Congressional leaders reach agreement on pipeline safety
House and Senate leaders on Thursday reached agreement on tougher safety rules for the nation’s vast network of pipelines in the wake of a spate of incidents including a deadly pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., last year that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
The measure would double the maximum fine for safety violations, from $1 million to $2 million, and require automatic and remote-controlled shut-off valves, "where economically, technically, and operationally feasible," on new gas pipelines.
But it does not include a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to require automatic and remote-controlled shut-off valves on existing pipelines in heavily populated areas. That recommendation came in response to the nearly 95 minutes it took utility workers to manually shut off gas spewing from the San Bruno site. That idea has run into industry opposition because of the potential cost.
The legislation directs the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, to conduct a study on the "costs, risks, and benefits" of requiring automatic and remote-controlled shut-off values on existing pipelines.
The legislation has drawn rare bipartisan support in a hyper-partisan Congress because of growing concern over pipeline safety. There were two high-profile incidents this year -- a pipeline explosion that killed five people in Allentown, Pa., and a pipeline spill in the Yellowstone River in Montana. Last year, there was a pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
“Pipeline safety is an issue that is important to all Americans, but it hits especially close to home for me as I have witnessed a pipeline tragedy in my home district," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Erin Ryan, an aide to Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has pushed for tough pipeline safety legislation, was reviewing the measure but was concerned that it "doesn't do enough to protect public safety.''
The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act is expected to move swiftly through the House and Senate and to President Obama for his expected signature.
According to a House staffer, the measure includes a provision sought by senators that would require older, untested pipes operating at high pressure — such as the one that exploded under San Bruno — to be strength-tested to establish safe maximum operating pressures.
The bill authorizes additional safety inspectors once the Department of Transportation fills existing vacancies, and directs the secretary of Transportation to report to Congress, within a year after the bill’s passage, if there are still vacancies, and if so, why.
“This important legislation builds on our strong commitment to ensuring the continued safety of our nation’s pipeline system and provides the regulatory certainty needed for industry to make investments and create American jobs,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee that oversees pipelines.
Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Assn. of America, welcomed the agreement and expressed confidence that a safety bill would be aproved this year.
The Transportation Department is considering additional measures to strengthen pipeline safety rules. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed state legislation in October to require automatic shut-off valves in vulnerable areas and ensure that gas companies pressure-test transmission lines.
--Richard Simon in Washington
PHOTO: Flames from last year's pipeline explosion in San Bruno. Credit: Karl Mondon / Contra Costa Times