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PHMSA Nominee Tells Senate Panel He Will Focus on Safety, Outstanding Mandates from 2011 Law

Howard "Skip" Elliott, President Trump's nominee to serve as administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), told a Senate panel Wednesday that if confirmed, he would focus on pipeline safety and getting a dozen outstanding mandates from a 2011 pipeline safety law finally implemented.

Elliott, a 40-year veteran of the U.S. freight rail industry, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that he was "interested in exploring how technology can be deployed in other ways to enhance safety on pipelines and other forms of transportation.

"If confirmed, I would seek to encourage research and development efforts that will create and apply new and cutting-edge technology and automation to safety solutions."

During a Q&A period with the panel, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) told Elliott that PHMSA has to date only implemented 30 of 42 total mandates contained in the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011. She then asked Elliott how he would address the issue.

"I fully understand the importance of all of these Congressional mandates, and in the discussions I've had early on with the PHMSA staff, I know they understand the importance of those mandates as well," Elliott said. He added that if he was confirmed, he would work with PHMSA staff and the committee "to fully understand which of those mandates are the most critical, so perhaps we can identify those and move those forward off the table to ensure that those that have the greatest impact to safety can be completed."

He added that he wanted to "go in and see how each one of those mandates is being handled, [and see] whether or not there was an attempt to try and compress or bundle mandates together. Should we separate the important ones out and move those forward? I really need to get in and understand more of how each one of those uncompleted mandates is being handled."

According to Fischer, another federal law, the SAFE PIPES Act of 2016, required more inspectors at PHMSA, but that the agency has had trouble retaining them. Elliott promised to "figure out how we can aggressively recruit and fill any openings that we might have for these important jobs."

Fischer then pressed Elliott over concerns by stakeholders over the rulemaking process at PHMSA.

"They argue that PHMSA has attempted to merge what could be several different rulemakings into one 'mega-rule.' The result has been that rules are delayed by years and stakeholders are being left out of the process," Fischer said. In response, Elliott said "we have to basically peel back each individual regulation and find those that deliver the greatest safety measures to the public and to the transporting folks in the United States, and work hard to get those regulations in place."

Elliott currently serves as vice president of public safety, health, environment and security for Jacksonville, FL-based CSX Transportation.

Earlier this month, three trade associations that represent the oil and gas industry -- the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Association of Oil Pipe Lines (AOPL) -- said they support Elliott's nomination.

PHMSA, an agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT), is responsible for enacting and enforcing regulations governing the transport of energy resources -- including oil and natural gas pipelines -- as well as other hazardous materials. It oversees 2.6 million miles of pipeline across the United States.

Congress has been critical of PHMSA for years. In 2015, House lawmakers blasted the agency for failing to implement all 42 mandates contained in the 2011 law.

PHMSA has 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. 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.

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