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House Subcommittee Advances Pipeline Safety Bill*

The U.S. House Energy and Power Subcommittee unanimously approved a draft version of a bill to reauthorize the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act.

A discussion draft of the bill -- also known as the Pipeline Safety Act of 2016 -- passed the subcommittee on Wednesday. Dan Schneider, a spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce (E&C) Committee, told NGI on Thursday that the bill is expected to go through the full committee in the coming weeks.

"We've built upon the draft that we discussed in the legislative hearing and made some significant improvements," the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY), said in a statement. "The discussion draft considered today contains targeted mandates for PHMSA to increase transparency and accountability, complete overdue regulations, and improve safety."

E&C Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) called Wednesday's hearing on the bill "a starting point.

"As we've done before, we're working on a bipartisan basis to identify weaknesses in our pipeline safety laws and develop solutions," Upton said. "I believe it's particularly important to tighten inspection requirements for certain underwater oil pipelines...We can do better to improve pipeline safety. This draft is an important step forward, but we still have more work to do."

The bill contains a provision, Section 15, granting the secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT) the power to "impose operational controls, restrictions [and] prohibitions" if the secretary determines that there are unsafe conditions or practices in the transport of natural gas or hazardous liquids, which are either causing or contributing to an emergency situation.

During Wednesday's hearing, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) introduced an amendment to strike the provision, but he withdrew it at the request of Upton and Whitfield and "in the spirit of bipartisanship." He added that Section 15 "gives extraordinary orders" to the DOT secretary.

"It basically gives the secretary a tool to use, if he or she is so inclined, to blackmail the industry," Barton said. "This is a very serious issue...I fully intend to vigorously work to make sure that the language that's in the draft before us is either dropped or radically changed so that we don't give such open-ended authority to the secretary."

The Section 15 in the current version of the bill differs from an earlier provision with the same number. That provision would have allowed private citizens to sue PHMSA for perceived "failure to perform any non-discretionary duty..." The oil and gas industry subsequently urged lawmakers to strike that provision (see Daily GPIMarch 2), and it was removed earlier this month.

*Corrections: In the original version of this story, which covered Wednesday's advance of a draft bill to reauthorize the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act, the story and headline both made reference to a “Section 15.” In early March, that provision would have allowed private citizens to sue the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for perceived “failure to perform and non-discretionary duty.” But lawmakers subsequently struck that provision and used the same number for a new provision granting the Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT) the power to impose emergency orders. Also, comments made by Don Santa, CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America; and Dave McCurdy, CEO of the American Gas Association, were incorrectly correlated to the bill’s advance. The comments actually addressed newly proposed safety regulations by PHMSA. NGI regrets the errors.

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