Calling the deadly explosions on the El Paso Natural Gas andOlympic Pipe Line systems the “most visible indications of aserious, long-term problem,” Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN)introduced pipeline safety legislation last week in the House thathe says takes a tougher stance against natural gas and hazardousliquid pipelines than does the Senate measure passed last month.

Some, however, don’t believe it has a prayer of getting throughthe House before Congress adjourns this week. “…I think it’s alittle too late. It’s got a lot of similarity to the Senate bill.From Mr. Oberstar’s perspective, it puts a finer point on a lot ofissues, but it has absolutely no chance of going anywhere,” said aWashington DC lobbyist for the pipeline industry.

In order for Congress to get a pipeline safety reauthorizationmeasure to President Clinton before the 106th session ends, hebelieves the House has no other choice than to adopt the Senate’slegislation. “That’s the only chance of a pipeline safety billbeing passed this year.” There could be a vote in the House on theSenate bill this week, he speculated, “but that hasn’t beenofficially scheduled yet.”

Oberstar, the ranking minority member of the HouseTransportation and Infrastructure Committee, contends it would be a”serious mistake” for the House to approve the Senate pipelinesafety bill unchanged. Not only does it fail to “dealsatisfactorily” with key safety issues, he said, but passage of thelegislation by both houses would foreclose any opportunity forCapitol Hill to take any further action on the issue during thenext three years. Oberstar’s committee shares jurisdiction overpipeline safety with the House Commerce Committee.

“We are trying to find ways to bring the bill up on its own [onthe House floor] or as a substitute amendment to the Senate bill,”said a press aide to Oberstar. Whether this can be done will dependon the House Republican leadership. If the House does somehow amendthe Senate bill, it would then have to be sent back to the Senate.If the Senate opposes the amendment, the bill would be referred toconference committee, which would pretty much kill any chance forpipeline safety legislation this year.

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater applauded Oberstar andRep. John Dingell (D-MI), a co-sponsor of the bill, for introducingthe legislation. He further urged the House leadership to movequickly to pass a comprehensive safety measure.

The 1996 pipeline safety law expired last month. But “thatdoesn’t mean it [the pipe safety program] completely shuts down ifyou don’t pass a reauthorization bill” this year. “It justcontinues to operate as is,” said a pipeline source.

Both the Oberstar bill and Senate legislation require periodicinspections of gas and hazardous pipelines located in denselypopulated areas, as well as the implementation of integritymanagement programs. The key difference, however, is that while theSenate bill requires the Department of Transportation’s Office ofPipeline Safety (OPS) to enact regulations requiring these actions,the Oberstar measure would bypass the OPS and require gas andliquid pipelines to comply statutorily.

Oberstar said he took this approach because legislationrequiring the OPS to adopt regulations mandating periodic pipelineinspections “has been tried and failed.” It’s been eight yearssince Congress first directed the OPS to devise such regulations,and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has beencalling for periodic inspections for 13 years. Still, the OPS “hasnot issued a single regulation imposing pipeline inspectionrequirements,” he said.

Susan Parker

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