House subpanel easily approves pipeline safety bill

House subpanel easily approves pipeline safety bill
(07/27/2011)

Elana Schor, E&E reporter

A plan to overhaul pipeline safety rules today cleared its first hurdle in the House Energy and Commerce Committee with a quality rarely seen in one of the Capitol’s biggest partisan hotbeds: cross-aisle agreement.

Top Democrats on the panel hailed its GOP leaders for seeking their input and collaborating on a manager’s amendment to the pipeline bill that saw Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) ally with Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.). While contentious issues could yet crop up ahead of a full-committee markup expected in September, the legislation appeared to presage a smooth ride for the legislation.

“If we continue this, bipartisanship may become a habit” on the energy and power subpanel that cleared the pipeline bill today, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said. “That would be a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Rush outlined two hoped-for tweaks to the bill, including a mandate that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
implement new regulations for the transport of politically volatile Canadian oil sands crude. But his broad support for the measure was
echoed by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the committee’s top Democrat.

That strengthening PHMSA’s authority over the 2 million-plus miles of U.S. oil and gas pipelines would become a team effort on the Energy and Commerce Committee — the site of some of this year’s most acrimonious
battles over environmental policy — is not entirely surprising but was hardly assured.

Upton’s interest in the issue amplified after a pipeline rupture last year spilled an estimated 800,000 gallons of crude into a waterway near
his district, and his panel’s draft bill went further than a Democratic-authored Senate bill in some respects (E&E Daily, July 11).
Yet the bipartisan pipeline safety bill is advancing while the parties tangle over the Keystone XL link between Gulf Coast refineries and the
Canadian oil sands, a vicious political clash that came to a head less than 24 hours ago (E&E Daily, July 27).

Among the changes to the draft PHMSA bill approved today, via an Upton-Dingell substitute amendment, were two provisions designed to respond to recent high-profile pipeline breaks. The first requires gas line operators to document their maximum allowable operating pressure, a key
issue in the 2010 rupture that killed eight residents of San Bruno, Calif.; the second, setting up a PHMSA review of existing rules for the
burial of pipelines under waterways, addresses a question that has lingered in the weeks since a July 1 oil leak in Montana’s Yellowstone River (E&E Daily, July 8).

“I believe pipelines can deliver growing energy supplies to families and businesses in the years ahead, and I believe they can do it safely,” Upton said today. “But as the recent spills have shown, the status quo is not good enough, and the goal of [the committee’s bill] is to ensure a much stronger safety record in the future.”

A Senate counterpart plan advanced to the floor with bipartisan backing, but its passage by unanimous consent remains blocked by anonymous GOP objections related to the cost of implementing new safety
rules that also are included in the House version (E&E Daily, July 20).

Notably, the pipeline bill did not attract unanimous praise from the Energy and Commerce panel’s members. Rep. Gene Green of Texas, an oil-patch Democrat, called it a “solid first step” but said he wants to see
changes to language affecting potential regulation of offshore gathering pipelines as well as integrity management plans drafted by operators.

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), for his part, aired concerns also voiced by industry about the bill’s one-hour time limit for pipeline operators to report ruptures or incidents along their networks.

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