Senate Commits to Pipeline Safety


The U.S. Senate has unanimously approved a bipartisan bill supporting the pipeline safety agency of the Department of Transportation and establishing safety standards for natural gas storage facilities.

The Securing America’s Future Energy: Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (SAFE PIPES) Act, approved Thursday (March 3), reauthorizes the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) to oversee the safety of pipelines that transport natural gas or hazardous liquids through 2019, political website The Hill reported.

Backed by senators Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) the bill is intended to help find ways to cut down on oil and gas spills while addressing other issues with the nation’s pipelines.

“Every day across America, resources vital to our nation’s energy and economic security move through more than 2.5 million miles of pipeline. For families, consumers, workers, and businesses across our nation, the safety and security of our extensive pipeline network must remain a top priority,” Fischer said in a statement announcing the successful passage.

“The bill we passed today will enhance the safety of these pipelines through stronger congressional oversight and necessary improvements to PHMSA,” she added.


The SAFE PIPES Act reauthorizes PHMSA from FY 2016 through FY 2019 with stipulations that make it appear to be “poised to become a more assertive, engaged agency," JDSupra Business Advisor reported.  

For example, because PHMSA’s slow regulatory process has been criticized by lawmakers (of the 42 rules mandated in the 2011 pipeline safety law, only 26 have since been completed, The Hill noted), the Act requires PHMSA to reprioritize and complete those outstanding mandates from the 2011 reauthorization bill before undertaking new rulemakings.

Additional provisions include:

  • Requesting that PHMSA conduct an assessment of inspections process and integrity management programs for natural gas and liquid pipelines;
  • Encouraging PHMSA to investigate and report on advanced mapping technologies for pipeline networks;
  • Calling for minimum standards to ensure the safety of natural gas storage facilities and establishing an Aliso Canyon working group to study and report on the recent California natural gas leak that displaced hundreds of nearby families and homeowners;
  • Ensuring coordination and collaboration on research, development and technology between PHMSA, industry and public stakeholders;
  • Authorizing funds to provide grants for state oversight programs; and
  • Requiring PHMSA to release to certain congressional committees “full and unredacted copies of oil spill response plans” upon request.

Attention to the Great Lakes Region

Additionally, the SAFE PIPES Act designates the Great Lakes as an "Unusually Sensitive Area," meaning pipeline operators are subject to increased the safety standards when working in or near the lakes, the Detroit Free Press reported.

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There are 2.6 million miles of pipelines that carry oil and natural gas in the U.S.; PHMSA's mission is to protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of  energy and other hazardous materials.

The Act also requires PHMSA and pipeline operators to consider partial or total ice-cover conditions when preparing spill response plans.

The paper cited a February 2013 winter oil spill response exercise involved two underwater petroleum pipelines that took place at the Straits of Mackinac. The exercise posed a challenge, according to Coast Guard oil contingency spill specialist Steven Keck, who said the subzero temperatures overpowered the equipment.

“An oil spill in the Great Lakes would be catastrophic—not only for Michigan’s economy and environment but for the 40 million people that rely on the Lakes as their source for clean drinking water,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) said in Fischer’s announcement.

“I’m pleased that the Senate passed this critical legislation with unanimous bipartisan support, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House to get this bill signed into law so that we can advance safety standards, improve ice cover response plans, and better protect against the devastating impacts an oil spill would have on our waterways and our way of life,” he added.

Additional Comments

The bill was introduced in November by Fischer, Booker and Peters, along with Steve Daines (R-MT). Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) are cosponsors.

PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez testified on the reauthorization before the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power Hearing on March 1.

She noted that there are 2.6 million miles of pipelines that carry oil and natural gas in the U.S., and as a result, the agency’s mission is to protect people and the environment by advancing the safe transportation of those energy and other hazardous materials.

To better anticipate and address changing market dynamics, she explained, PHMSA is updating its organizational framework to enhance its planning, performance, data and economic analysis to help improve its inspection, enforcement and regulatory capabilities and overall program execution.

This agency’s vision for its safety program, according to Dominguez, is to guarantee it remains responsive and able to address emerging safety risks and other priorities. 

She anticipates the reauthorization will allow the agency to invest in the capabilities and skills necessary to utilize data to provide timely and effective regulations, enforcement, implementation of innovative technology, research and development investments, and public outreach to become a more forward-looking, proactive, innovative, and data-driven organization.

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration.


Tagged categories: Department of Transportation (DOT); Environmental Protection; Health & Safety; North America; Oil and Gas; PHMSA; Pipeline; Pipelines; Safety

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