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Lawmaker Points to House Pipe Safety Bill's Achilles Heel

The House pipeline safety reauthorization bill's Achilles Heel is that it grandfathers aging natural gas pipeline and distribution facilities from having to install new technology -- automatic and remote-controlled shut-off valves or excess flow valves -- to prevent explosions or quickly bring them under control once they have occurred, a California congresswoman told a House subcommittee Friday.

At the same time a federal safety official objected to a provision that would exempt incidents in highly populated areas from the higher penalties the bill would impose on other areas.

A discussion draft of the House's Pipeline Infrastructure and Community Protection Act of 2011 would require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to require natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines to use automatic or remote-controlled shut-off valves, or equivalent technology, two years after the enactment of the bill. This, however, would only apply to pipeline facilities that are constructed or "entirely replaced" after the date on which the DOT issues a final rule to implement the law.

Appearing before the House Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Energy and Power, Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), urged the House to clarify whether the bill's provision on automatic and remote shut-off valves would apply to both gas and hazardous liquid pipelines. This was Quarterman's second appearance before the subcommittee in less than a month (see Daily GPI, June 17).

No later than two years after enactment, the House measure also would require "new or entirely replaced" distribution facilities to use excess flow valves, or equivalent technology, according to the draft.

"I'm thrilled that this [subcommittee] is going to move swiftly to address this issue," Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) told the House Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Energy and Power during a hearing Friday, but she decried the fact that aging pipelines were grandfathered under the House pipeline safety bill.

"These pipes are not subject to the kind of scrutiny [of the] new pipes," she said. The explosion on the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) pipeline occurred in her district last September (see Daily GPI, Sept. 22, 2010). "I went to the funerals of eight people," and visited burn units, Speier said.

"It took an hour and 30 minutes or more for PG&E to turn off the gas" that was feeding the fire and the explosion, because company employees had to go to another community to get keys to turn off the gas, she said.

The San Bruno explosion underscores how important it is to put automatic shut-off valves on all lines, not just on new construction, she said. "If it means slightly more on my PG&E bill to [ensure safety], I'm willing to pay that price," Speier said.

She further said that PG&E has notified all of its customers of the location of their lines in the area. This "right to know should be very important to everybody," from the public to first responders. The fire chief in San Bruno didn't even know there was a transmission line running through the middle of the street, Speier said.

PHMSA's Quarterman said she supported the legislation's call to increase penalties for "knowingly and willfully" committing major violations that result in death, injuries and/or significant environmental damage. The bill seeks to raise the penalty to $250,000 for each individual violation, and to $2.5 million for a related series of violations.

"However we do not support the change the bill would make to the administration's proposal by removing incidents occurring in high-consequence areas [densely populated areas] as among the incidents subject to higher penalties. We believe higher administrative penalties for violations affecting high-consequence areas is consistent with out overall risk-based regulatory approach to pipelines and is a key part of safety," Quarterman said.

Moreover, "significant spills and incidents have occurred on gathering lines and removal of these exemptions would be consistent with PHMSA's long-standing effort to capture the remaining pipeline mileage that is currently unregulated...We strongly believe that Congress should eliminate the statutory exemptions for gathering lines. Production facilities and flow lines would remain non-jurisdictional," she said.

"It is my intent to move a bill through this subcommittee over the next couple of weeks," said Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In early May the Senate Commerce Committee voted out its pipeline safety bill (S. 275), which also would levy stiffer penalties following the rash of explosions in the past year (see Daily GPI, May 6). The House and Senate's efforts to reauthorize pipeline safety legislation come in the wake of the Sept. 9, 2010 PG&E explosion, as wells as a rash of other pipelines incidents Dec. 20, 2010).

In February a pipeline explosion in Allentown, PA, killed five people, including a four-month-old child (see Daily GPI, Feb. 11). The blast, which was apparently triggered by a "break" in UGI Corp.'s underground natural gas pipeline, affected a total of 47 properties, including 10 businesses, and forced more than 750 people to evacuate over a three-block area.

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