Lawmakers meeting on Thursday to craft a comprehensive energy bill reached a compromise related to pipeline integrity inspections under which facilities with the highest risk factors will be given priority for completing inspections within a five-year period.

The compromise was brokered by House and Senate energy bill conference committee members after Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) offered a proposal that would have resulted in pipelines over 25 years old being inspected more frequently than newer pipelines. Older pipelines would have faced inspections initially after seven-and-a-half years and then after that every seven years into the future under Breaux’s approach.

But House energy bill conferees, led by Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), quickly offered a counterproposal to Breaux’s plan. Tauzin and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) serve as co-chairmen of the House-Senate energy bill conference committee.

“We’ve reviewed the House offer. [We] think the proposal is a very good faith effort to bridge the gap between the House and Senate provisions on these pipeline integrity inspection provisions,” Bingaman said. “In some respects, I do think the House offer may actually improve on the [Breaux] amendment that we proposed to the House.”

“As I understand this proposal…at least 50% of the gas pipeline facilities need to be inspected within the first five years — the five years beginning with the enactment of the bill,” said Bingaman in reference to the House counteroffer.

“Facilities with the highest risk factors are to be given priority for completion and they are to be completed within this five-year period,” Bingaman noted. “So instead of all older pipelines being inspected in the seven-and-a-half-year period, we would provide that 50% of all pipelines would be inspected within the five-year period.”

Rep. Don Young (At Large-AK) said that while Breaux’s concept was good, the proposal left some unanswered questions as well. “I like the idea of age, but does age equal risk in a pipeline?” Young asked. “How do you define what’s new or old? If a pipeline, or a segment of, has been replaced and another segment of the same pipeline has not been replaced, does that pipeline constitute to be an old pipeline or do we have to inspect the whole thing because it’s old and 25 years above?”

In contrast to Breaux’s emphasis on the age of a pipeline in determining which pipelines get early inspection, the House proposal “would provide that we would look at all risk factors, or the companies with the pipelines in question, would look at all risk factors including age, accident history, previously discovered defects — they’ll consider all of that,” Bingaman said.

“It puts the emphasis on overall risk and we believe that is appropriate. Based on the information I’ve been given by all conferees on the Senate side, we will accept the House counterproposal.”

The House in late July overwhelmingly passed a pipeline safety bill that required natural gas pipelines to carry out inspections less frequently than what the Senate had previously proposed (see Daily GPI, July 25). The measure required gas, hazardous liquids and product pipelines to conduct baseline inspections within 10 years, and called for re-inspections to be done every seven years afterward.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate this week resumed work on hammering out a comprehensive energy bill. Front and center among the myriad issues dealt with on Thursday were differing pipeline safety proposals offered by both chambers.

“I think this is a very constructive proposal and helps to find a middle ground here that is useful and does try to ensure that the pipelines most in need of inspection get that inspection as early as possible,” Bingaman said in reference to Breaux’s amendment.

Bingaman noted that New Mexico previously had a “terrible accident” involving a rupture of El Paso Natural Gas. “It was clear in the case we had near Carlsbad, NM, that a part of the problem was there had not been any adequate inspection of that pipeline.”

Twelve victims were killed while they were fishing and camping alongside the Pecos River near Carlsbad, the site of the rupture and explosion on El Paso’s South Mainline system on Aug. 19, 2000. They were consumed in a blast and fireball that ripped open an 113-foot long and 51-foot deep trench, and left a mass of twisted metal (see Daily GPI, Aug. 30, 2002; June 21, 2002; and Aug. 22, 2000).

Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) noted that the House-passed pipeline safety bill contained a provision he authored that would require the Secretary of Transportation to commence a rulemaking to improve the security of waterfront liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities located in densely populated areas. Markey has expressed security-related concerns about the Distrigas LNG facility, which is located in Everett, MA, near Boston and part of his congressional district.

But Markey on Thursday said that the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are currently in conference on a seaport security bill. That legislation may mandate security enhancements that would affect the Distrigas facility, as well as other sensitive waterfront infrastructure. “The committees have requested that we defer action on this proposal in light of their efforts,” Markey said.

In addition, Markey disclosed that Tractebel, the operator of the facility, has recently “contacted me to express their willingness to voluntarily undertake many of the security enhancements that would result from adoption of my amendment.”

In light of these events, Markey asked that the energy bill conferees “hold open” the issue of LNG security “so that we can wait until the seaport security conference has reached a conclusion before we determine whether my proposed LNG provision remains necessary or whether it has been superseded by events.”

Tauzin expressed flexibility on this issue. He said that if what Markey intends to hold open is the possibility of an amendment dealing with the Distrigas facility, Tauzin would “work cooperatively” with Markey “to make sure he has that right to offer such a proposal if the House might offer it to the Senate at some other point before the conclusion of the conference.”

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