Pipeline Right of Way Clearance
Federal Right of Way Maintenance Requirements For Pipelines

If your company provides energy via pipelines anywhere in the United States, you are subject to regulations set by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Any place you have a pipeline, there must also be a pipeline right-of-way (ROW). Federal code contains provisions about how to maintain those rights-of-way.

Right of way maintenance is an important part of maintaining public safety and the continued, reliable operations of pipelines. Let’s look at who is responsible for which aspects of ROW maintenance and vegetation management.

Who Oversees ROW Clearance Compliance?

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is the division of U.S. DOT that works to ensure the safe, reliable, and environmentally sound operations of pipelines that carry energy and potentially hazardous materials.

They oversee the development and implementation of regulations concerning pipeline construction, maintenance and operation, including right of way (ROW) clearance and vegetation management.

The pipeline safety regulations enforce the laws set forth in the U.S. Code. The PHMSA carries out this work via the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS). They also communicate about pipeline safety with the public and stakeholders such as those involved with land use and development.

Some of these responsibilities are shared between federal and state regulatory partners, so it’s important to also understand the regulations set forth by your state. 

What Are the Threats to Pipelines?

Excavations by third parties are a leading cause of serious pipeline damage.

In the event of an incident, the pipeline operator must report it to PHMSA, including:
  • location
  • volume of product released
  • number of fatalities and injuries
  • costs 
  • cause  

To help prevent an excavation accident or other disturbance to pipelines, visibility is essential. Vegetation should be maintained so that stakeholders can pinpoint the location of pipelines and avoid damaging them. Failure to maintain visibility can potentially result in catastrophic incidents and negative publicity.

How and When Pipeline Inspections Should Take Place

The pipeline operator should conduct on the following schedule: 
  • Natural gas pipeline: every 3-12 months
  • Hazardous liquids pipeline: every 21 days and at least 26 times per year

Who Maintains ROW Clearance?

As a pipeline operator, you are responsible for maintaining ROW clearance. This means allowing for inspections and maintenance, as well as identifying any:
  • unauthorized activities 
  • heavy equipment present without authorization
  • urban encroachment 
  • construction
  • soil defects
  • erosion or flooding or sedimentation in streams
  • damage to company property
  • missing pipeline markers or identification signs
  • evidence of leaking gas or liquid

If the pipeline crosses the land of other stakeholders, they should be informed ahead of time of any vegetation management plans.

The pipeline owner must also ensure sufficient space along the ROW to perform maintenance and inspections, as well as to monitor and prevent encroachments.

Vegetation Management for ROWs

Maintaining vegetation is crucial for allowing visibility of pipeline ROWs for inspections and monitoring. Vegetation management practices include scheduled mowing and brush removal, tree pruning, and brush removal using tools, herbicides, or growth regulators. It also includes tree removal, as trees are not permitted within the ROW.

Vegetation management professionals are acquainted with the various species of trees and other plants that grow in a given area, how quickly they grow, and how to efficiently remove trees to prevent pipeline damage. Because there is often a need to retain some plant growth for aesthetic and environmental reasons, they make educated choices about which vegetation to remove and how. Plants growing along the ROW require approval from state or federal agencies. 

Tree canopies near the ROW border must also be side trimmed regularly to facilitate aerial surveillance. Vegetation management includes identifying hazard or danger trees within this area.
The frequency of vegetation maintenance will reflect the environment, for example with regard to the population density in the vicinity and the weather in a given region.

Failure to comply with pipeline ROW maintenance regulations could result in fines, which can become a drain on company resources. 

Hiring a vegetation management company protects a utility company’s valuable assets and helps prevent the leveraging of fines. These results make professional vegetation management an excellent investment for utility companies.
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