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Senate Commerce Committee OKs Amended Pipeline Safety Bill

The Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE PIPES) Act, designed by a bipartisan quartet of lawmakers to improve the safety of the nation's oil and natural gas pipelines and revamp procedures at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), was passed out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Wednesday morning.

The committee approved by voice vote an amended version of the bill (S2276), which was introduced last month by  Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Steve Daines (R-MT), Deb Fischer (R-NE), and Gary Peters (D-MI) (see Daily GPINov. 13). The original bill's top provision called for improving the turnaround time of inspection reports by PHMSA, an agency within the Department of Transportation. It would also require quicker dialogue between the agency and an operator following an inspection.

The bill would reauthorize PHMSA through 2019, despite withering criticism of the agency in the House earlier this year. House lawmakers in July blasted PHMSA for failing to implement all sections of the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011 (see Daily GPIJuly 14). The criticism was leveled after a pair of oil spills in California and Illinois, which lawmakers blamed on the agency's inaction.

The bill approved by the committee would enhance the safety of the nation's pipeline network, Fischer said.

"The act will ensure that PHMSA completes outstanding requirements from the 2011 reauthorization bill and statutory requests moving forward," she said. "The bill also ensures that the agency will develop minimum standards for the oversight of natural gas storage...

"The bill also addresses the agency's staffing challenges by providing direct hire authority to PHMSA, so it can hire the needed inspectors and the analysts with fewer burdens that they've been facing currently. Our bill requires PHMSA to report to congress on its inspections process, the integrity management programs, while also ensuring greater collaboration with the public and private sector stakeholders on technology and research."

Two of the five amendments included in the approved bill were introduced by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH). The first Ayotte amendment would require PHMSA to consult with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission during the pre-filing and permitting process for natural gas infrastructure. The second Ayotte amendment would allow state authorities to participate in the inspection and oversight of interstate pipeline safety. Ayotte withdrew a third amendment that she authored, but she and chairman John Thune (R-SD) said they plan to revisit the issue.

Three other amendments were introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).

"The amendments would improve the safety of aging natural gas distribution pipelines by directing PHMSA to improve the reporting of natural gas that is lost from these pipelines, and to implement any recommendations of a Government Accountability Office analysis of best practices and barriers that may exist to repairing and replacing these pipelines," Markey said.

"The other amendment would improve the ability of this committee and the congress to conduct oversight in the event of spills from oil pipelines. PHMSA has repeatedly refused to provide this committee [and] other senators from states affected by pipeline spills with unredacted copies of oil spill response plans. The amendment would require that PHMSA provide the Commerce Committee with complete and unredacted versions of these plans upon request of the chairman and ranking member."

The American Gas Association (AGA), which has urged Congress to reauthorize PHMSA, applauded the committee's approval of S2276.

"This is a great first step," said AGA CEO Dave McCurdy. "We applaud this bipartisan action and look forward to working with this committee as well as members of the House to get a final bill passed and on the president's desk as soon as possible.

"Safety is the top priority for natural gas utilities. The safety of our nation's 2.5 million miles of natural gas pipelines is always a collaborative effort between industry, federal and local regulators. The SAFE PIPES Act acknowledges the incredible progress made through the programs set forth in the 2006 and 2011 pipeline safety legislation and gives regulators the authority they need to continue to enhance the safety of our nation's natural gas pipelines."

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