US Congress begins late debate on pipeline safety bills

Witnesses told a US Senate Commerce Committee hearing Thursday of the urgency to renew and expand US pipeline safety laws, but chances for legislation appear slim this session of Congress.

Patrick Crow
OGJ Online

WASHINGTON, DC�Witnesses told a US Senate Commerce Committee hearing Thursday of the urgency to renew and expand US pipeline safety laws, but chances for legislation appear slim this session of Congress.

Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he wants the committee to report a bill this month to reauthorize the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act and the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act through fiscal 2003. The laws expire Sept. 30 but easily could be extended as is.

Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) noted that, because so few legislative days remain this session, �It is clear we cannot pass a bill in the full Senate without unanimous consent. Any senator will be able, individually, to stop legislation.�

The House Transportation Committee has not scheduled mark-ups on its legislation.

The primary impetus for the reauthorization has been the June 10, 1999, rupture of Olympic Pipe Line Co.�s products line in Bellingham, Wash., which killed three persons. Dissatisfaction with the federal government�s regulation of pipelines has prompted some legislators to propose giving states powers to promulgate more stringent rules.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) complained to the Commerce Committee, �Our pipeline regulatory standards in this country have the consistency of Swiss cheese.�

But oil-state senators and industry representatives say state standards would be an impractical barrier to interstate commerce. They say the legislation should focus on fundamentals.

The American Gas Association said, �We believe the most effective way to improve safety on the pipeline system is to address the cause of close to 50% of pipeline safety incidents: accidental damage by excavation." It noted that, although US natural gas consumption has increased 40% in the last decade, pipeline-related accidents have fallen nearly 25%.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sees it differently. �The danger posed by aging, corroded pipelines is not going away. In fact, it�s getting worse. Since 1986, there have been more than 5,700 pipeline accidents, 325 deaths, 1,500 injuries, and almost $1 billion in environmental damage. On average, there is one pipeline accident every day, and 6 million hazardous gallons are spilled into our environment every year.�

Federal efforts
Kelley Coyner, head of the Research and Special Programs Administration, said her agency is acting on the four leading causes of pipeline failure: outside force damage, corrosion, human error, and material defects.

She said RSPA�s Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) has launched a government-industry program called �Common Ground� to share the best practices in damage prevention programs. RSPA plans to propose a rulemaking for liquid pipeline corrosion by the end of this year and for gas pipelines next year, said Coyner.

�The integrated testing provision in the administration�s proposal would require operators to identify corrosion faster and more efficiently, and the research provision would enhance technology for corrosion prevention and detection.�

Coyner said RSPA issued an operator qualification rule last year that requires companies to develop and maintain a written qualification program to assess the ability of each worker. �While this rule goes far in addressing some causes of human error, we also are looking at operator fatigue as another potential factor in pipeline incidents.� Coyner said RSPA is investigating the long-term performance of plastic pipe, seeking data on failures of particular pipes or fittings.

John Hammerschmidt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, complained that RSPA only last month proposed a rule to require companies to perform periodic inspections or tests to find corrosion, mechanical damage, or other defects. He said NTSB is investigating five pipeline accidents with potential integrity problems that occurred during 1999-2000. �In these accidents, the lack of inspections or adequate corrective actions may be relevant safety issues.�

Hammerschmidt said RSPA�s reporting forms are poorly designed and fail to obtain the necessary data needed for analysis. He added that, although RSPA has required pipelines to develop a written qualification program for operators, it has not established training requirements for them. And he said RSPA should mandate the use of automated valves to reduce the impact of pipeline failures. Companies should understand that �this is an across-the board, necessary cost of doing business,� he said.

Kenneth Mead, the Department of Transportation�s inspector general, told the committee, �RSPA has not implemented congressionally-imposed safety mandates related to defining environmentally sensitive and high-density population areas, identifying pipelines in these areas, or requiring increased pipeline inspections. Critical safeguards required by Congress for hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines are at least 5 years overdue. It could take as long as 7 additional years for just large hazardous liquid pipeline operators to compete those inspections.�

Industry views
Industry representatives stressed the need to keep interstate pipeline regulation at the federal level, rather than delegate powers to the states.

Phillip Wright, a Williams Energy Services vice-president, testified for the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of Oil Pipe Lines. He warned, �The industry simply cannot operate effectively if states can impose their own rules. Our systems cross over state boundaries. Our operations and safety activities are planned and implemented on a system-wide basis. If we faced separate regulations in every state in which we operate, we believe the result would be a less efficient, less safe system overall and a potentially significant impediment to interstate commerce.�

Wright said pipelines are the safest method of transporting hydrocarbons, and although industry�s safety record has been good, it could be better. �It is important for the committee to understand that the desire to operate safely does not result from OPS regulations, the threat of fines, or the threat of lawsuits. It is woven into our corporate decision-making and into the industry-driven initiatives undertaken by our trade organizations.�

William Haener, president and CEO of CMS Gas Transmission & Storage Co., testified for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. He said a recent survey found that interstate natural gas pipelines spent $560 million/year on safety for about 160,000 miles of pipeline, or about $3,500/mile.

Haener said differing state regulations could harm all states. �The actions of one state might negatively affect gas service and deliverability to consumers in all other states in which the pipeline operates. For example, one state might require a lower gas pressure on pipelines within its jurisdiction and thus decrease the amount of natural gas available to downstream consumers� in other states.

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