WASHINGTON – The Obama administration called for tighter federal oversight of oil and gas pipelines Wednesday in the wake of a deadly California gas explosion that raised alarms about the safety of the nation’s aging infrastructure.
In the meantime, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said the federal agency responsible for the regulation is too accepting of assurances from industry that its equipment and practices are safe.
Deborah Hersman’s comments echoed what safety advocates have long called for – a pipeline agency that needs to be less cozy with industry and staffed with more inspectors to enforce stricter regulations.
They welcomed the Obama plan, but said it fell far short of addressing the problems facing the nation’s millions of miles of pipeline.
“It’s the low-hanging fruit,” said Rick Kessler with the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham advocacy group. “There’s no increase in mileage of pipelines that must be inspected, there’s no standards for technology for inspections or repairing pipelines.”
“If this is a starting point, fine. If this is all the administration has to say, it is wholly inadequate,” he said.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration is directly responsible for inspecting interstate pipelines and has only 100 inspectors to do it. Oversight of intrastate lines is left to local regulators, who have in most cases left the inspections to utilities.
Hersman said the NTSB, which is investigating the California blast and two other pipeline accidents, is concerned that PHMSA relies too heavily on documents submitted by the companies it regulates, rather than its own on-site verification of practices and procedures.
The Obama administration plan sent to Congress would increase from $1 million to $2.5 million the maximum fine for the most serious violations involving deaths, injuries or major environmental harm related to oil and gas pipelines.
It also would pay for an additional 40 inspectors and safety regulators over the next four years.
Yet progress toward tough new laws is unlikely any time soon with Congress in election-year gridlock. Some earlier proposals to improve pipeline safety have languished on Capitol Hill over concerns by energy companies. Congress is expected to recess for midterm elections within three weeks, making it unlikely a bill could be enacted within the next two months.
The department’s proposal would eliminate exemptions from safety regulations for pipelines that gather hazardous liquids upstream of transmission pipelines, DOT said. It also would authorize PHMSA to collect additional data on pipelines, including information on previously unregulated lines, the department said. And it would provide for improved coordination with states and other agencies on inspector training and oversight of pipeline construction and expansion projects involving both gas and hazardous liquids pipelines.