Finger pointing over stalled pipeline safety bill in House committee

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are blaming each other for an impasse in a pipeline safety reauthorization bill that many thought would breeze through Congress.

Oklahoma U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin is a Republican member of the committee.

Bloomberg Environment news reported Democrats are “surrendering, sacrificing,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), chairman of Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee on energy. “But they [Republicans] still don’t want to come our way.”

But Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), ranking member of the energy subcommittee, wrote in a recent op-ed: “The truth is Republicans have remained at the negotiating table, ready and willing to meet with our Democratic colleagues. Any suggestion to the contrary is flat-out wrong.”

Congress was set to reauthorize the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)—the agency responsible for inspecting close to 3 million miles of pipelines carrying oil, natural gas, and hazardous liquids—by Sept. 30. But the Safer Pipelines Act of 2019 (H.R. 3432), remains stalled in committee.

“I think it’s political on their part,” Rush said of his Republican colleagues. “By them compromising on this bill, that would somehow affect their chances of re-election.”

But Republicans say they’ve already made significant concessions, and that it’s the Democrats who won’t come to the table.

Negotiations in Congress appear to have taken a turn for the worse since reports surfaced last week that Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) planned to abandon H.R. 3432 and start over on a new bill.

Pallone declined to comment on whether a decision had been made to write new legislation, telling Bloomberg Environment, “We will move on a bill.”

A spokeswoman for committee Democrats didn’t confirm work on a new bill, and couldn’t comment generally on the PHMSA negotiations.

Several high-profile pipeline accidents in the last decade, including deadly explosions in California and Massachusetts, an oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, and a major gas leak in Aliso Canyon, Calif., have driven congressional mandates for new pipeline safety regulations.

PHMSA issued new regulations Sept. 30 to update its existing rules to cover more pipelines, with emphasis on the types of pipelines involved in fatal explosions and releases in the past.

The Senate’s version (S.2299) won approval from the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on July 31. Its sponsors are Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

The bill is set to be “hotlined”—an informal process to gauge if any senators object to the bill—in the next couple of days, according to a Senate aide.

The House bill’s authorized spending for PHMSA would rise from $237 million in fiscal 2020 to $256 million in fiscal 2023. The Senate’s bill would allow less spending: from $218 million for fiscal 2020 to $236 million in 2023.

The lapsed authorization has no direct effect on the agency because funding has been appropriated under the continuing resolution to keep the federal government running, according to PHMSA.

The last two significant laws to reauthorize PHMSA—the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-90); and the PIPES Act of 2016 (P.L. 114-183)—passed unanimously in both chambers.

The Trump administration in June published a legislative proposal that included provisions to set criminal penalties for protesters who vandalize pipeline projects. Rush and other Democrats unequivocally opposed the language, but a spokesman for Republicans said they agreed to shelve those provisions months ago.

Republicans contend that Democrats have put forward an unworkable bill, and that they have made concessions to keep negotiations alive.

In addition to dropping the provisions on pipeline protesters, Republicans have agreed to include Democratic bill language that would require pipeline operators to consider the risk of putting too much pressure on cast iron pipes, a cause of the gas explosions in Massachusetts last year, according to a committee aide.

H.R. 3432 would require that industry install automatic shut-off valves on pipelines in “high consequence areas”—a definition that is vague and ever-changing, according to a GOP committee aide, and would run against current rules that the agency is developing.

PHMSA defines high consequence areas as an area where pipeline releases could have greater consequences to health and safety or the environment. For oil pipelines, this includes “high population areas, other population areas, commercially navigable waterways and areas unusually sensitive to environmental damage.”

The minority party also says the Democratic bill doesn’t consider a Republican proposal that would create a voluntary information-sharing system for industry, and that would change the requirements for cost-benefit analyses on new pipeline development.

It would also expand PHMSA’s jurisdiction to cover gathering lines—the pipes from a wellhead to the point of transmission—which currently fall under states oversight.

Republicans believe these lines should remain under state control, but Rush said broader federal oversight on gathering lines is necessary to avoid uneven regulation across the country.

“We can’t have mishmash regulations,” he said. “We’ve got to have a coherent, consistent approach because pipelines by their nature are interstate and intrastate.”

Source: Bloomberg Environment News