By 98-0, the Senate last week voted out what one lawmaker dubbedthe “strongest and most comprehensive” pipeline-safety bill everpassed in Congress, with provisions calling for stepped-upinspections for natural gas and hazardous liquid lines and stifferpenalties against safety violators.

The bill (S. 235) essentially mirrors the legislation that waspassed by the Senate last year, with one “significant” change —it would require gas and hazardous liquid pipelines to undergosafety inspections every five years. But, as with any Capitol Hilllegislation, it would allow waivers under certain circumstances.Still, pipeline representatives in Washington D.C. weren’t happywith the change.

The Senate approved the bill after reaching a “compromise” on ankey amendment, offered by Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ), which sought toreplace the “periodic” inspections called for in the original billwith mandatory pipeline inspections every five years. As a resultof the last-minute compromise worked out Thursday, pipes would beexempt from the five-year review under certain conditions, such asif the technology isn’t available to perform a safety inspection,or if an inspection would significantly interfere with a pipeline’sability to deliver gas or liquids

The inclusion of this “compromise” amendment in the legislationrepresents a big defeat for interstate natural gas pipelinesbecause it sets a specific timetable for inspections to becompleted.

The change is “deeply troubling” for interstate gas pipelines,said a Washington pipeline lobbyist. The compromise on theamendment was “very poorly drafted,” and thus left pipelines unsureof what to make of it. “But based on what we think its intentis…we would have some problems” with it, he said.

“We don’t see the justification for a five-year inspectioninterval,” the pipeline lobbyist said, adding it would require an”enormous amount of resources” from pipes during a time whenthey’re running flat out to meet increased gas demand. He believes10-15 years ought to be the “most logical standard” for aninspection interval.

He further criticized a provision in the compromise amendmentthat makes it the responsibility of the Department ofTransportation’s Inspector General (IG) to issue waivers topipelines. The IG “would be under a lot of political pressure notto waive that standard.”

The legislation, which was co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain(R-AZ) and Patty Murray (D-WA) and a number of other senators,”does not go far enough to ensure the safety and integrity ofnatural gas pipelines” in New Jersey or elsewhere in the nation,said Corzine, as he offered the controversial amendment, along withthree others.

Corzine also sought to add provisions calling for strictercommunity right-to-know laws with respect to pipelines,certification of pipeline personnel and steeper liability penaltiesfor pipeline-safety violators, but these were defeated.

Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) backed his colleague, even thoughhe voted for the McCain-Murray bill last year. That bill was and isa “good first step” in strengthening pipeline-safety regulations,but “we’re going to insist” that these amendments be included, hesaid.

In pressing for the stiffer amendments, both Torricelli andCorzine reminded lawmakers of the March 1994 explosion on TexasEastern Transmission that turned “peaceful, suburban” Edison, NJ,into a “war zone.” Other senators, in pushing for a stricterpipe-safety law, recounted the details of the deadly explosions onEl Paso Natural Gas last summer near Carlsbad, NM, and on OlympicPipe Line in Bellingham, WA, nearly two years ago.

McCain and Murray re-introduced their legislation last monthafter it was derailed in the House of Representatives during waningdays of the 106th Congress, failing to garner the necessarytwo-thirds vote. Key House lawmakers, Reps. John Dingell (D-MI andJames L. Oberstar (D-MN), spearheaded the defeat, claiming that theSenate bill was too soft on pipeline-safety violators.

Prior to reaching the compromise, McCain said he “could notsupport them [amendments] at this time,” but he agreed to “examineany recommendations [and] proposals” during conference on theSenate and House bills. Murray called Corzine’s amendments”excellent provisions,” and said they should be included in thefinal pipeline-safety bill “regardless of what happens here today.”

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and others urged the Senate to pass a”clean bill,” minus any amendments. “This issue is too important tobe cluttered by hasty changes,” he said.

The Senate-approved bill also includes a couple of otheramendments that have nothing to do with pipeline safety. One callsfor a federal study to be conducted into the gas price spikes andshortages that have occurred this winter, while another wouldrequire a study of the gas pipeline capacity situation in NewEngland.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) used the debate on pipeline safetyto announce new legislation that would direct the Federal EnergyRegulatory Commission to impose cost-based rates on wholesale powertransactions when it finds that energy suppliers are charging”unjust and unreasonable” rates.

The bill would be an alternative to the legislation she proposedlast month, which seeks to give the Energy Secretary the authorityto impose either a regional price cap or cost-based rates whenwholesale power rates are found to be “unjust and unreasonable.”

Feinstein believes her two bills are necessary to provide”short-term price stability” until the California power market can”straighten itself out” by getting new generation facilities sited,permitted and built.

Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) said he favored Feinstein’s alternativemeasure, noting that eight western governors had written PresidentBush to urge the federal government not to go in the direction of aregional price cap.

Feinstein said she had planned to offer her proposal as anamendment to the McCain-Murray pipeline safety bill, but agreed tointroduce it as a stand-alone measure after Sens. Frank Murkowski(R-AK) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) promised to schedule a hearing onthe bill before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committeeby the end of the month.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) offered up an amendment — whichreceived bipartisan support — calling for the National Academy ofSciences to conduct a 60-day study of the high gas prices andsupply shortages that the nation has experienced this winter. Itdirects the Academy to review a “range of solutions,” such asestablishing a reserve for natural gas. The Senate also adopted anamendment, sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), to study thecapacity of natural gas pipelines serving the New England region.

Murray expressed concern about President Bush’s energy policyproposal that calls for streamlining the pipeline certificationprocess. She urged him “not to do this at the expense of safety orthe environment,” adding that he would be replacing an “energycrisis with a safety crisis.”

Murkowski, however, said he believes the Senate’spipeline-safety bill and the president’s national energy policywill “complement” each other.

In addition to requiring inspections of interstate pipes everyfive years, the Senate bill will increase the maximum civilpenalties for a single safety violation and for a series of safetyviolations, give states an increased role in inspecting andoverseeing pipelines, require pipeline operators to carry outcontinuing public education programs, augment pipeline reportingrequirements to states and local authorities, provide forinvestments in new inspection technology and offer protection forwhistle-blowers.

The issue of pipeline safety now moves to the House, which isexpected to draft its own bill rather than act on the Senatemeasure. But the House “probably won’t act on this for months,”predicted a pipeline source.

The House currently has two pipe-safety bills pending, one fromOberstar and another from Rep. Rich Larsen (D-WA). Larsenintroduced legislation last week that contains a number ofprovisions similar to those found in the Senate measure. It callsfor the establishment of minimum standards for training andevaluating of pipeline personnel, strengthening publicright-to-know laws with respect to pipeline operations andinspection results, greater state oversight over pipelines, andwhistle-blower protection.

“…[T]his is not the end of the discussion on pipeline safety.It’s just the beginning,” Sen. Murray declared last Thursday.

Susan Parker

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