After meeting with members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last Wednesday, Tea party conservative Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) called on the Senate to incorporate recommendations from the NTSB’s probe of the San Bruno, CA, explosion in its pipeline safety reauthorization legislation, including removing a provision in the current bill that would grandfather older pipelines from having to install certain safety devices.

At the same time, pressure began mounting on Paul last week to release his procedural hold on the pipeline safety bill (S.275), which is blocking it from coming to the Senate floor for a vote (see NGI, Oct. 3). The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), which represents interstate gas pipelines, began a lobbying effort Two Senate Democrats urged Paul to relinquish his hold.

“I agree with their [NTSB] assessment that to fully address the problems that happened at San Bruno, their recommendations should be adopted, including removing the grandfather clause for older pipelines,” Paul said in a statement. The Senate bill only requires that “new” pipelines — not vintage pipelines — install automatic or remote controlled shutoff valves to minimize damage from a pipeline rupture. In effect it grandfathers older pipelines from having to install the safety technology.

“In the current pipeline legislation before the Senate, this clause is not lifted, perpetuating potential danger in older pipelines and neglecting to fix the problem that caused the San Bruno explosion” in September 2010, he said (see NGI, Sept. 13, 2010).

The problem with the Senate bill is that it was “written months before the NTSB report was released” in September, Paul noted (see NGI, Sept. 5). It creates “regulations that do not address a major issue in pipeline safety. Had this bill been brought before the [full] Senate for sufficient debate, I would like to think this particular issue [involving grandfathering] would have been addressed.”

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer last Tuesday called on Paul to remove his procedural hold. “Your statement that ‘absolutely nothing in the current bill would have prevented the recent pipeline problems’ is simply not true,” the two Democrats wrote in a letter to Paul. “On the contrary, this bill directly addresses the factors that contributed to eight deaths in [a pipeline] explosion in San Bruno, CA” in September 2010, they noted.

The NTSB determined there were two probable causes for the San Bruno explosion: 1) inadequate quality assurance and quality control that led to the installation of a substandard and poorly welded pipe section; and 2) an inadequate pipeline safety management program that failed to detect and repair or remove the defective pipe section, according to Feinstein and Boxer.

The Senate pipeline safety bill, which was voted out of the Senate Commerce Committee in May (see NGI, May 9), addresses both of these issues, they said. It requires pipeline operators to verify their records to confirm physical and operational characteristics of pipelines, including established maximum allowable operating pressure; and it requires that the Department of Transportation evaluate how existing pipeline risk assessment and accident prevention systems can be improved, and issue new standards as appropriate.

“In addition to addressing those systemic problems, the bill you are blocking requires other common sense safeguards, most notably the use of automatic or remote controlled shutoff values on new sections of pipeline that would minimize damage if a rupture occurs,” Feinstein and Boxer said.

“We believe that implementing these safety upgrades and precautions could prevent more communities from suffering the fate of San Bruno, and therefore we ask that you reconsider your hold.”

INGAA is trying to convince Paul to do the same. “We continue to talk to him and other members of Congress. But I wouldn’t say that we’re trying to pressure him [to lift the hold]. We’re working to get this bill passed,” said spokeswoman Cathy Landry. “The door is open and a communication line has been established” with Paul and his staff.

The Senate pipe safety bill has been awaiting floor action since early this summer. Since then, 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).

Pipeline safety legislation has widespread support in both the Senate and House, and was seen as on track to be voted out by Congress this year. 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 were good, said INGAA officials last month (see NGI, Sept. 19). But that was before Paul moved to block the bill.

If the measure stays stuck in the Senate, the House could move on the legislation first, giving the upper chamber time to put pressure on Paul to lift his hold. The two House committees are expected to reach a compromise bill in the next few weeks.

The Senate bill would hike fines for violations of pipeline regulations to $2.5 million from $1 million; add civil penalties for obstructing investigations; and require the federal government to hire new inspection and enforcement personnel through a phased-in approach over the next four years.

It also would require the installation of automatic or remote controlled shutoff valves on new transmission lines and would expand excess flow valve requirements to include multi-family buildings and small commercial buildings.

In addition, the bill calls on the Department of Transportation secretary to establish time limits for pipeline operators to report accidents and leaks to local and state governmental officials, and to determine whether integrity management system requirements should be expanded beyond currently defined high-consequence areas and establish regulations as appropriate.

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