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House Hammers Pipe Safety, Labels Bill as Too 'Soft'

House Hammers Pipe Safety, Labels Bill as Too 'Soft'

Wait until next year. That was the message from U.S. House Democrats who derailed Senate-passed pipeline safety legislation (S. 2438) in the closing days of the 106th Congress. Opponents of the measure labeled it "soft" on safety.

"The Senate bill mandates nothing beyond the current inadequate program of the Office of Pipeline Safety," Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) said in leading opposition to the Senate measure in House floor debate last Tuesday night. Oberstar noted that OPS had failed to carry out previous congressional mandates for pipeline inspections, and questioned why telling them one more time would make any difference. "OPS has not issued a single final regulation requiring inspections."

Oberstar was backed by Rep. John Dingell, (D-MI), who pointed out that the families of the two boys who died in a Bellingham, WA, liquids pipeline accident had asked that their names be taken off the bill because, "in their view, the legislation is so weak that it is unworthy of being named after their sons.

"Who does support the bill? Pipeline companies and their trade organizations. They are the only ones supporting the bill. Why? Because it is a sweetheart deal, because it is not going to do anything," Dingell continued. "I urge the legislation be rejected. We can do a better job next year. Certainly we cannot do a worse job next year."

Chairman Bud Shuster, (R-PA) of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee defended the measure as the best legislation possible in the time allowed. He noted it had the support of its Senate sponsor, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and of Washington's two senators, who have been campaigning for stronger legislation following the accident in their state.

The legislation, Shuster said, "does indeed address all of the major issues debated during the reauthorization effort on both sides of the Capitol." The vote, 232 in favor to 158 against, with 42 not voting, was 58 votes shy of two-thirds of the House.

The Interstate Natural Gas Association, which strongly supported the Senate measure, was "severely disappointed" in the failure of the House to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to run the bill through under special accelerated "suspension of the rules" procedures. The American Gas Association also found the House action Tuesday night "unfortunate."

The bill would have amended and reauthorized the 1996 Pipeline Safety Act, increasing fines, boosting state oversight, increasing funds for the OPS, and requiring more inspections and detailed reports to regulators.

The measure sailed through the Senate three weeks after the El Paso Natural Gas explosion in New Mexico, which killed 12 people (see NGI, Sept. 4; and Sept. 11).

Dingell and Oberstar had attempted to rally support for stronger House legislation, which notably would have given more power to the states and less to OPS. Their efforts, however, were mounted too late in the session to seriously challenge the Senate-passed bill. A strong safety bill offered by the administration earlier this year had been bottled up in committee (see NGI April 17).

Current authorizations under the Pipeline Safety Act officially expired last month, and while operations will continue to function, re-authorization will have to be addressed in the 107th Congress, which starts up in January.

Ellen Beswick

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