaluation of existing pipeline to recommendations for repairs and upgrades to implementation and presentation.

When we lawyers think of expert witnesses we tend to think of contracts and torts, but for the field of oil pipeline design and maintenance there is a wealth of non-litigation possibilities for us to work with expert witnesses in so-called non-traditional settings.  And, putting together this blog, the idea is not lost on me that perhaps one of these experts can tell me where to direct my resume to get back down to big oil and the Gulf.

By: Paloma A. Capanna, Attorney at Law