After several idle months, stronger federal pipeline safety rules are zipping through Congress, with the House passing a measure on Monday and Senate acceptance expected soon.
While not as tough as some Democrats and safety advocates had hoped, the compromise measure will extend federal safety oversight of 2.5 million miles of gas, oil and other liquid pipelines through 2015; double maximum fines for violations; add 10 federal safety inspectors; and require all pipelines—even older ones now exempted—to meet maximum pressure standards.
|The bill would require pressure testing of all pipelines, such as the 1956 line that ruptured in San Bruno, CA. But exceptions are possible.|
The latter provision is in direct response to the catastrophic 2010 explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural-gas pipeline in San Bruno, CA. The line, installed in 1956, had never undergone high-pressure water testing.
‘Why Would We Put That In?’
On the other hand, the bill ignores several safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board after the San Bruno explosion, which killed eight people, injured 58, and destroyed scores of homes.
For example, the measure requires automatic, remote-controlled shutoff valves on new gas pipelines only “where economically, technically and operationally feasible”—a condition that San Bruno’s congresswoman called a major loophole.
“It will never be ‘economically feasible’ to install such valves,” Rep. Jackie Speier told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Why would we put that language in?”
NTSB and California’s senators had recommended such valves on all pipelines in densely populated areas. It took PG&E workers more than 90 minutes to reach the main gas line and turn it off following the San Bruno rupture.
California now requires the valves.
The bill would also reverse some portions of a June order by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration eliminate industry funding, management and editing of federal pipeline safety research projects.
LaHood acted after a San Francisco Chronicle investigation found that two-thirds of PHMSA’s studies since 2002 had been largely funded by pipeline operators or organizations they control. In some cases, critical studies into safety issues were edited by trade organizations that have advocated reduced regulation, the Chronicle found.
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.
The pipeline industry strongly supports the measure, which the House approved in a rare, bipartisan voice vote Monday. A Senate vote may come as early as this week, and passage is expected.
PG&E Chief Executive Officer Anthony Earley called the bill “a positive enhancement to safety.” He added: “From what we've seen, we think it’s consistent with what we’ve already proposed.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) also praised the measure, saying it “puts in place long overdue safety improvements” and includes provisions that she and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) wrote, including calling for more inspectors and higher fines.
Safety advocates, however, said the measure fell short.
Pipeline consultant Rick Kuprewicz, who serves on a federal pipeline advisory committee, called it a “bad bill” that “gives an illusion of safety."
Kuprewicz said nearly every section contained language designed to allow the gas industry to control or influence the regulatory process, the Chronicle reported. He noted language that could allow the industry to loosen pressure-testing requirements by allowing alternative tests without defining them.
Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, told the Chronicle that that language could allow operators to use "direct assessment" testing, which failed to detect the flawed weld that led to the San Bruno explosion.
“The bill certainly doesn't go as far as we hoped,” Weimer said. On the other hand, he added: “Given the makeup of the House these days, it is luck we are not getting something that would gut regulations even more.”