House Passes Pipeline Safety Bill

By JOAN LOWY | December 14, 2011

The House passed a bill Monday that doubles the maximum fine for pipeline safety violations, but ignores several key recommendations arising from investigations of deadly natural gas explosions and high-profile oil spills over the past two years.

The compromise bill was passed by a voice vote. Senate action is expected this week, perhaps as early as Tuesday.

The bill extends federal safety oversight of 2.3 million miles of gas, oil and other liquid pipelines through 2015. It also doubles the maximum fine for safety violations to $2 million and authorizes the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to hire 10 more safety inspectors. That’s far fewer new inspectors than most safety experts say the agency needs.

The bill also doesn’t include several safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board in response to a Sept. 9, 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people, injured 58 others and damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes. The board blamed the accident on a series of failures by one of the nation’s largest natural gas companies, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., but it also said weak federal and state oversight contributed to the tragedy.

The bill would allow the transportation secretary to require that newly constructed pipelines include automatic shutoff valves that isolate a section of pipe in event of a rupture, preventing further gas or liquid from escaping. But NTSB said the valves are especially needed on aging pipelines in highly populated areas. Pipeline operators don’t want to be forced to install valves in those areas because it costs significantly more to install valves on lines already in place than lines being newly laid.

In the San Bruno accident, gas continued to escape for nearly 90 minutes after the rupture, feeding a giant pillar of fire that was at times 80 feet high. Investigators said the damage would have been less severe had automatic valves been in place.

The bill would require federal regulators hold off for at least two and a half years before they issue new rules to require pipeline operators to inspect the structural integrity of major transmission lines in lightly populated areas. But the bill has a caveat that allows regulations to be issued if the transportation secretary determines there’s a public safety risk.

The bill would also bar regulators from setting standards for industry on detecting leaks for at least two years.

Lawmakers said they wanted more time for Congress and the administration to study some of the safety issues.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s pipelines subcommittee, said the bill “builds on our strong commitment to ensuring the continued safety of our nation’s pipeline system” while providing “the regulatory certainty necessary for industry to make investments and create American jobs.”

Safety advocates said they were pleased to see the bill pass since getting the Republican-controlled House to approve any new regulation of industry is difficult, but their enthusiasm for the bill was lukewarm.

The bill is “a very modest step considering the numerous terrible accidents over the past two years, but better a step forward than no step at all,” said Rick Kessler, vice president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group.

Other accidents over the past two years have included gas pipeline explosions in Philadelphia and Allentown, Pa., and oil pipeline spills that fouled the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich., and the Yellowstone River near Billings, Mont.

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