WASHINGTON, DC, June 14 -- The House Committee on Energy and Commerce June 13 quickly moved forward with its own proposal to update US pipeline safety rules, helping set the stage for a larger debate on the issue when lawmakers meet in coming weeks to discuss comprehensive energy legislation.
Another House committee, Transportation and Infrastructure, last month passed its own version of the bill, HR 3609, which gives the Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety the authority to order pipelines to take immediate action if the agency determines it is needed for public safety or to counter a terrorist threat (OGJ Online, May 23, 2002). The bill passed by a 55-13 vote; the latest draft voted on by the energy committee was approved by voice vote.
Both proposals would strengthen safety laws for natural gas, oil, and refined products pipelines and would authorize funding for new and existing training and inspection programs over the next 4 years starting Oct. 1.
The Senate included its own pipeline safety measure in a pending comprehensive energy bill (S. 517). Negotiations to reconcile that plan with a House energy bill—HR 4, passed last August—may begin later this month, but the timetable remains uncertain.
What kind of environmental enforcement role the federal government should play when a pipeline is built or replaced is considered to be the biggest sticking point for committee members, according to staff from both panels.
The energy and commerce committee plan wants input from several government agencies before a pipeline is built or repaired. A new interagency committee would have to approve pipeline environmental permitting based on comments from several agencies including DOT, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Fish and Wildlife Service, and possibly others. The transportation committee bill gives DOT most of the environmental siting authority in an effort to streamline permitting, a major goal of the White House's energy blueprint released in May 2001.
Industry was generally supportive of the transportation committee version; the energy and commerce committee version they are less happy with primarily because of the interagency permitting proposal and a much tougher Department of Justice enforcement provision. Still, company officials were careful to stress they are happy Congress is moving forward to pass a bill.
"Our overriding goal has been the development of a pipeline safety reauthorization bill that can achieve broad bipartisan support in Congress, and the bill approved today does that," said Ben Cooper, executive director of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines. "While the committee's bill is not perfect, and we cannot endorse each individual provision, we certainly believe it presents a balanced and reasonable basis on which to keep the reauthorization process moving forward."
Industry has been the most worried about the pipeline safety plan now in the Senate's energy bill. Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) S. 235 last year originally passed the Senate nearly unanimously. It requires more-frequent inspections than either House proposal and imposes much higher penalties if safety lapses occur. Pipeline operators would also have to report any release of hazardous liquids or carbon dioxide greater than 5 gal to OPS.
Lawmakers have said they want to pass some kind of pipeline safety bill this year, and there appears to be broad bipartisan support to do so. Yet how a measure can get passed is another question industry says it has no answers to yet. A pipeline safety bill's fate could depend on whether Congress can reach consensus on larger energy legislation, given the Senate's decision to include their plan in the Senate energy bill.
Stakeholders on the pipeline safety issue say that, given the constraints of the legislative calendar in an election year, it is unclear whether lawmakers would be willing to approve pipeline safety as a stand-alone measure if talks on the bigger energy bill languish.