Prompt passage of pipeline safety bill urged

Nick Snow
Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, DC, Nov. 17 -- New federal pipeline safety legislation is overdue and should be passed before yearend, witnesses and lawmakers agreed at a Nov. 16 hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

"We need to enact pipeline safety reauthorization legislation before the end of this Congress," urged Tim Felt, president and chief executive of Explorer Pipeline in Tulsa. "A lot of work has gone into the current bills, and there are no major disagreements about what a compromise should look like," he said, "Let's get a good bill passed now."

Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) responded: "We're going to do our best to get this bill passed this year, but obviously will be in negotiations with the House on it. We don't expect surprises and are gratified with the increased confidence in the safety system we have heard from all of you today," he said as the hearing ended about 90 minutes later.

Prospects for sending a completed bill to the White House during 2006 aren't good because Stevens's committee has yet to mark up its bill, S. 3961, and send it to the Senate floor for final passage. It would then move to a conference involving House bill, H.R. 5782, and the administration's original proposals contained in H.R. 5678, unless a more expeditious procedure emerged.

"We understand that some efforts are being made to reconcile differences among the bills at the committee level, with the hope that a single proposal could be voted on in both houses before the end of the session," said Thomas J. Barrett, who heads the US Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. "We ask Congress to pass a reauthorization bill this year, focusing on the key similarities among the bills," he continued.

"Significant improvement"
The 109th Congress will recess next week for the Thanksgiving holiday and return in early December. But it will need to complete work on a final pipeline safety authorization bill before Dec. 16, when Hanukkah begins. If it doesn't, the matter would be pushed into 2007 and the 110th Congress.

That would be ironic as it's generally agreed that the current federal law has been working. "The Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002 is a success. Industry and DOT have cooperated to achieve significant improvement in pipeline safety, and this improvement is demonstrated by our industry's record," said Felt, who testified on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of Oil Pipe Lines.

Terry Boss, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America's senior vice-president for environment, safety, and operations, said that, while the 2002 law addressed operator qualification programs, public education, population encroachment on rights of way, and other issues, its integrity management program has been the most significant provision for interstate gas pipelines.

"The program is doing what Congress intended—verifying the safety of gas transmission pipelines in populated areas and identifying and removing potential problems before they occur. Based on 2 years of data, the trend is that natural gas transmission pipelines are safe and becoming safer," he said.

Local distribution companies also believe the 2002 law, which expired Sept. 30, has been working well and only needs minor adjustments, according to E. Frank Bender, the vice-president of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.'s gas distribution and new business division who testified on behalf of the American Gas Association and American Public Gas Association.

"Our companies have identified one major area we believe requires considerable improvement—excavation damage prevention. Congressional attention to more-effective state excavation damage programs can and will result in real, measurable decreases in the number of incidents occurring on natural gas distribution lines each year," he told the committee.

Barrett also said progress in the last 5 years has been made in all pipeline safety areas except construction damage to distribution systems. Such incidents increased by 50% from 1996 to 2005 "and will continue to get worse if we don't do something about it," he warned.

"Crowded underground"
Construction damage to distribution pipelines can almost always be prevented, and PHMSA has sought practices to eliminate the problem, Barrett continued. "The challenge is managing this activity without damaging a very crowded underground infrastructure—one that gets more crowded every day, not just with pipelines, but with new telecommunications, electric, water, sewer, and other infrastructure," he said.

He said the Bush administration wants authority to establish a grant program to encourage more states to develop effective pipeline damage prevention programs. State agencies and PHMSA also need civil enforcement authority against anyone who fails to notify authorities before excavating, he said.

"Ensuring the safety of 2.3 million miles of pipelines is an enormous task," Barrett said. "Our state partners oversee 90% of operator compliance with pipeline safety regulations. We seek to raise the cap on grants provided to state pipeline agencies over 6 years from 50% to 80% to offset the increasing cost of the programs they execute, consistent with the programs of the [DOT]," Barrett said.

Boss said interstate gas pipelines also want improved state excavation damage-prevention programs. INGAA members think the 2002 law's 7-year reassessment interval and its jurisdictional status for direct lateral lines should be changed, he said in his written testimony.

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, Wash., said improvements are needed, but there has been significant progress since 1999 due to efforts by federal lawmakers and regulators, pipelines, and citizens.

"Pipeline operators now have clear requirements for communicating to the public and local government, and [the US Office of Pipeline Safety] has unveiled new additions to its own website and communications programs," Weimer said. "Perhaps just as significant, many progressive thinking pipeline companies have taken pipeline safety serious enough that they are now leading by example by operating and maintaining their pipelines in ways that go beyond the minimum federal standards," he added.

Weimer said there are elements in the other 2 bills as well as the one before Stevens's committee that should be included in a final law reauthorizing the 2002 Pipeline Safety Act. But he also noted that the bills do not have provisions to make more information available publicly, provide access to inspection findings, more effectively report over-pressurization events, or make pipeline holding companies more financially accountable.

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