Senate pipeline safety bill includes some measures sought by watchdogs

Posted on: May 5th, 2011 by Eartha Jane Melzer 1 Comment

Image by: Matt MahurinAs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation takes up pipeline safety legislation today, watchdog groups say that the measure contains good elements to address recent pipeline disasters — such as the San Bruno, Calif., gas explosion and the Marshall, Mich., oil spill –but could still use some improvement.

The Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011, introduced by longtime pipeline safety advocate Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D–N.J.), directs the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to hire 39 more pipeline safety inspectors. It also increases civil penalties for violators of pipeline safety laws, requires DOT to study the safety risks of the onshore and offshore pipelines that are currently unregulated and directs the agency to study whether current pipeline regulations are adequate for transportation of Canadian tar sands crude, which is known to be more corrosive than conventional crude.

The bill directs DOT to develop new rules for the use of automatic or remote-controlled shut-off valves on pipelines. The gas explosion in San Bruno, Calif., last year is thought to have been made worse because workers had to drive in rush-hour traffic in order to get to the site of the gas leak and manually shut down the broken pipeline.

It also requires DOT to develop standards for leak detection programs, and orders a review of the system of inspecting only those pipelines that cross highly populated or environmentally sensitive areas. According to DOT, there are more than 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines in the U.S.

Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust said that one disappointment with the bill in its current form is that language requiring pipeline emergency response plans be made available to the public was withdrawn by Sen. Lautenberg.

Access to emergency response plans is seen as key to ensuring appropriate response by local emergency responders. Following the Enbridge pipeline spill that dumped more than 800,000 gallons of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan last summer several local safety officials complained that they had no information about the pipelines that cross their areas.

Another shortcoming in the bill is that it does not require that shutoff valves be added to existing pipelines, Weimer said. A separate pipeline safety bill authored by California’s Democratic Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer does require this.

This week, the Pipeline Safety Trust, along with representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society and Environment America, publicly criticized an amendment to the Lautenberg bill offered by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

The Thune amendment, analogous to so-called “due process” language written by the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) and the Association of Oil Pipelines (AOPL), would among other things require USDOT to grant a hearing on the record to any operator subject to an emergency corrective action order (or civil penalty) within five days of issuing such an order (or penalty). This provision, unlike any other we can find in statute, appears designed to so burden an underfunded and understaffed regulatory agency as to ensure that the Secretary will be functionally unable to use the emergency authorities provided him to address pipeline facilities determined to be hazardous to life and property.

It is outrageous that an industry which has had as many fatal, catastrophic failures as the pipeline industry has had in the past year would complain that it was being treated unfairly by federal regulators and would seek statutory changes that would hamstring those regulators.

Sen. Thune’s office did not respond to questions about the amendment Wednesday afternoon, but the measure has reportedly been withdrawn in response to the concerns voiced by the environmental groups.

The Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011 is expected to move through committee after markup today. A vote from the full Senate is expected by August.

Today’s meeting of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will be streamed live here.

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