Pipeline safety reauthorization legislation that would levy stiffer penalties for violations on oil and natural gas pipelines and require installation of automatic shutoff valves on new transmission lines was approved by the Senate last week.

“This is a huge step forward for the safety of pipelines and communities across the nation,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who introduced the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act (S. 275). “This bill strengthens oversight and addresses long-standing safety issues that leave the public vulnerable to catastrophic pipeline accidents.”

According to its sponsors, S. 275 would reauthorize and strengthen the authority of the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration through 2015. Included in the bill are provisions that would increase civil penalties for violators of pipeline regulations and add civil penalties for obstructing investigations, expand excess flow valve requirements to include multi-family buildings and small commercial facilities, require all local and state government agencies and their contractors to notify “One-Call” centers before digging, require the installation of automatic or remote-controlled shutoff valves on new transmission pipelines, and authorize more pipeline safety inspectors.

Senators, including Rand Paul (R-KY), approved S. 275 by unanimous consent. Included in the final Senate version of the bill was an amendment introduced by Paul which calls “for testing to confirm the material strength of previously untested natural gas pipelines located in certain areas.” The amendment would require tests on pipelines operating at more than 30% of specified minimum yield strength in densely populated or environmentally sensitive areas. Paul’s amendment incorporated recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) probe of the San Bruno, CA, explosion. Language requiring the use of automatic or remote-controlled shut-off valves “on transmission pipelines constructed or entirely replaced” after a final rule is issued remains in the legislation.

After meeting with NTSB earlier this month (see NGI, Oct. 10), Paul had placed a procedural hold on S. 275 and called on the bill’s sponsors to remove a grandfathering provision from the legislation. Last week Paul lifted his procedural hold, clearing the way for the bill to come to the Senate floor for a vote. “After reading the safety report and meeting with industry executives, federal regulators and NTSB officials, I have found a way to address the problems more thoroughly through these regulations, while limiting their scope and unnecessary red tape,” Paul said prior to the Senate vote.

The Senate pipe safety bill was voted out of the Senate Commerce Committee in May, but had been awaiting floor action since early this summer (see NGI, May 9). In the meantime the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have reported out their pipe safety bills (see NGI, Sept, 26, Sept. 12).

The American Gas Association (AGA) said it hopes to see a final version of the bill on President Obama’s desk by the end of the year.

“A unanimous endorsement of this particular bill puts us one step closer to reaching our ultimate goal, which is getting a final bill passed and on the desk for President Obama’s signature this year,” said AGA CEO Dave McCurdy. “Our pipeline operators are already hard at work addressing key safety issues raised during legislative hearings, but reauthorization will provide the ultimate certainty for all pipeline stakeholders.”

Also hoping to see a pipeline safety reauthorization bill on Obama’s desk before 2012 is the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), which had pressed Paul to lift his procedural hold on the bill.

“INGAA recognizes the importance of continuous improvement to pipeline safety regulations, standards and procedures. This legislation updates and improves policy in several areas, including integrity management and damage prevention,” INGAA CEO Don Santa said after the Senate vote. “Combined with regulatory changes already anticipated at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the initiatives INGAA is undertaking through our board-level pipeline safety task force, we believe the result will be a safer pipeline system nationwide.”

Because the House and Senate pipeline safety bills are nearly identical on critical issues and enjoy strong bipartisan support, the odds of the legislation clearing Congress this year are good, INGAA officials said last month (see NGI, Sept. 19). The House is expected to vote on a merged bill before Thanksgiving.

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