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New Federal Pipeline Safety Legislation Applies to Texas Gas Pipelines

Recently both the U S House of Representatives and the Senate passed by unanimous vote new federal pipeline legislation. The legislation would both reauthorize and strengthen existing pipelines safety programs through 2015, improve enforcement of existing laws, address National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, and fill in any gaps in the law if necessary.

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This was the most recent of the pipeline safety acts passed by Congress. The very first statute that regulated pipeline safety, the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act, was passed in 1968 and amended in 1976. Congress added language about liquid pipelines to the statute in the Pipeline Safety Act of 1979. The Acts that followed were the Pipeline Safety Reauthorization Act of 1988, the Pipeline Safety Act of 1992, the Accountable Pipeline Safety and Partnership Act of 1996, and the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002. Congress also created the Office of Pipeline Safety (part of the Department of Transportation) in 1968 for the purpose of overseeing and implementing pipeline safety regulations. However, the Office of Pipeline Safety has been accused of weak enforcement and ineffective rules.

The latest pipeline safety legislation was passed partly in response to disasters such as the 2010 PG&E pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people, and an accident in July when an Exxon Mobil pipeline dumped an estimated 1,000 barrels into the Yellowstone River. Some of the specific features of the legislation include doubling the maximum fine for safety violations to $2 million, increasing the number of pipeline inspectors, and requiring automatic shutoff valves on new or replaced pipelines wherever “economically, technically and operationally feasible.” Oil and gas companies would be required to meet maximum pressure standards when testing all pipelines, including old ones.

Members of the oil and gas industry endorsed the legislation. Donald F. Santa, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, stated that improvements in integrity management, incident notification, public education, and pipeline safety research and development would result in “a safer, more reliable pipeline system nationwide.” Likewise, Dave McCurdy, the president of the American Gas Association, said that he looked forward to the bill finally reaching President Obama’s desk, where it would inevitably be signed.

Despite having many obvious benefits, the legislation contained some compromises that left some people wanting. Some critics complained that the legislation did not provide for enough safety inspectors (it authorizes the hiring of 10 federal inspectors). Others, like Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who represents San Bruno, felt that the language on automatic and remote shutoff valves was still too weak.

No important piece of legislation will ever please all parties. However, this new pipeline Act should go a long way toward addressing safety issues. The endorsements by leaders of the oil and gas industry in Texas and elsewhere demonstrate that the industry is not against all regulations — it is just against regulations that are needless, redundant, or ineffective. When legislation is common sense and addresses genuine problems, the oil and gas industry is just as eager for it to take effect as anyone else, and willing to follow its guidelines.