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Pipes 'Frustrated' by Senate Panel's Safety Bill

Pipes 'Frustrated' by Senate Panel's Safety Bill

The Senate Commerce Committee last week voted out pipeline safety reauthorization legislation that the natural gas pipeline industry has billed as a "gross overreaction" to an explosion brought on by a rupture in a products pipeline last June.

The panel's bill would give states inspection and oversight authority over interstate pipes; require interstate pipelines to consult with states about their integrity plans; create local citizen advisory boards to address pipe safety standards; require uncooperative pipeline employees to be either relieved of their duties or reassigned during a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation of an accident; remove the cap on civil penalties that judges could levy against pipeline safety violators; require the results of pipeline inspections to be posted on the Internet; and offer protection to whistle-blowers who report violations.

"The natural gas industry is really frustrated because we're being dragged down with the products line," a gas pipeline source said. "Am I allowed to curse?" he quipped when asked to comment on the committee's bill. "It was not the happiest of moments. It was a mess." Citizen groups called the committee's action a "modest" or "small first step" toward ensuring safer interstate pipelines.

The legislation, if not drastically changed in conference committee or on the Senate floor, "could frustrate a lot of efforts" to build new interstate gas lines, the pipe source said. Some pipeline insiders, however, doubt the committee's legislation will ever see the Senate floor this year since it will take a unanimous consent of all the senators to bring it up. The House Commerce Committee marked up a "simple reauthorization" bill more than a year ago --- prior to Bellingham. The existing pipeline safety reauthorization bill is scheduled to expire on Sept. 30.

What was expected to have been "routine" pipeline safety legislation in the Senate turned into a "substantive" measure in the wake of a pipeline-related explosion that left three dead in Bellingham, WA, a year ago, said Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA), a leading proponent of pipeline safety reform, during mark-up of the committee's bill last Thursday.

But interstate gas pipes felt the final committee bill went far beyond substantive; they felt they were unduly punished. About "42,000 people get killed by automobiles each year and nobody's talking about that," the pipeline source noted, whereas gas pipelines were responsible for one death in 1998 and two fatalities in 1999.

The final committee legislation, S. 4238, reflected many of the reforms proposed in three separate Senate bills, including one introduced by Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), and a series of amendments that were acted on during mark-up.

Pipelines lost a key battle to block states from sharing oversight of interstate natural gas and hazardous liquid lines with the federal government. Sens. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and John Breaux (D-LA) tried to limit the states' authority to "inspection" only, removing the provision that would give them "oversight" power over interstates. But their amendment lost by one vote.

Awarding states such power over interstate pipelines made no sense, Brownback argued, particularly when many of the safety-related problems were occurring on LDC and intrastate lines that are under state jurisdiction. Moreover, he said such action would lead to a "patchwork" of differing state standards for interstates to follow. Breaux argued that the committee's bill violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution, which precludes states from interfering in interstate activities.

"That's a fantastic argument," countered Gorton. Under the legislation, he said states' authority would be kept in check by the Department of Transportation (DOT). In other words, "I'm saying the state would only be able to do what [the DOT] allows it to do."

The defeat of the Brownback and Breaux amendment "was terribly frustrating" for interstate gas pipelines, noted the pipeline source. "We just have a major problem with the way the committee wants to exercise state and local control over interstates."

The Senate legislation also would require individual pipelines to consult with state and local officials about their integrity plans. So if a pipeline system traverses 12 states, it would have to meet with state and local officials in every state.

"That doesn't make sense. You can't consult with 2,000 state officials. You aren't going to have a lot of pipelines carrying natural gas" then, said Breaux.

"Now that's absurd," said Martin Edwards of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), referring to pipes being required to meet with officials in each state. In a prepared statement, INGAA President Jerald V. Halvorsen said the group was "disappointed" by the committee's action, but he thanked Sens. Brownback and Breaux for their efforts --- albeit unsuccessful --- to make the legislation "more balanced."

Brownback also lost out in his effort to squelch the creation of local citizen advisory committees to address pipe safety standards. He said he was concerned this would lead to 50 different committees, none of which would include pipelines. Instead, he proposed that the location of the meetings of DOT's two existing technical safety standards committees (one for gas and one for liquids) rotate between the five regions of the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) throughout the year. This would help to get pipe safety issues out to the entire nation, he said. Also, he preferred the existing technical committees because their membership was more diverse: five members from industry; five state and local officials; and five from the general public.

Even Gorton, who favored citizen advisory committees, said pipelines should sit on the committees. He tried to allay Brownback's concern that 50 different advisory committees would be created. At most, Gorton saw the DOT allowing two or three of them to be organized.

Another amendment, which was introduced by McCain and passed, would require pipeline employees who refuse to cooperate with a NTSB probe of an accident to be either relieved of their duties during the investigation or reassigned to other tasks. This "does not constitute a federal mandate that [an uncooperative] employee should be fired," McCain said.

But Breaux couldn't be swayed. He said pipeline employees refuse to talk to the NTSB because they would run the risk of being held criminally liable if negligence is proven. "We are making the problem worse," he said, adding the best way to get pipe employees to open up was to change the criminal statute.

In approving the amendment, some lawmakers said they were concerned they would be passing premature judgment on pipeline employees, and interfering with their "due process" rights under the fifth amendment of the Constitution. "There's not a judgment here of guilt or innocence," McCain assured them. In an effort to allay their fears, he asked Breaux to work with him to refine the language of his amendment before it is sent to the Senate floor.

After citing his frustration over the OPS's failure to take strong enforcement actions against interstate pipelines, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) proposed the committee uncap the amount of civil penalties that judges could impose on pipelines that are found to be negligent. His amendment was adopted.

Also adopted was an amendment proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) requiring the results of interstate pipeline inspections to be posted on the Internet, and the OPS to publicly report the actions it takes to correct safety problems on pipelines. The committee bill furthermore would provide protection for whistle-blowers who report pipeline safety violations to the federal government.

Susan Parker

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