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Transmission Pipeline Regulation and Franchising

This page provides an overview of transmission pipeline regulation and franchising in Washington State, including information on the roles played by federal, state, and local government agencies in regulating their operational safety, as well as examples of local pipeline land use ordinances, franchises, and model ordinances.

What are Transmission Pipelines?

Transmission pipelines are large diameter pipelines that transport large volumes of natural gas or hazardous liquids under high pressure. Distribution pipelines, on the other hand, are pipelines that are much smaller in diameter, operate at lower pressure, and carry natural gas to homes and small businesses in many communities.

Please note that this page deals with natural gas and hazardous liquid transmission pipelines, and not distribution pipelines.

Federal, State, and Local Government Roles

In Washington state, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (WUTC), through certification by the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS), is responsible for the regulation of intrastate pipelines and partners with federal regulators to ensure that federal regulations for interstate pipelines are followed. But federal and state pipeline regulations only deal with the design, construction, maintenance and operation of pipelines.

Below are the federal and state statutes and regulations regarding pipeline safety:

There are no federal or state regulations concerning what land uses are appropriate on lands in the vicinity of transmission pipelines. This is a matter of local government control.

Unfortunately, even after the 1999 Olympic pipeline explosion in Bellingham, many cities and counties still have not established land use development procedures and regulations that take into account the risks presented by transmission pipelines. As urban uses and development expand into areas where existing transmission pipelines are situated, or where new pipelines are being proposed, local government officials need to acknowledge, discuss and address the risks that transmission pipelines pose to our communities, as well as the risks that increased human activities pose to the integrity of these pipelines.

MRSC recommends that planners and local government officials educate themselves about pipeline safety concerns, learn about recommended practices (see PIPA reports below), assess the level of safety concern in their community, and then adopt reasonable local land use procedures and regulations concerning transmission pipelines to promote the health and safety of the community.

In addition to adopting local land use ordinances, local governments can also reduce pipeline risks by implementing public education, encouraging effective excavation damage prevention practices, and developing appropriate emergency response planning and preparedness. For further information on prevention, see PIPA hazard mitigation planning document below.

Where Are Transmission Pipelines Located?

The WUTC maintains pipeline maps which show the routes of hazardous liquid pipelines and high-pressure natural gas pipelines (>250 pounds per square inch) to meet the needs of first responders, local governments, and residents. The WUTC also offers free map atlases by county to interested fire department, emergency management agencies and local governments, by means of a public records request. Local governments may also obtain GIS shapefiles for pipelines within their jurisdiction from the OPS through the National Pipeline Mapping System.

PIPA Recommended Practices and Hazard Mitigation Planning Reports

In 2015, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a hazard mitigation guidance document, prepared by the Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance (PIPA), Hazard Mitigation Planning: Practices for Land Use Planning and Development near Pipelines, outlining best practices for communities to reduce risks from pipeline incidents, including those caused by natural hazards.

The Mitigation Planning report makes use of information compiled in an earlier PIPA report published in 2010 specifically developed to help local communities, developers, and pipeline operators reduce the safety risks that result from growth of communities near pipelines. To view the full PIPA recommended practices report, see Partnering to Further Enhance Pipeline Safety in Communities through Risk-Informed Land Use Planning , or view an index of the content, including descriptions of sections.

The PIPA recommended practices integrated in the mitigation planning report include information on:

  • Pipeline identification and mapping
  • Pipeline knowledge and education
  • Pipeline land records
  • Facilitating stakeholder communications
  • Land use and development planning management practices
  • Excavation damage prevention practices
  • Mitigation measures from natural hazards

PHMSA also published a companion report to the PIPA Recommended Practices called Building Safe Communities: Pipeline Risk and its Application to Local Government Decisions (2010). It provides a summary of the risks posed by both hazardous liquid and natural gas transmission pipelines, statistics showing injuries and fatalities by year, and the causes of pipeline ruptures.

Washington Model Pipeline Ordinances

Following the 1999 Olympic Pipeline disaster in Bellingham, the state legislature directed MRSC to draft model land use ordinances, and model franchise agreements. The model ordinances drafted are listed below. They are samples for local governments to use as reference and can be modified as needed. Some wording in the documents will need to be modified slightly if utilized by counties rather than cities.

Model Local Land Use Ordinances

  • MRSC Model Consultation Zone Ordinance (2006) - Model ordinance establishing a consultation zone for permits for designated activities within 660 feet of hazardous liquid or natural gas transmission pipelines. Our legal staff reviewed the ordinance in 2018, but no changes were made.
  • MRSC Model Setback Ordinance for Transmission Pipelines (2000) – Establishes setback requirements for new hazardous liquid and gas transmission pipelines to be at a minimum of 50 feet from  general residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. For additional notes on the ordinance, see commentary section below. Our legal staff reviewed the ordinance in 2018, but no changes were made.

Model Franchise Ordinances

The model franchise ordinances benefited from legal work done on this issue by representatives of the city attorney's office of the City of Bellingham, as well as input from the Washington City and County Pipeline Safety Consortium.

Commentary on the Model Setback Ordinance

Though the legislation called for depth requirements for transmission pipelines in the model setback ordinance, those standards are established by federal regulations and are beyond local government or state control. Regulations for the minimum cover for buried gas transmission lines can be found at 49 C.F.R. 192.327 and 49 C.F.R 195.248 for hazardous liquids. When writing the model ordinance, MRSC reviewed recommended setback standards and also setback regulations adopted previously by several local governments. There is no universally accepted standard for setback distances.

When first drafting the model setback ordinance, the authors originally considered setback as a safety buffer, to protect people in the event of a catastrophic rupture. Unfortunately, trying to establish setbacks that act as safety buffers is not easy, partly because the area at potential risk when there is a catastrophic rupture depends on the product in the pipeline (hazardous liquid or natural gas) and on the diameter and pressure of the pipeline. When a hazardous liquid transmission pipeline ruptures, it is the area downhill from the site of the rupture that is at primary risk, not areas uphill from the rupture. With natural gas transmission pipelines the topography is not as much of a factor, though intervening landforms and shielding from structures can significantly impact whether an individual at any given location is at risk.

It is by restricting building uses allowed in proximity to transmission pipelines that local governments can more effectively minimize injuries and property damage should there be a catastrophic rupture. Many Washington jurisdictions do not allow building uses that would be difficult to evacuate (hospitals, retirement centers, etc.) from being placed in close proximity to a transmission pipeline. Having buildings set back from pipeline easements also makes it less likely that third party damage will be caused during building construction, and less likely that activities adjoining the buildings will cause damage to the underground facilities.

Examples of Local Pipeline Ordinances

Local Land Use Ordinances

  • Benton County Code Sec. 9.08.030(h) and Sec. 9.08.033 – Establishes that preliminary plat applications of properties that are within 150 feet of a hazardous product transmission pipelines should include documentation that the owner/operator of the pipelines has been notified.
  • King County Code Sec. 21A.12.140 – Provides setbacks from regional utility corridors (establishes for 100-foot setback for any structure designed for human occupancy, and five feet for almost all other structures)
  • Kirkland Ordinance No. O-4371 (2012) - Adds zoning code amendments regulating activities near hazardous liquid pipelines. Adopts setback requirements and requirements for land use compatibility.
  • La Center Municipal Code Ch. 18.157 – Establishes a consultation zone 641 feet away from the centerline of a hazardous pipeline, describes land use activities prohibited, and provides other requirements for all existing and proposed land uses within the sensitive utility corridor overlay district.
  • Redmond Municipal Code Ch. 21.26 – Provides setback and land use Compatibility requirements for hazardous liquid pipelines. See also Ordinance No. 2136 (2002) - Amends the Utilities Chapter of the Redmond Comprehensive Plan to adopt policies related to hazardous liquid pipelines
  • Roy Municipal Code Ch. 11-39 – Establishes a Pipeline Consultation Zone for designated activities within 660 feet of a hazardous liquid or natural gas transmission line, and defines an application process for all development permits within the consultation zone.
  • Skagit County Code Sec. 14.16.835 - Requires consultation with pipeline operators for development within pipeline consultation areas. Consultation area established within 100 feet of any hazardous liquid or natural gas transmission pipeline.
  • Whatcom County Code Ch. 20.81 – Requires a development notice when development is adjacent to transmission pipelines and provides land use compatibility and other pipeline corridor protection requirements.

Franchise Agreements

Below are examples of franchise agreements for Hazardous Liquid Pipelines.

  • Bellevue Ordinance No. 6275 (2016) - Grants petroleum pipeline franchise to Olympic Pipe Line Company. In effect for 10 years. After expiration it may be extended on a year-to-year basis.  
  • Bellingham Ordinance No. 2011-11-060 (2011) - Renews franchise grant to operate and maintain existing petroleum pipeline facilities by Olympic Pipe Line Company for a period of 10 years.
  • Bellingham Ordinance No. 2019-12-033 (2019) - Renews franchise grant to operate and maintain existing petroleum pipeline facilities to Trans Mountain Pipeline Company, for a period of 10 years. Includes original franchise grant.
  • Kirkland Ordinance No. 4298 (2011) - Grants franchise to Olympic Pipe Line Company for a 10-year term.
  • Newcastle Ordinance No. 2008-0388 (2018) - Grants franchise to Olympic Pipe Line Company. In effect for 10 years, after which it may be extended on a year-to-year basis. Orginal 2008 ordinance is preceded by 2018 extension of agreement.
  • Pierce County Ordinance No. 2017-45s (2017) - Grants franchise to Olympic Pipe Line Company for a period of 15 years.
  • Renton Ordinance No. 5788 (2016) - Grants franchise to Olympic Pipe Line Company for a period of 10 years.
  • SeaTac Ordinance No. 06-1002 (2006) - Grants franchise to Olympic Pipe Line Company. In effect for 10 years and, after that, it shall be extended on a year-to-year basis until a new franchise is executed.

For examples of franchise agreements for natural gas pipelines, see Natural Gas Franchise Agreements.

Federal and State Agencies Involved in Pipeline Operation Safety

Federal Agencies

  • Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) - Regulates and ensures the safe and secure movement of hazardous materials to industry and consumers by all modes of transportation, including pipelines
  • Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) - As part of PHMSA, this office implements a national program to ensure the safe, reliable, and environmentally-sound operation of the nation’s natural gas and hazardous liquid pipeline transportation system.
  • Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Material Investigations (RPHM) - Investigates accidents involving railroad, pipeline, and hazardous materials
  • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) - FERC itself has no jurisdiction over pipeline safety or security, but actively works with other agencies on safety and security responsibilities. It is also responsible for the review of applications to build new interstate natural gas pipelines.

Washington State Agencies

Recommended Resources

Local Government Resources

  • Pipeline Safety Trust - The Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham is an oversight organization created by Bellingham residents to ensure safer pipelines nationwide. It is funded by an endowment from the criminal fines imposed after the Bellingham pipeline disaster that occurred in 1999. The Trust promotes pipeline safety through education and advocacy, by increasing access to information, and by building partnerships with residents, safety advocates, government, and industry, that result in safer communities and a healthier environment. Their publication, Local Government Guide to Pipelines (2014), is especially useful.
  • Whatcom County Natural Gas and Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Background Report (2001) - Provides an overview of the regulatory issues involved with pipeline franchising and operation. It is a good starting point for planners and local government officials wanting to orient themselves on basic pipeline issues.

State and Federal Government Resources

Last Modified: January 24, 2023