Senate Passes Bill to Improve Pipeline Safety and Increase Public Access to Information

On Oct. 17, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill to strengthen safety standards and increase public availability of inspection results and enforcement actions related to the nation’s 2.3 million miles of pipelines. The legislation was sparked by a series of deadly explosions in 2010 and 2011 that drew scrutiny to the safety of gas and oil pipelines.

Current pipeline safety standards have failed to adequately protect public safety and the environment. In 2010, there were a total of 585 reported pipeline leaks and/or explosions, resulting in 25 deaths, 111 injuries, and almost $1 billion in property damage. Weak oversight by federal and state regulators contributed to many of those pipeline accidents, including a September 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion beneath a residential subdivision in San Bruno, CA, that killed eight people, injured more than 50, and destroyed about 38 homes. The San Bruno accident inspired the pipeline safety bill.

The pipeline accident numbers are not much better for 2011 so far, with 420 incidents already, leading to 14 deaths, 39 injuries, and close to $200 million in property damage. For instance, in February, a gas explosion, which claimed five lives (including a four-year-old boy, in Allentown, PA), occurred as a pipeline erupted beneath a working-class neighborhood at night. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) oversees and publicly reports on pipeline safety, including data incidents.

The Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011

The Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011 (S. 275) would require several new safety procedures, including automatic or remote-controlled shut-off valves on new pipelines to halt oil spills and natural gas fires, more federal safety inspectors, higher penalties for safety violations, and faster notification to the government of accidents and leaks. The bill would also increase public availability of information on the pipelines – such as monthly inspection reports with all enforcement actions taken – and require that this information be made available online via PHMSA’s website.

More specifically, the bill would significantly increase the enforcement of safety standards, authorizing the hiring of 39 new PHMSA staff over the next four years to assist with pipeline inspection and enforcement support. The bill would also more than double the penalties the agency is permitted to levy to a maximum of $250,000 a day for each violation, with a cap of $2.5 million for a series of violations. Currently, inspectors can only fine companies a maximum of $100,000 a day with a $1 million cap.

Moreover, within one year, the staff would have to provide monthly updates of all completed and final natural gas and hazardous liquid pipeline inspections conducted by or reported to the PHMSA and ensure that information is publicly available on the agency’s website. This information would include the types of inspections performed, and the inspection results, including whether any violations occurred or corrective actions were taken. Greater inspection transparency will increase the level of accountability for both the inspectors and pipeline operators to identify safety problems and promptly resolve them.

The bill also calls for the agency to maintain and annually update a map of all designated "high consequence areas"; in these dense population areas, the pipelines are required to meet integrity management safety regulations. The mapping should increase participation in pipeline safety and emergency planning, especially in communities where many people are unaware that there are gas or oil pipelines running underneath them.

The bill cleared the Senate only after Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) dropped his opposition, in return for getting approval of an amendment to the bill. Surprisingly, given that Paul is one of Congress' most fierce opponents of government regulation, his amendment added a change first proposed in January by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that demands that older pipelines, like the one involved in the San Bruno explosion, be pressure-tested as newer pipelines are. More than 60 percent of the nation’s pipelines are exempt under current regulations from pressure testing and other safety procedures.

Business Support for the Pipeline Safety bill

Sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the pipeline safety bill has received widespread support from both the industry’s major trade associations, like the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, the American Gas Association, and the Association of Oil Pipelines, as well as public interest groups in this area, such as the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group.

Public interest advocates also voiced support for the intent of the bill, saying it would "increase the public’s trust in government to make pipelines safe and make clear inadequacies that need to be addressed," but called for several improvements to the legislation. For instance, Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust expressed disappointment that Lautenberg withdrew language requiring pipeline emergency response plans to be made publicly available.

These demands mirror recommendations detailed in An Agenda to Strengthen Our Right to Know, a document produced by OMB Watch and endorsed by more than 100 public interest organizations, that called for a public right to access emergency response plans related to oil and natural gas pipelines.

Following the Senate’s passage of the bill, the American Gas Association announced its support in a press statement and expressed hope that Congress would send a final bill on pipeline safety to President Obama by the end of the year. It appears that PHMSA has already begun working on new safety rules, and gas companies are afraid that the agency will issue stricter regulations than those in the bill.

Pipeline Safety amidst Production Growth

The pipeline safety bill comes amid substantial investments in U.S. natural gas and oil production. For instance, in a $20.7 billion deal, Kinder Morgan Inc. announced its plans during the week of Oct. 17 to buy El Paso Corp; the merged company would become America’s largest natural gas pipeline operator, responsible for the safety of an 80,000-mile network of pipeline.

At this moment, the Obama administration is considering whether to approve the controversial $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline project, which would transport tar sands, which are more corrosive than crude oil, from Alberta, Canada, through America’s heartland to Texas. Thousands of communities face the prospect of having a major new, potentially explosive pipeline flowing under their homes and businesses. The TransCanada oil pipeline project is opposed by many public interest organizations but is supported by industry groups and many lawmakers. In a provision that may be directed at the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the Senate bill calls for the Secretary of Transportation to complete a study of the transportation of tar sands crude oil. In particular, the bill requires that the secretary prepare a comprehensive review of hazardous liquid pipeline regulations to determine whether they are "sufficient to regulate pipelines used for the transportation of tar sands crude oil."

Next Steps

Two House committees – Energy and Commerce and Transportation and Infrastructure – have already passed separate pipeline safety bills, both of which are similar to the Senate version. The House plans to combine the two versions into a single bill to bring to a House vote by the end of the year.

Image in teaser by flickr user Travis S., used under a Creative Commons license.

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