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Senate Sends Pipeline Safety Bill to President Obama

A pipeline safety bill is headed to President Obama's desk for his signature after the U.S. Senate agreed to a House amendment to the measure by unanimous consent late Monday.

S 2276, also known as SAFE PIPES Act of 2016, passed the House last Wednesday (see Daily GPIJune 9). The bill reauthorizes the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) through fiscal year (FY) 2019.

Monday's vote in the Senate was a required nod to a House amendment giving the DOT secretary new powers to issue emergency orders in the event a pipeline poses an imminent hazard to public health, safety or the environment.

"I am proud to see this important pipeline safety bill head to the president's desk," Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), the bill's sponsor and chairman of the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee, said in a statement Monday. "This bipartisan legislation will create a safer pipeline transportation network across our country through stronger congressional oversight and increased collaboration between stakeholders. It will also provide greater resources for state and local pipeline safety officials."

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), the ranking member of the subcommittee and one of S 2276's co-sponsors, added that the bill "will implement important oversight and accountability measures, encourage the use of new technology, and help ensure pipeline safety in communities in New Jersey and around the country. I'm pleased to celebrate the bill's final passage today and see it sent to the president's desk."

Don Santa, CEO of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), thanked the Senate for passing the bill and said the organization looked forward to the president signing it.

"INGAA appreciates the hard work of the bill sponsor, Sen. Deb Fischer [R-NE], and all the members and staff of the Senate and House committees of jurisdiction, in securing a bipartisan agreement to reauthorize the federal pipeline safety program," Santa said. "This legislation meets several key goals, including directing PHMSA to regulate underground natural gas storage, something INGAA has advocated for several years. S 2276 also sets reasonable PHMSA authorization levels and directs PHMSA to complete the regulatory mandates under the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011.

"We look forward to the president making this important bill law as soon as possible."

During a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing to discuss oil and gas pipeline infrastructure on Tuesday morning, Andrew Black, president of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, also thanked the Senate for passing the bill.

"The SAFE PIPES Act will ensure pipeline operators receive timely post-inspection information from the government, to allow them to maintain and improve their safety efforts," Black said, adding the bill would also "ensure that product composition information is quickly provided to first responders after an incident, and improve protection of coastal areas, marine waters and the Great Lakes."

The American Petroleum Institute (API) also welcomed the bill's passage.

"The oil and gas industry remains committed to continuous improvement in pipeline safety," API Executive Vice President Louis Finkel said. He added that pipeline operators continue to spend billions every year on safety through evaluating, inspecting and maintaining their pipelines.

"The industry is devoted to zero incidents...Pipelines continue to be one of the safest modes for transporting energy across the country. As domestic production grows, they will be the critical link to connect our abundant oil and natural gas resources to refineries, chemical plants, business and consumers."

S 2276 reauthorizes the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund through FY 2019, and gives the DOT authorization to allocate revenue from collected fees into an Underground Natural Gas Storage Facility Safety account, from FY 2017 to 2019.

The bill also calls for the U.S. Comptroller General to issue two reports: on integrity management programs for natural gas pipeline facilities and for hazardous liquid pipeline facilities. The comptroller is to present the report to three Congressional committees: the House T&I Committee; the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Another provision of S 2276 calls for the DOT secretary to convene a workgroup to consider the development of a voluntary system to share information and encourage collaboration on improving safety inspections of gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipeline facilities. The workgroup is to include PHMSA, industry stakeholders, safety advocates, and state public utility commissions and inspectors, among others.

S 2276 also calls for the DOT secretary to submit a report to the three aforementioned Congressional committees on the feasibility of creating a national integrated pipeline safety regulatory inspection database, with the purpose of improving communication and cooperation between PHMSA and state pipeline regulators.

PHMSA's administrator will also be required to submit a report to Congress on leaks from natural gas distribution pipelines and systems. The report will analyze the different reporting standards and requirements among various federal and state agencies on leaks, and it will explain the reasoning behind any discrepancies. It will also look into whether separate or alternative reporting methods would be more effective, and describe the potential safety issues associated with lost or unaccounted for natural gas.

That reporting should mesh with another provision contained in S 2276: the creation of the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak Task Force, which will investigate last year's incident at the underground storage field in southern California (see Daily GPI, Nov. 12, 2015). The task force, which will be led by the Secretary of Energy, will analyze and determine the cause and contributing factors for the leak, and make recommendations to prevent future leaks.

The PHMSA administrator will also consult with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, when appropriate, during the pre-filing procedures and permitting process for new natural gas pipeline infrastructure.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced the bill that would eventually become S 2276 last November (see Daily GPI, Nov. 13, 2015). At the time, the bill's top provision called for improving the turnaround time of inspection reports by PHMSA.

House lawmakers have had PHMSA in its crosshairs for more than a year, taking the agency to task for failing to implement all sections of the 2011 pipeline safety law (see Daily GPI, July 14, 2015; Jan. 4, 2012). During a House subcommittee hearing last July, PHMSA interim Executive Director Stacy Cummings said the agency had made progress in completing 26 of 42 total mandates required by the 2011 law.

PHMSA 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 of making sure state regulators enforce operators' compliance with federal pipeline safety regulations (see Daily GPI, May 9, 2014). 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 (see Daily GPI, Sept. 13, 2010).

PHMSA oversees 2.6 million miles of pipeline across the United States.

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