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Focus on Regulation

Taking to the Air: Using Drones to Ensure Regulatory Compliance for Natural Gas and Oil Pipelines and Other Critical Infrastructure Owners and Operators

Energy companies that operate critical infrastructure face regulatory challenges on a daily basis as they strive to provide effective and efficient service safely. Congress may make some of these regulatory challenges less burdensome by lifting restrictions on the use of drones to monitor their assets. UAVs for Energy Infrastructure Act (S.2684), sponsored by Senator Jim Inhofe and introduced on March 15, 2016, would enable critical infrastructure operators to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or so-called drones) to comply with existing federal regulations, as well as to respond to an emergency, natural disaster or severe weather event. Specifically, the bill would allow the use of a drone to conduct any activity already allowed to be accomplished with manned aircraft. Senator Inhofe plans to include the bill in the FAA authorization legislation.

Among other tasks, the bill would permit oil and natural gas pipeline and other critical infrastructure developers, owners, operators, service companies and their agents to use drones to:

  • Conduct surveys for construction, maintenance, and rehabilitation;
  • Comply with safety requirements to periodically patrol rights-of-way to prevent encroachment and unauthorized excavation;
  • Detect evidence of leaks or other conditions that jeopardize safety;
  • Prepare for a natural disaster or severe weather event; and
  • Respond to other incidents outside of company control that may cause material damage to critical infrastructure.

The use of drones would enable critical energy infrastructure companies to effectively and efficiently comply with federal regulations and permitting requirements, and would help to promote the overarching goal of pipeline and other facility safety. The focus on safety is timely, as the federal agency responsible for pipeline safety has just issued a comprehensive set of proposed rules intended to enhance the safety of the nation’s pipelines.

The Inhofe legislation is intended to enhance the integrity, safety, and security of all critical infrastructure. The bill is focused on, but not limited to, the oil and natural gas pipeline system because of its critical value to Oklahoma and the nation. As stated by Andy Black, president of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, “Drones hold the possibility for additional high tech inspection of pipelines from the air. The Inhofe bill to break down regulatory barriers to using drone technology to keep pipelines safe is welcome legislation.” Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs at the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, agrees, stating “Unmanned aircraft offer natural gas pipelines a 21st century solution to [ ] regulatory requirement[s], a solution that can be more effective in numerous ways.”

Hogan Lovells, which combines a market-leading energy practice with a leading Unmanned Aircraft practice, is uniquely positioned to help pipeline companies, electric transmission, and power plant operators, and other companies that operate critical infrastructure to promote the legislation and to take advantage of the use of drones in operating their facilities, including any opportunities that may be afforded by the UAVs for Energy Infrastructure Act.