Pipes 'Frustrated' by Senate Panel's Safety Bill
The Senate Commerce Committee last week voted out pipeline
safety reauthorization legislation that the natural gas pipeline
industry has billed as a "gross overreaction" to an explosion
brought on by a rupture in a products pipeline last June.
The panel's bill would give states inspection and oversight
authority over interstate pipes; require interstate pipelines to
consult with states about their integrity plans; create local
citizen advisory boards to address pipe safety standards; require
uncooperative pipeline employees to be either relieved of their
duties or reassigned during a National Transportation Safety Board
(NTSB) investigation of an accident; remove the cap on civil
penalties that judges could levy against pipeline safety violators;
require the results of pipeline inspections to be posted on the
Internet; and offer protection to whistle-blowers who report
"The natural gas industry is really frustrated because we're
being dragged down with the products line," a gas pipeline source
said. "Am I allowed to curse?" he quipped when asked to comment on
the committee's bill. "It was not the happiest of moments. It was a
mess." Citizen groups called the committee's action a "modest" or
"small first step" toward ensuring safer interstate pipelines.
The legislation, if not drastically changed in conference
committee or on the Senate floor, "could frustrate a lot of
efforts" to build new interstate gas lines, the pipe source said.
Some pipeline insiders, however, doubt the committee's legislation
will ever see the Senate floor this year since it will take a
unanimous consent of all the senators to bring it up. The House
Commerce Committee marked up a "simple reauthorization" bill more
than a year ago --- prior to Bellingham. The existing pipeline
safety reauthorization bill is scheduled to expire on Sept. 30.
What was expected to have been "routine" pipeline safety
legislation in the Senate turned into a "substantive" measure in
the wake of a pipeline-related explosion that left three dead in
Bellingham, WA, a year ago, said Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA), a
leading proponent of pipeline safety reform, during mark-up of the
committee's bill last Thursday.
But interstate gas pipes felt the final committee bill went far
beyond substantive; they felt they were unduly punished. About
"42,000 people get killed by automobiles each year and nobody's
talking about that," the pipeline source noted, whereas gas
pipelines were responsible for one death in 1998 and two fatalities
The final committee legislation, S. 4238, reflected many of the
reforms proposed in three separate Senate bills, including one
introduced by Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), and a series of
amendments that were acted on during mark-up.
Pipelines lost a key battle to block states from sharing
oversight of interstate natural gas and hazardous liquid lines with
the federal government. Sens. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and John Breaux
(D-LA) tried to limit the states' authority to "inspection" only,
removing the provision that would give them "oversight" power over
interstates. But their amendment lost by one vote.
Awarding states such power over interstate pipelines made no
sense, Brownback argued, particularly when many of the
safety-related problems were occurring on LDC and intrastate lines
that are under state jurisdiction. Moreover, he said such action
would lead to a "patchwork" of differing state standards for
interstates to follow. Breaux argued that the committee's bill
violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution, which
precludes states from interfering in interstate activities.
"That's a fantastic argument," countered Gorton. Under the
legislation, he said states' authority would be kept in check by
the Department of Transportation (DOT). In other words, "I'm saying
the state would only be able to do what [the DOT] allows it to do."
The defeat of the Brownback and Breaux amendment "was terribly
frustrating" for interstate gas pipelines, noted the pipeline
source. "We just have a major problem with the way the committee
wants to exercise state and local control over interstates."
The Senate legislation also would require individual pipelines
to consult with state and local officials about their integrity
plans. So if a pipeline system traverses 12 states, it would have
to meet with state and local officials in every state.
"That doesn't make sense. You can't consult with 2,000 state
officials. You aren't going to have a lot of pipelines carrying
natural gas" then, said Breaux.
"Now that's absurd," said Martin Edwards of the Interstate
Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), referring to pipes
being required to meet with officials in each state. In a prepared
statement, INGAA President Jerald V. Halvorsen said the group was
"disappointed" by the committee's action, but he thanked Sens.
Brownback and Breaux for their efforts --- albeit unsuccessful ---
to make the legislation "more balanced."
Brownback also lost out in his effort to squelch the creation of
local citizen advisory committees to address pipe safety standards.
He said he was concerned this would lead to 50 different
committees, none of which would include pipelines. Instead, he
proposed that the location of the meetings of DOT's two existing
technical safety standards committees (one for gas and one for
liquids) rotate between the five regions of the Office of Pipeline
Safety (OPS) throughout the year. This would help to get pipe
safety issues out to the entire nation, he said. Also, he preferred
the existing technical committees because their membership was more
diverse: five members from industry; five state and local
officials; and five from the general public.
Even Gorton, who favored citizen advisory committees, said
pipelines should sit on the committees. He tried to allay
Brownback's concern that 50 different advisory committees would be
created. At most, Gorton saw the DOT allowing two or three of them
to be organized.
Another amendment, which was introduced by McCain and passed,
would require pipeline employees who refuse to cooperate with a
NTSB probe of an accident to be either relieved of their duties
during the investigation or reassigned to other tasks. This "does
not constitute a federal mandate that [an uncooperative] employee
should be fired," McCain said.
But Breaux couldn't be swayed. He said pipeline employees refuse
to talk to the NTSB because they would run the risk of being held
criminally liable if negligence is proven. "We are making the
problem worse," he said, adding the best way to get pipe employees
to open up was to change the criminal statute.
In approving the amendment, some lawmakers said they were
concerned they would be passing premature judgment on pipeline
employees, and interfering with their "due process" rights under
the fifth amendment of the Constitution. "There's not a judgment
here of guilt or innocence," McCain assured them. In an effort to
allay their fears, he asked Breaux to work with him to refine the
language of his amendment before it is sent to the Senate floor.
After citing his frustration over the OPS's failure to take
strong enforcement actions against interstate pipelines, Sen. John
Kerry (D-MA) proposed the committee uncap the amount of civil
penalties that judges could impose on pipelines that are found to
be negligent. His amendment was adopted.
Also adopted was an amendment proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)
requiring the results of interstate pipeline inspections to be
posted on the Internet, and the OPS to publicly report the actions
it takes to correct safety problems on pipelines. The committee
bill furthermore would provide protection for whistle-blowers who
report pipeline safety violations to the federal government.