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House Passes Pipeline Safety Bill; Senate Vote Expected This Week

The U.S. House of Representatives passed by a voice vote late Wednesday its version of a pipeline safety bill, which includes changes to the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

Jim Billimoria, spokesman for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I), told NGI on Thursday that House lawmakers pre-conferenced with their counterparts in the Senate over the Senate’s bill, S 2276, before Wednesday night's passage. He added that the bill is expected to go to the Senate floor this week. If it passes, it will head to the president's desk.

S 2276, also known as SAFE PIPES Act of 2016, reauthorizes PHMSA and the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund through fiscal year (FY) 2019. The DOT will also be authorized to allocate revenue from collected fees into an Underground Natural Gas Storage Facility Safety account, from FY 2017-2019.

The bill also calls for the U.S. Comptroller General to issue two reports: on integrity management programs for natural gas pipeline facilities and for hazardous liquid pipeline facilities. The comptroller is to present the report to three Congressional committees: the House T&I Committee; the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Another provision of S 2276 calls for the DOT secretary to convene a workgroup to consider the development of a voluntary system to share information and encourage collaboration on improving safety inspections of gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipeline facilities. The workgroup is to include PHMSA, industry stakeholders, safety advocates, and state public utility commissions and inspectors, among others.

S 2276 also calls for the DOT secretary to submit a report to the three aforementioned Congressional committees on the feasibility of creating a national integrated pipeline safety regulatory inspection database, with the purpose of improving communication and cooperation between PHMSA and state pipeline regulators. Under a House amendment, the DOT secretary will also be given new powers to issue emergency orders in the event a pipeline poses an imminent hazard to public health, safety or the environment.

PHMSA's administrator will also be required to submit a report to Congress on leaks from natural gas distribution pipelines and systems. The report will analyze the different reporting standards and requirements among various federal and state agencies on leaks, and it will explain the reasoning behind any discrepancies. It will also look into whether separate or alternative reporting methods would be more effective, and describe the potential safety issues associated with lost or unaccounted for natural gas.

That reporting should mesh with another provision contained in S 2276: the creation of the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak Task Force, which will investigate last year's incident at the underground storage field in southern California (see Daily GPINov. 12, 2015). The task force, which will be led by the Secretary of Energy, will analyze and determine the cause and contributing factors for the leak, and make recommendations to prevent future leaks.

The PHMSA administrator will also consult with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, when appropriate, during the pre-filing procedures and permitting process for new natural gas pipeline infrastructure.

House lawmakers set aside 40 minutes of debate for S 2276 late Wednesday.

"The vast network of energy pipelines in this country is essentially out of sight, out of mind for most Americans, but when something goes wrong, these facilities can make themselves known in devastating and sometimes deadly ways," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ). "The legislation before us, while not the bill that maybe [Democrats] would have written...is a good proposal that moves the ball forward on safety."

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) added "pipelines are vital for getting energy products to markets and users. It is one of the safest modes of transportation, if not the safest. I believe this bill will build on the safety advances that we have been making."

Don Santa, CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) praised the House for working in a bipartisan fashion to pass the bill.

"Overall, S 2276 meets INGAA's goals for the current reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Act," Santa said. "These goals include: reasonable authorization levels for PHMSA; a focus on PHMSA completing the regulatory mandates under the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011; and a requirement that PHMSA set minimum federal safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities.

"We hope the Senate can pass this bill, and send it to the president for his signature, as soon as possible."

A bipartisan group of Senators introduced the bill that would eventually become S 2276 last November (see Daily GPINov. 13, 2015). At the time, the bill's top provision called for improving the turnaround time of inspection reports by PHMSA.

House lawmakers have had PHMSA in its crosshairs for more than a year, taking the agency to task for failing to implement all sections of the 2011 pipeline safety law (see Daily GPIJuly 14, 2015Jan. 4, 2012). During a House subcommittee hearing last July, PHMSA interim Executive Director Stacy Cummings said the agency had made progress in completing 26 of 42 total mandates required by the 2011 law.

PHMSA also attracted the ire of the DOT's Office of Inspector General (IG), which said in 2014 that the agency has done a lackluster job of making sure state regulators enforce operators' compliance with federal pipeline safety regulations (see Daily GPIMay 9, 2014). The IG probe was prompted by the September 2010 natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno, CA, which killed eight people and injured dozens more (see Daily GPISept. 13, 2010).

PHMSA oversees 2.6 million miles of pipeline across the United States.

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