The BP America oil pipeline problem in Alaska that caused the partial shutdown of the largest oil field in the U.S. will put pipeline safety front and center when Congress returns from its hiatus next week, but it’s not expected to have a spill-over effect on natural gas pipelines, said an official with a major interstate gas pipeline group.

When Congress returns, at least three hearings — by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — are planned to explore the BP oil pipeline failure. But, it’s not likely that the scope of the hearings will be expanded to delve into the safety record of natural gas pipelines as well, said Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.

“I think that’s unlikely because so much has been done on the natural gas side in the last five years,” he told NGI. “We have a credible record on pipeline safety,” Edwards said. This was backed up by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this month, when it concluded that the natural gas integrity management program appears to be doing its job to improve pipeline safety nationwide (see Daily GPI, Aug. 7). The GAO expects to report further to the House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee and other committees on this issue in September.

“I just think that there’s a solid record there” for gas pipelines, Edwards said. He expects Admiral Thomas Barrett, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, to testify at the BP pipeline hearings, and to make a distinction between the safety record of gas pipelines and the record of the BP lines.

There is a “gulf of difference” between the two. Gas pipelines have been subject to the Department of Transportation (DOT) safety regulations since 1968, he said. However, the BP oil lines have been exempt from DOT safety regulations because they are considered low risk. Edwards expects this to change.

“You could argue that the accident in Alaska makes it more likely that pipeline safety [reauthorization] will pass” Congress this year, he said. Edwards thinks it’s doable this year, even though Congress will be in session for only 15 legislative days before it adjourns to campaign for the mid-term elections in November.

“It’s a question of whether there’s enough will [on Capitol Hill] to get it done.”

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