The House Energy and Commerce Committee last Wednesday approved by unanimous voice vote a pipeline safety reauthorization bill that calls on the Department of Transportation (DOT) to review the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recommendation for longer intervals between safety reassessments of natural gas pipelines, and to transmit “appropriate legislative changes” to Congress.

The bipartisan measure (HR 5782) approved by the House energy panel was a substitute version of legislation that was passed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in July. The Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee also last Wednesday introduced pipeline safety reauthorization legislation that — with the exception of the issue of pipeline reassessment intervals — mirrored many of the same provisions in the House bills.

But despite the activity on Capitol Hill, legislative analysts believe the odds aren’t good that a pipe safety bill will clear Congress this year. “The chances of Congress finishing a bill [this year] are fairly low,” said Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA). He cited an “uncertain schedule, a lame-duck session” as factors that are minimizing the odds.

House Energy Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) had hoped the House would approve his panel’s bill before adjourning for mid-term elections, but that didn’t seem likely Friday, according to an aide in the House Whip’s office. The two House committees must reconcile their different versions before sending a bill to the House floor. And the introduction of the Senate Commerce bill last Wednesday was the first action that the Senate has taken on pipe safety reauthorization this year.

The existing pipeline safety law, the Pipeline Safety Act of 2002, expired at the end of September.

The House energy committee bill requires the DOT to report on how it would implement the conclusions reached by the GAO in a report that was issued last month. Specifically, the GAO recommended that the federal government consider revising the existing pipeline safety law to allow natural gas pipelines to reinspect their systems for safety threats at intervals based on the risks of individual pipelines rather than at a fixed period of seven years for the entire industry, as is currently required (see NGI, Sept. 18).

The revisions, if adopted, would allow the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to establish maximum reassessment intervals of greater than seven years for less-risky pipelines, and shorter reassessment intervals for riskier gas pipelines, the GAO said in its report.

The Bush administration already has dealt with this issue in its own pipe reauthorization bill, which was unveiled last spring, and supports doing a rulemaking that would extend the reinspection intervals for gas pipelines based on risk, said INGAA’s Edwards. “We’re…frustrated that the House bill isn’t dealing with the reassessment issue” head on, he told NGI. This is a typical “post-BP reaction,” according to Edwards. “Even though the two issues aren’t related, everything is linked in the minds of Congress.”

Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the committee’s ranking Democrat, appeared to be “fairly open” to exploring longer reassessment intervals, Edwards said. “I support further examination of this issue,” Dingell said at the mark-up hearing. Congress has an “obligation to verify the conclusions in the GAO report” and to make sure that “public safety is not compromised by any change” in the pipeline safety law, he noted.

Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) said the portion of the measure addressing reassessment intervals for gas pipelines “needs more work.” The 2002 pipe safety law’s requirement that gas pipelines conduct reinspections every seven years was a “political compromise” between five and 10 years, and “does not represent the consensus of safety experts,” he noted.

The committee needs to “do more due diligence to find out exactly what the GAO’s recommendations mean to the real world before we change the reassessment interval,” Green said. He called for Congress to revisit the issue in its next session.

Green agreed with one of the GAO’s recommendations — to revise the definition of a reportable incident on a natural gas pipeline — and offered an amendment to do this. A reportable incident currently is defined as one in which property damage, including the cost of gas lost, meets a threshold of $50,000. The definition has not been adjusted over the years to take into account the increase in gas prices, and thus has resulted in many more gas pipeline incidents being reported to the DOT.

The Green amendment, which the committee adopted, would use a volume-based threshold to define reportable incidents, rather than a cost threshold.

The House energy panel’s bill also seeks to strengthen states’ one-call programs by setting new civil penalties for violators. In addition, it establishes a grant program to help states develop stronger programs to prevent excavation damage to pipelines.

While the DOT already is in full swing with its integrity management program for natural gas transmission lines, the bill would require the DOT to implement an integrity management program for gas distribution pipelines within one year of enactment of the measure.

The House energy committee’s bill seeks to increase transparency at the department as well. It would require the DOT to publish a monthly summary of its enforcement actions involving natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines.

As for the Senate measure (S. 3961), it also would establish new civil enforcement authority against excavators and pipeline operators that cause third-party damage to pipeline facilities; would provide grants to states to improve their damage-prevention programs; would require the DOT to issue integrity management standards for gas distribution lines; and would require the DOT to publish a monthly summary of enforcement actions against natural gas and hazardous liquids pipelines beginning in October 2007.

In addition, the bill provides $6 million for DOT to hire an additional 45 federal inspectors over a four-year period. The DOT’s PHMSA currently has 90 inspectors, which translates into one inspector for every 18,000 miles of pipeline in the United States.

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