House lawmakers blasted the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for failing to implement all sections of a pipeline safety law enacted in 2011. They said two recent oil spills in California and Illinois illustrate the urgency the agency faces for enacting the remaining parts of the law.
During a hearing Tuesday, members of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee -- part of the Energy & Commerce Committee -- took PHMSA Interim Executive Director Stacy Cummings to task for delays in implementing all parts of the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011.
On May 19, a Plains All American pipeline ruptured in Santa Barbara County, CA, spilling more than 100,000 gallons of oil and fouling beaches along the coast of Southern California (see Shale Daily, June 1). Last Friday, approximately 4,200 gallons of oil spilled from a Plains pump station in southwest Illinois, about 40 miles from St. Louis, MO.
"It cannot be said for certain that full implementation of the Pipeline Safety Act would have made a difference in Santa Barbara or any other individual oil spill or natural gas pipeline explosion," said subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY). "Nonetheless, we owe it to the American people to ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to ensure the safety of the nation's pipelines.
But Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) said the spills could have been avoidable, had PHMSA implemented all sections of the law.
"I am disappointed that more than one-third of its requirements remain incomplete long after congressionally mandated deadlines have passed," Upton said. This includes several of the law's most important mandates, such as automatic and remote-controlled shutoff valves, leak detection, accident and incident notification, excess flow valves, and maximum allowable operating pressure.
"Some of these provisions probably would have made a difference in the recent oil spill in Santa Barbara had they been implemented by PHMSA in a timely manner...there is no question something needs to change with the way PHMSA is implementing the Pipeline Safety Act."
Cummings said PHMSA has made "considerable progress" in completing 26 of the 42 mandates outlined in the Pipeline Safety Act but was elusive when lawmakers asked for a specific timeframe for when they would be completed.
"Of the remaining mandates and non-mandated actions, more than 10 will be addressed as part of current rulemaking activities while others are tied to reports that are currently under internal review, or future rulemakings or information collections currently under consideration," Cummings said in her written testimony, adding that the agency currently has eight rulemakings in progress.
"We expect to issue many of our significant rules, including our notices of proposed rulemaking for gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipelines by the end of the year. These rulemakings are important priorities for the department and address several important mandates. We are working as hard and as quickly as possible to address all of stakeholder input we are receiving, publish the needed rules, and satisfy the remaining mandates."
But Cummings's testimony didn't resolve all lawmakers' concerns.
"How do you grade your performance?" Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) asked Cummings. "Do you think it's a passing grade? Is it a 'C?' A 'B?' Did you do what you were asked to do? What's the schedule? Are you going to finish at the end of this year? Is it going be spring of next year? When? Don't tell me to go find it myself on a website."
Donald Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), urged lawmakers to reauthorize the Pipeline Safety Act.
"Some have suggested that the upcoming reauthorization should be for a limited term of two years rather than the typical four or five years," Santa said in written testimony. "INGAA questions the utility of such a limited effort. Congress should gather the information needed and make the legislative changes necessary to have confidence in enacting a four-year reauthorization.
"PHMSA needs certainty too, and a shortened reauthorization term would deprive the agency of the assurance needed to devote its undivided attention to fulfilling its mission."
Ron Bradley -- vice president of gas operations for PECO Energy, speaking on behalf of the American Gas Association -- echoed that sentiment.
"We believe progress is being made to fully address all Congressional mandates, and would respectively urge that we stay the course in working on those provisions and not begin layering on additional responsibilities that will lead to less regulatory certainty, or worse yet lead to a detour from work already commenced," Bradley said.
"We would urge that we stay the course in developing comprehensive, risk based rules to comply with the legislation and provide the regulatory certainty that is essential to ensuring a safe and reliable natural gas distribution system. Many of these rules have just been implemented and need time to work before assessing whether additional changes need to be made to enhance safety."