Oberstar: Clinton Pipe Safety Decree Falls Short
An advocate of stiff pipeline safety laws, Rep. James L.
Oberstar (D-MN) last week said he was "generally supportive" of the
recent move by the Department of Transportation's Office of
Pipeline Safety's (OPS) to toughen the requirements for safety
inspections of large hazardous liquid pipelines. But he believes
President Clinton's decree to the agency to beef up the safety
standards for small liquid and natural gas pipelines came up short.
"I am pleased that pipeline safety has risen to a level where
the president has taken the unusual step of directing action by the
Department of Transportation. However, I am concerned over the lack
of specificity in some of [his] directives," Oberstar, the ranking
member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,
said during a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing
on pipeline safety in Washington D.C last Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Clinton directed the OPS to develop a
comprehensive plan by Jan. 15 to improve safety standards for small
hazardous liquid and gas pipelines. "I would have preferred the
president to have directed the OPS to issue [a notice of proposed
rulemaking] by Jan. 15," Oberstar said.
"Without an NPRM in place, there is a possibility that a new
administration of either party will want to take a step back and
reassess the issues" before moving forward, he told NTSB
commissioners, industry executives and inspection experts at the
hearing, which was called in the wake of the deadly explosion on
the El Paso Natural Gas system this past summer.
Oberstar helped to drive back an effort by House Republicans
last month to pass what was seen as a weak pipeline safety bill,
effectively killing any chance for such legislation to emerge from
Congress this year.
Complementing Clinton's action was the release by the OPS of a
final rule requiring that large hazardous liquid pipelines
periodically inspect their systems at least once every five years,
use internal inspection tools or pressure tests to conduct
inspections, meet specific deadlines for repairing system defects
and develop integrity management plans. In the rule, the OPS vowed
to review each pipeline inspection plan.
Kelley S. Coyner, administrator of the DOT's Research and
Special Programs Administration, which oversees OPS, said the
department would need to double the number of its pipeline
inspectors to 110 to carry out the new rule. She noted she plans to
ask for an additional $20 million in funding for inspectors and to
conduct additional research.
NTSB Acting Chairman Jim Hall said the new OPS rule "appears to
be the first step to ensuring that pipelines are properly inspected
and tested." The NTSB has been calling for mandatory pipeline
inspections --- by in-line inspection devices, such as smart pigs
--- since the late 1980s.
Andrew Drake of Duke Energy said he was especially concerned by
Hall's singular emphasis on in-line devices for conducting
inspections, saying that the NTSB chairman seems to view these as a
"These [OPS] requirements are critically important," said
Oberstar, who believes the "mandatory inspections" will prevent
future tragedies involving pipelines. "The need for regular
inspections is particularly acute because of the age of our
pipeline system." He estimated that one-fourth of the gas pipelines
currently in operation are more than 50 years old.
Had mandatory, periodic inspections of pipelines been in place
earlier, he believes the August explosion on the El Paso system in
New Mexico - which killed 12 people - could have been avoided. The
NTSB, which still is investigating the blast, has said that failed
sections of El Paso had significant internal corrosion and
pipe-wall loss of more than 50% in some areas. The NTSB's Hall
further said the 50-year-old pipeline had never been properly
"I believe that inspections probably would have uncovered these
corrosion problems before they led to a tragedy. Without requiring
pipeline inspections, there will be more tragedies," warned
The Congressman had a problem with one aspect of the OPS rule
that would give hazardous liquid lines seven years to conduct their
first --- or baseline --- inspection of their systems. Although the
NTSB, the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection
Agency argued in favor of baseline inspections being completed in
five years, the OPS said the pipeline internal inspection industry
didn't have enough "human and mechanical resources" to internally
inspect every pipeline in the five-year timetable.
The DOT agency concluded that the pipe inspection industry had
"inadequate capacity for internal inspections over the next five
years...based largely on a brief memorandum from a consultant,"
Oberstar noted. He urged the OPS to conduct studies to resolve this
More generally, he criticized the DOT for its poor track record
on issuing regulations. In fact, the DOT's own inspector general
(IG) has concluded that it takes the department, on average, twice
as long to issue rules than it did just six years ago. In 1993, the
DOT issued 45 rules and averaged 1.8 years on each; last year, it
released 20 rules and averaged 3.8 years on each.
"The IG concluded, and I agree, that the problem is basically a
management problem," Oberstar said. "What we need are management
reforms to improve the process. DOT's senior management must make
it clear that it gives a high priority to completing rules on
If the OPS needs more lawyers to work on pipeline safety rules,
he said DOT Secretary Rodney Slater should expand the legal staff
or reassign lawyers from elsewhere in the department.
"In addition to resources, [the] OPS and the department must
have the political will to go forward with the necessary
regulations, possibly in the face of objections and delaying
tactics by a powerful and sophisticated industry."