President Obama on Wednesday signed into law a sweeping pipeline safety bill, which includes changes to the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
S 2276, also known as SAFE PIPES Act of 2016, passed both chambers of Congress with broad bipartisan support. It cleared the House on June 8, followed by the Senate five days later (see Daily GPI, June 14; June 9).
A bipartisan group of senators introduced the bill that would eventually become S 2276 last November (see Daily GPI, Nov. 13, 2015). At the time, the bill's top provision called for improving the turnaround time of pipeline inspection reports by PHMSA.
"[The president] has signed the SAFE PIPES Act into law," Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), the bill's sponsor and chairman of the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee, tweeted on Wednesday. She thanked Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Steve Daines (R-MT) and Gary Peters (D-MI). "[Hat tip] for the great teamwork."
Don Santa, CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said the organization appreciates "the president, the House, the Senate, the committees of jurisdiction and the bill's sponsors for working together in a bipartisan fashion to move this important piece of legislation into law.
"Members of the of the interstate natural gas pipeline industry are already hard at work building on Congress' efforts to enhance the nation's pipeline through an aggressive safety program, anchored with an overarching goal of zero pipeline incidents."
Washington, DC-based attorney Gene Elrod, who co-leads the global energy practice for Sidley Austin LLP, told NGI on Wednesday that while the goal of the SAFE PIPES Act “is to extend and enhance the nation’s pipeline safety program, much work remains to be done to implement the new legislation.
“For example, the legislation substantially broadens PHMSA’s authority to issue emergency orders to abate imminent hazards and requires PHMSA to issue temporary regulations within 60 days (and final regulations within nine months) to implement that authority. It’s safe to assume that all stakeholders -- the pipeline industry; shippers; local and state governments; and watchdog groups -- will be intensely involved in that rulemaking process over the next 60 days and beyond to make sure their views are heard and captured in the final regulations.”
The new law reauthorizes PHMSA through fiscal year (FY) 2019. It also reauthorizes the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund through FY 2019 and gives the DOT authorization to allocate revenue from collected fees into an Underground Natural Gas Storage Facility Safety account, from FY 2017 to 2019.
The bill also calls for the U.S. Comptroller General to issue two separate reports, one on integrity management programs for natural gas pipeline facilities and one regarding hazardous liquid pipeline facilities. The comptroller is to present the reports to the House Transportation & Infrastructure 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 developing 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 House and Senate 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.
PHMSA's administrator would also be required to submit a report to Congress concerning leaks from natural gas distribution pipelines and systems. The report would analyze the different reporting standards and requirements among various federal and state agencies on leaks, and it would explain the reasoning behind any discrepancies. It would 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 to investigate last year's incident at the underground storage field in Southern California (see Daily GPI, Nov. 12, 2015). The task force, to be led by the Secretary of Energy, is to analyze and determine the cause and contributing factors for the leak, and make recommendations to prevent future leaks.
The PHMSA administrator would 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 have had PHMSA in their 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 GPI, July 14, 2015; Jan. 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 to ensure state regulators enforced operators' compliance with federal pipeline safety regulations (see Daily GPI, May 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 GPI, Sept. 13, 2010).
PHMSA oversees 2.6 million miles of pipeline across the United States.