Transportation Secretary Outlines Plan To Identify High-Risk Oil, Gas Pipelines

Given the recent spate of fatal pipeline accidents, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced April 4 a series of initiatives aimed at requiring pipeline companies to assess and identify high-risk oil and gas pipelines that need repair, boosting fines for pipeline violations, and strengthening risk management requirements.

In a telephone news conference, Lahood told reporters the federal government was concerned that “there is a patchwork of jurisdictional responsibility” for ensuring pipeline safety and issuing pipeline permits.

The department's action plan attempts to address that issue by calling on “all pipeline stakeholders,” including the pipeline industry, utility regulators, and state and federal partners, to coordinate efforts better.

The plan also calls on the chief executives of major pipeline companies to identify and assess their pipeline systems for repair and rehabilitation needs. In addition, the plan urges Congress to increase daily fines for pipeline violations from $100,000 to $250,000, and from $1 million to $2.5 million for a series of violations; to provide more funding to hire inspectors; and close regulatory loopholes.

Washington, D.C., Forum April 18.

The Department of Transportation is planning to hold an all-day public forum on April 18 in Washington, D.C., where industry officials and analysts can discuss the best way to approach pipeline safety.

The action plan builds upon many of the provisions contained in pipeline safety bills floated in the last two years in both chambers of Congress. Specifically, the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011 (S. 275), authored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), requires the same increases in fines and authorizes funds to hire more inspectors (24 DEN A-15, 2/4/11)

“The DOT action plan launched today is an important step toward improving the safety and reliability of America's pipeline network. It addresses many of my long-standing concerns and incorporates recommendations included in my pipeline safety bill. My teammate on this issue, Senator Lautenberg, and I are also working in Congress to pass this legislation and provide stronger oversight of our nation's pipeline system,” said Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Lautenberg, who chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security, in a joint statement.

Both senators urged quick action on the legislation, noting that the Commerce committee intends to take up the bill April 12.

According to the Department of Transportation, annual fatalities from pipeline incidents rose from nine in 2008 to 13 in 2009 and 22 in 2010. The September 2010 natural gas pipe explosion in San Bruno, Calif., was responsible for nine deaths and for injuries of many more. In February 2011, five people were killed when a natural gas pipeline exploded in Allentown, Pa.

Integrity Management Rule Eyed for August.

Under the action plan, DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration would finalize its integrity management rule in August 2011. That rule would require pipeline companies to evaluate the risks on their pipeline systems and develop action plans for addressing those risks, which would include notifying the public about the dangers of living near or above pipeline networks.

“The common ordinary citizens have no idea what pipelines are running through their backyard or front yards,” LaHood said, adding that citizens should not live in fear of causing an explosion by the turn of a switch in their homes.

Separate from the integrity management rule, the department is asking companies to identify pipelines in need of repair.

In response to questions, LaHood declined to say who would pay for the repairs and rehabilitation of the aging pipeline system. He said he did not know how many pipelines needed repair.

“There are thousands of pipelines that are aging,” LaHood said, adding that once the agency has the data then it can decide how best to pay for repairs.

Regarding permitting, LaHood said that “no new layer of bureaucracy would be created” for coordinating efforts between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is charged with siting of pipelines, and PHMSA. Rather, he said, DOT has asked FERC to inform PHMSA when issuing permits so that pipeline safety is considered at the outset rather than after the fact.

By Amena H. Saiyid