Pipelines 'Troubled' by Change in Senate's Pipe Safety Bill
By 98-0, the Senate last week voted out what one lawmaker dubbed
the "strongest and most comprehensive" pipeline-safety bill ever
passed in Congress, with provisions calling for stepped-up
inspections for natural gas and hazardous liquid lines and stiffer
penalties against safety violators.
The bill (S. 235) essentially mirrors the legislation that was
passed by the Senate last year, with one "significant" change ---
it would require gas and hazardous liquid pipelines to undergo
safety inspections every five years. But, as with any Capitol Hill
legislation, it would allow waivers under certain circumstances.
Still, pipeline representatives in Washington D.C. weren't happy
with the change.
The Senate approved the bill after reaching a "compromise" on an
key amendment, offered by Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ), which sought to
replace the "periodic" inspections called for in the original bill
with mandatory pipeline inspections every five years. As a result
of the last-minute compromise worked out Thursday, pipes would be
exempt from the five-year review under certain conditions, such as
if the technology isn't available to perform a safety inspection,
or if an inspection would significantly interfere with a pipeline's
ability to deliver gas or liquids
The inclusion of this "compromise" amendment in the legislation
represents a big defeat for interstate natural gas pipelines
because it sets a specific timetable for inspections to be
The change is "deeply troubling" for interstate gas pipelines,
said a Washington pipeline lobbyist. The compromise on the
amendment was "very poorly drafted," and thus left pipelines unsure
of what to make of it. "But based on what we think its intent
is...we would have some problems" with it, he said.
"We don't see the justification for a five-year inspection
interval," the pipeline lobbyist said, adding it would require an
"enormous amount of resources" from pipes during a time when
they're running flat out to meet increased gas demand. He believes
10-15 years ought to be the "most logical standard" for an
He further criticized a provision in the compromise amendment
that makes it the responsibility of the Department of
Transportation's Inspector General (IG) to issue waivers to
pipelines. The IG "would be under a lot of political pressure not
to waive that standard."
The legislation, which was co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain
(R-AZ) and Patty Murray (D-WA) and a number of other senators,
"does not go far enough to ensure the safety and integrity of
natural gas pipelines" in New Jersey or elsewhere in the nation,
said Corzine, as he offered the controversial amendment, along with
Corzine also sought to add provisions calling for stricter
community right-to-know laws with respect to pipelines,
certification of pipeline personnel and steeper liability penalties
for pipeline-safety violators, but these were defeated.
Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) backed his colleague, even though
he voted for the McCain-Murray bill last year. That bill was and is
a "good first step" in strengthening pipeline-safety regulations,
but "we're going to insist" that these amendments be included, he
In pressing for the stiffer amendments, both Torricelli and
Corzine reminded lawmakers of the March 1994 explosion on Texas
Eastern Transmission that turned "peaceful, suburban" Edison, NJ,
into a "war zone." Other senators, in pushing for a stricter
pipe-safety law, recounted the details of the deadly explosions on
El Paso Natural Gas last summer near Carlsbad, NM, and on Olympic
Pipe Line in Bellingham, WA, nearly two years ago.
McCain and Murray re-introduced their legislation last month
after it was derailed in the House of Representatives during waning
days of the 106th Congress, failing to garner the necessary
two-thirds vote. Key House lawmakers, Reps. John Dingell (D-MI and
James L. Oberstar (D-MN), spearheaded the defeat, claiming that the
Senate bill was too soft on pipeline-safety violators.
Prior to reaching the compromise, McCain said he "could not
support them [amendments] at this time," but he agreed to "examine
any recommendations [and] proposals" during conference on the
Senate and House bills. Murray called Corzine's amendments
"excellent provisions," and said they should be included in the
final pipeline-safety bill "regardless of what happens here today."
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and others urged the Senate to pass a
"clean bill," minus any amendments. "This issue is too important to
be cluttered by hasty changes," he said.
The Senate-approved bill also includes a couple of other
amendments that have nothing to do with pipeline safety. One calls
for a federal study to be conducted into the gas price spikes and
shortages that have occurred this winter, while another would
require a study of the gas pipeline capacity situation in New
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) used the debate on pipeline safety
to announce new legislation that would direct the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission to impose cost-based rates on wholesale power
transactions when it finds that energy suppliers are charging
"unjust and unreasonable" rates.
The bill would be an alternative to the legislation she proposed
last month, which seeks to give the Energy Secretary the authority
to impose either a regional price cap or cost-based rates when
wholesale power rates are found to be "unjust and unreasonable."
Feinstein believes her two bills are necessary to provide
"short-term price stability" until the California power market can
"straighten itself out" by getting new generation facilities sited,
permitted and built.
Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) said he favored Feinstein's alternative
measure, noting that eight western governors had written President
Bush to urge the federal government not to go in the direction of a
regional price cap.
Feinstein said she had planned to offer her proposal as an
amendment to the McCain-Murray pipeline safety bill, but agreed to
introduce it as a stand-alone measure after Sens. Frank Murkowski
(R-AK) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) promised to schedule a hearing on
the bill before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
by the end of the month.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) offered up an amendment --- which
received bipartisan support --- calling for the National Academy of
Sciences to conduct a 60-day study of the high gas prices and
supply shortages that the nation has experienced this winter. It
directs the Academy to review a "range of solutions," such as
establishing a reserve for natural gas. The Senate also adopted an
amendment, sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), to study the
capacity of natural gas pipelines serving the New England region.
Murray expressed concern about President Bush's energy policy
proposal that calls for streamlining the pipeline certification
process. She urged him "not to do this at the expense of safety or
the environment," adding that he would be replacing an "energy
crisis with a safety crisis."
Murkowski, however, said he believes the Senate's
pipeline-safety bill and the president's national energy policy
will "complement" each other.
In addition to requiring inspections of interstate pipes every
five years, the Senate bill will increase the maximum civil
penalties for a single safety violation and for a series of safety
violations, give states an increased role in inspecting and
overseeing pipelines, require pipeline operators to carry out
continuing public education programs, augment pipeline reporting
requirements to states and local authorities, provide for
investments in new inspection technology and offer protection for
The issue of pipeline safety now moves to the House, which is
expected to draft its own bill rather than act on the Senate
measure. But the House "probably won't act on this for months,"
predicted a pipeline source.
The House currently has two pipe-safety bills pending, one from
Oberstar and another from Rep. Rich Larsen (D-WA). Larsen
introduced legislation last week that contains a number of
provisions similar to those found in the Senate measure. It calls
for the establishment of minimum standards for training and
evaluating of pipeline personnel, strengthening public
right-to-know laws with respect to pipeline operations and
inspection results, greater state oversight over pipelines, and
"...[T]his is not the end of the discussion on pipeline safety.
It's just the beginning," Sen. Murray declared last Thursday.