Pipeline Spills and Response Part 3: Pollution, Pipes, and Prospects for Progress

By Scott Urbanowski and Nick Occhipinti

Last year’s Enbridge oil disaster along the Kalamazoo River thrust the issue of pipeline safety and infrastructure into the forefront. As the Enbridge disaster and this summer’s Yellowstone River oil pipeline rupture have demonstrated, there is an urgent need for stricter standards when it come to pipeline safety.

Sheen can still be seen on Morrow Lake

(July 8, 2011 DEQ Photo)

Previous Attempt Did Not Solve the Problem

In 2006, Congress passed the Pipeline Infrastructure, Protection, Enforcement, and Safety Act, better known as the PIPES Act. Signed into law by then-President George W. Bush, the law provides for:

  • Increased Department of Transportation (DOT) resources to oversee pipeline safety
  • Strengthened programs to reduce construction-related damage
  • Applying DOT safety standards to the currently unregulated low-stress pipelines
  • Increased accountability of pipeline company officials
  • Enhanced pipeline research
  • A study of pipelines critical to energy supply

However, the provisions in the PIPES Act were not strong enough. The bill became law a full 3 ½ years before the Enbridge andSan Bruno disasters and 4 ½ years before the Yellowstone River disaster. The Yellowstone River pipeline was 5 feet underground – one foot below the 4-foot minimum required by law.

A Non-Partisan Safety Issue

The issue of pipeline safety is one that eschews political ideological boundaries. “Pipeline safety is an issue that crosses regions, politics, and parties. It affects all of us and our constituents in the same manner,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), Chair of the US House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“As we’ve seen this past year—most vividly in the San Bruno disaster—pipeline explosions are deadly and destructive,” Senator Rockefeller said in a recent hearing. “More needs to be done to strengthen oversight and address safety vulnerabilities.”

“Safety should be the bedrock of any responsible business,” Rockefeller said in a press release.

Congress Begins to Take Action

In order to go about achieving the goal of pipeline safety, a number of bills have been introduced in Congress to strengthen pipeline safety which have received the light of day in committees.

Bill Passed by House Energy & Power Subcommittee 7/27/11
Pipeline Infrastructure and Community Protection Act of 2011

Bill from Senator Frank Lautenberg (NJ)
Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011

Bill from Senators Feinstein and Boxer (CA)
Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2011

Bill from Rep. Jackie Speier (CA)
Pipeline Safety and Community Empowerment Act of 2011

Bill from the Obama Administration
Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2011

– Bills gathered by the Pipeline Safety Trust

Sponsored by West Michigan Congressman Representative Fred Upton, the Pipeline Infrastructure and Community Protection Act of 2011 received support from a House subcommittee last month. The bill “demands improvements in both technology and personnel that can help prevent leaks from occurring in the first place and reduce the damage if they do,” Upton said.

Issues relating to energy and commerce are likely at the forefront of Upton’s mind. Upton only serves on the committee he chairs, which is not typical for any member of Congress, even a committee chair.

A similar bill, the S.275, Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011, was introduced in the Senate and was approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Both bills would:

  • Increase penalties for those who violate pipeline regulations;
  • Require the installation of automatic or remote-controlled shut-off valves on new transmission pipelines;
  • increase the number of pipeline inspectors.

There are, however, a number of differences among each and improvements still need to be made.

The House version requires pipeline operators to notify authorities within 1 hour of when they found out about the leak, while the Senate bill would allow the Secretary of Transportation to establish a time limit. The House version requires pipeline operators to implement expanded leak-detection technologies. The Senate version would require that pipeline information, inspections, and standards be made available to the public on the website of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

Next Steps

While the fate of the bills still remain uncertain, the fact that there is bipartisan support for this issue is encouraging.  More, both the Senate and House versions add stronger pipeline protections than the Administration version, and if passed, would certainly be considered a step forward.











0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *