PHMSA Has an Opportunity To Refine Its Guidance and Performance Reporting for the Pipeline Safety Research and Development Program
What We Looked At
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) designed its Pipeline Safety Research and Development (R&D) Program to provide safety improvements, reduce environmental impacts, and enhance reliability of the Nation’s pipeline transportation system. During fiscal years 2013–2016, PHMSA’s Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS), awarded $38 million in support of 83 pipeline safety R&D projects—covering a variety of topics—conducted by Federal and non-Federal entities. The Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act of 2016 mandated that we evaluate PHMSA’s pipeline safety R&D program. Accordingly, our objectives were to assess PHMSA’s processes for (1) consulting with stakeholders, (2) mitigating selection panel members’ conflicts of interest, and (3) measuring the benefits and uses of R&D outcomes.
What We Found
PHMSA consults with stakeholders as required by the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 (PSIA), and uses stakeholder input to prepare its 5-year program plan and select project proposals. However, the Agency is missing an opportunity to increase R&D forum attendance and does not have written guidance for using forum results. PHMSA has management controls to manage conflicts of interest (COI) on R&D merit review panels. Although we did not identify any violations in this area, the Agency’s written guidance for COIs is incomplete. Finally, the benefits and uses of R&D outcomes are challenging to assess, because they may take years to be fully realized and may not be tangible; increased knowledge is one such intangible benefit. PHMSA staff also lack written guidance for certain follow-up processes, which could lead to inconsistency and a loss of institutional knowledge. While the Agency uses 14 performance metrics to evaluate the overall R&D program, these metrics provide only a tally of program outputs and lack context or analysis for the numerical data.
PHMSA concurred with our three recommendations to help the Agency improve its management of the Pipeline Safety R&D Program.