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Pipe Safety Debate Comes Down to Wire

Pipe Safety Debate Comes Down to Wire

Calling the deadly explosions on the El Paso Natural Gas and Olympic Pipe Line systems the "most visible indications of a serious, long-term problem," Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN) introduced pipeline safety legislation last week in the House that he says takes a tougher stance against natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines than does the Senate measure passed last month.

Some, however, don't believe it has a prayer of getting through the House before Congress adjourns this week. "...I think it's a little too late. It's got a lot of similarity to the Senate bill. From Mr. Oberstar's perspective, it puts a finer point on a lot of issues, but it has absolutely no chance of going anywhere," said a Washington DC lobbyist for the pipeline industry.

In order for Congress to get a pipeline safety reauthorization measure to President Clinton before the 106th session ends, he believes the House has no other choice than to adopt the Senate's legislation. "That's the only chance of a pipeline safety bill being passed this year." There could be a vote in the House on the Senate bill this week, he speculated, "but that hasn't been officially scheduled yet."

Oberstar, the ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, contends it would be a "serious mistake" for the House to approve the Senate pipeline safety bill unchanged. Not only does it fail to "deal satisfactorily" with key safety issues, he said, but passage of the legislation by both houses would foreclose any opportunity for Capitol Hill to take any further action on the issue during the next three years. Oberstar's committee shares jurisdiction over pipeline safety with the House Commerce Committee.

"We are trying to find ways to bring the bill up on its own [on the House floor] or as a substitute amendment to the Senate bill," said a press aide to Oberstar. Whether this can be done will depend on the House Republican leadership. If the House does somehow amend the Senate bill, it would then have to be sent back to the Senate. If the Senate opposes the amendment, the bill would be referred to conference committee, which would pretty much kill any chance for pipeline safety legislation this year.

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater applauded Oberstar and Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), a co-sponsor of the bill, for introducing the legislation. He further urged the House leadership to move quickly to pass a comprehensive safety measure.

The 1996 pipeline safety law expired last month. But "that doesn't mean it [the pipe safety program] completely shuts down if you don't pass a reauthorization bill" this year. "It just continues to operate as is," said a pipeline source.

Both the Oberstar bill and Senate legislation require periodic inspections of gas and hazardous pipelines located in densely populated areas, as well as the implementation of integrity management programs. The key difference, however, is that while the Senate bill requires the Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) to enact regulations requiring these actions, the Oberstar measure would bypass the OPS and require gas and liquid pipelines to comply statutorily.

Oberstar said he took this approach because legislation requiring the OPS to adopt regulations mandating periodic pipeline inspections "has been tried and failed." It's been eight years since Congress first directed the OPS to devise such regulations, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been calling for periodic inspections for 13 years. Still, the OPS "has not issued a single regulation imposing pipeline inspection requirements," he said.

Susan Parker

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