The deadly explosion that occurred on El Paso Natural Gas’ pipeline Aug. 19 in Carlsbad, NM, killing 12 people who were camping nearby provided enough incentive for the Senate to swiftly pass pipeline safety legislation last week. However, critics say the legislation fails miserably by doing nothing to improve the terrible track record of the government agency in charge of overseeing pipeline safety.

Thursday evening the Senate approved the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act, S. 2438, a bill the pipeline industry says is tougher than expected but apparently not unbearable. The legislation would increase fines, boost state oversight, increase funding for the Department of Transportation’s Office of Pipeline Safety, require more inspections and detailed reports to regulators, and would grant whistleblower status to pipeline workers who have information about safety problems.

The bill was introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and is cosponsored by Sens. Slade Gorton (R-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Pete Domenici (R-NM), and Charles Robb (D-VA). It passed less than a week after Congress returned from its August recess. It now will be sent to the House.

“We must do everything in our power to prevent needless deaths, destructive fires and environmental damage that occur as a result of unsafe pipelines,” McCain said in a statement. “To do less is a risk to public safety. Sadly, this legislation is in large part in response to two devastating pipeline accidents that have occurred in the states of Washington and New Mexico during the past 15 months.”

A total of 15 lives were lost in those accidents. Three young men endured fatal injuries in June 1999 in Bellingham, WA, when 227,000 gallons of gasoline leaked from an underground pipeline and were accidentally ignited. Last month, 12 members of two families camping in New Mexico lost their lives because of the El Paso rupture.

The McCain legislation would require DOT to issue regulations mandating that pipeline operators periodically determine the adequacy of their pipelines to safely operate and to adopt and implement integrity management programs to reduce identified risks. It also would require a pipeline operator to carry out a continuing public education program. It would increase the level of maximum civil penalties for a violation from $25,000 to $100,000. The maximum civil penalty for a series of safety regulation violations would be increased from $500,000 to $1 million. It also would enhance the state oversight role by permitting states that have the authority over intrastate lines to enter into agreements with the Transportation Secretary to participate in the oversight of interstate lines. It directs the Transportation Secretary to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to collect and use pipeline data in a manner that would enable incident trend analysis and evaluations of operator performance. It also provides for a collaborative research and development effort on pipeline safety.

The three-year bill authorizes federal funding at $26 million for fiscal year 2001, $30 million for fiscal year 2002, and $30 million for fiscal year 2003. The pipeline state grant program is funded at $17 million for fiscal year 2001, $20 million for fiscal year 2002, and $20 million for fiscal 2003.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved McCain’s bill in June, but the measure stalled for weeks. The El Paso explosion, however, obviously had an impact on legislative negotiations with the industry.

“While we are pleased that the Senate has been able to come together on an agreement on a pipeline safety bill that gets directly at improving pipeline safety, this is a tougher bill than we anticipated,” said Jerald V. Halvorsen, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), which represents the natural gas pipeline industry. “Once pipeline safety legislation passes this Congress, our challenge will be to forge ahead to work with the Department of Transportation on a pipeline integrity rule.”

However, the bill isn’t nearly tough enough for Lois Epstein, a senior engineer with Environmental Defense. Her organization, along with another public advocacy group, Fuel Safe Washington, and The National Pipeline Reform Coalition, released a publication last week titled Out of Sight, Out of Mind No More: Pipeline Tragedies Across the U.S., which can be found at on the web. The publication calls for Congress to significantly strengthen the pipeline safety law this year, and to develop an oversight strategy for the Office of Pipeline Safety.

“We are very disappointed,” said Epstein. “[The bill] doesn’t include anything that the Office of Pipeline Safety isn’t already doing or can’t do under its existing authority.

“It does have one additional enforcement tool that the Department of Justice can use if the Office of Pipeline Safety sends cases over to them. That could be helpful, but they don’t have a great record of doing a lot of enforcement to begin with,” she added. The bill raises fines for safety violations, but that has no impact if the OPS never issues any fines, Epstein noted. “The problem with their enforcement hasn’t been that they’ve been bumping up against the fine limits; it’s been that they haven’t been issuing fines at all. The [Government Accounting Office (GAO)] found that of their enforcement actions, only one out of 25 get fined.”

Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, already has called on Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater to undertake a “thorough review and restructuring” of the OPS in the wake of reports that contend OPS officials have become too cozy with the pipelines that they are supposed to be regulating.

Recent reports by GAO and the DOT Inspector General paint “a picture of an agency that places disturbing amounts of faith in the industry it is supposed to regulate, and is unable or willing to carry out any of its responsibility under the law,” wrote Dingell in a June 14 letter to Slater (see NGI, June 26). It concluded OPS has an “abysmal” record of monitoring and overseeing natural gas and hazardous product pipelines, Dingell said, and that its officials continue to “brazenly thumb their noses” at the administration and Congress by consistently failing to carry out their directions with respect to pipeline safety standards.

Although OPS’s enforcement action increased by 132% between 1990 and 1998, the agency in many of the cases opted to send letters to the pipeline safety violators rather than imposing monetary penalties, the GAO said. It estimated the OPS’s use of penalties dropped 90% between 1990 and 1998, while the agency’s use of letters rose to 68% by 1998. And even in cases where penalties were levied, they were “relatively insignificant compared to pipeline revenues,” and were only “occasionally collected” by the agency, Dingell said of the GAO findings.

“Congress right now has a responsibility to the American public to be a parent to the OPS,” said Susan Harper, executive director of Seattle-based Fuel Safe Washington, a nonprofit lobbying group representing property owners. “The OPS has been a bad child. They have disregarded their mandates. They have not implemented safety reforms. They have gotten a big fat ‘F’ in two government reports, scathing reports on their behavior, and it is time for Congress to come in and say, ‘OPS, if this is how you are behaving, these are the limits we are going to set for you.”

However, that is not what the McCain bill does. “I think if there are no changes to the McCain bill the public is better off having no bill right now,” said Harper. “Frankly, OPS already has the authority to do everything that bill asks them to do. That’s what that bill does; It just asks OPS to do its job.”

Several House pipeline safety bills have been introduced, but House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., is crafting a new bill similar to McCain’s version that a Transportation subcommittee is expected to take up as early as next week. Bill sponsors say there is still time to gain final passage of a pipeline bill this year.

Rocco Canonica

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