In an almost unprecedented show of bipartisanship in the currently divided Congress, the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday unanimously adopted pipeline safety reauthorization legislation.

An amendment in the nature of a substitute, which was offered by Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Chairman Emeritus John Dingell (D-MI), replaced the underlying bill (H.R. 2937) and cleared the committee by 51-0.

“This amendment not only is bipartisan, but it it has [the] support of everybody concerned, including industry,” Dingell said. Notably, the legislation requires the secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT) to evaluate “[expanding] the integrity management program [beyond high-consequence areas] while phasing out the use of automatic remote-control shutoff valves for new pipelines and requires studies [on the] feasibility of retrofitting. The leak detection standard is a significant improvement on existing law. It will help us increase public safety,” he said.

“I think it should be observed, Mr. Chairman, that there are real concerns remaining about pipeline safety. Pipeline safety was a very much ignored situation in this country for many years,” Dingell said. But he signaled that this will change. “We have a good piece of legislation.” Upton echoed the sentiment, saying the amended bill makes “significant technical and qualitative improvements in the base bill.”

The amended bill requires:

Before the legislation goes to the House floor, the House energy panel will need to merge its bill with the one (H.R. 2845) voted out by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month (see Daily GPI, Sept. 9).

The two House committees of jurisdiction “have worked quickly to produce their own versions of pipeline safety legislation. INGAA [Interstate Natural Gas Association of America] believes that these two bills can be ‘merged’ into an achievable compromise and presented to the House in the next few weeks,” said INGAA President Don Santa.

The Senate Commerce Committee voted out pipeline safety legislation in May, but the measure has yet to see any floor action (see Daily GPI, May 6). Martin Edwards, INGAA’s vice president of legislative affairs, said he expects the House to vote on pipeline safety legislation before the Senate.

Because the House and Senate pipeline safety reauthorization bills are nearly identical on critical issues and there is strong bipartisan support for them, the legislation has a good chance of clearing Congress this year, INGAA officials said last week (see Daily GPI, Sept. 13).

“We look forward to working with the leadership of the [House Energy] Committee to [get] a bill on the House floor for a vote this year,” said Dave McCurday, president of the American Gas Association, which represents gas distributors. “The issue of pipeline safety is nonpartisan, and is…of paramount importance to both Congress and the natural gas industry.”

Safety proponents have criticized the House pipe safety bills because they grandfather older pipelines from being required to install certain safety technology, such as automatic or remote-controlled shutoff valves.

But INGAA’s Santa believes the critics are missing the bigger picture. “The most important thing here is to prevent accidents from occurring. An automatic shutoff valve only makes a difference after an accident has happened. And for that matter, an automatic shutoff valve, while it mitigates the secondary damage, the initial force of the energy released is your biggest concern.

“While in the wake of San Bruno [pipeline explosion] there’s been a lot of focus on automatic shutoff valves and the fact that they weren’t there — and clearly it’s something that they’re looking at — the bigger issue in my mind is what do you do to prevent the accidents from happening in the first place,” he said.

The House and Senate’s efforts to reauthorize pipeline safety legislation come in the wake of the Sept. 9, 2010 Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline explosion in San Bruno, CA (see Daily GPI, Sept. 17, 2010), as well as the deadly pipeline blast in Allentown, PA, earlier this year (see Daily GPI, Feb. 14).

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