Journalism in the Public Interest

Congress Moves Toward Tougher Stand on Pipeline Safety, But is it Enough?

A new bill takes a step towards addressing serious flaws in the nation’s oil and gas pipeline safety standards, in response to over a year of deadly accidents.

Workers try to clean up an oil spill of approximately 800,000 gallons of crude oil from the Kalamazoo River, July 28, 2010 in Battle Creek, Mich. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

A bill to strengthen pipeline safety regulations passed the House and Senate last week and now awaits President Obama’s signature. But while many applaud Congress’s move toward more oversight, others question whether the impending law goes far enough to prevent oil and natural gas pipeline accidents.

The pipeline industry reports more than 100 significant hazardous liquid spills each year. (See a map of those spills). Every year, an average of 275 accidents kill 10 to 15 people and injure five to six times as many.

The “Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011” would double potential fines for violations (up to a max of $2 million), require automated shutoff valves for new and replaced pipelines, and hire 10 new safety inspectors to join the current 124.

“This is a huge step forward for the safety of America’s pipelines,” Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) said in a statement.

But as the Associated Press noted, the bill doesn’t implement several recommendations from a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California that killed eight people last September (the San Francisco Chronicle has a recent series on the disaster). One of those recommendations is that automated shutoff valves be installed on already existing pipelines (particularly old ones in highly populated areas, which are prone to accidents).

Safety experts also say that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency responsible for regulating the vast network of 2.5 million miles of pipelines, needs many more inspectors to do the job right. The pipeline agency simply doesn’t have enough inspectors, or money to hire them, a New York Times investigation recently found.

A recent Congressional Research Service report on pipeline safety found a long-term pattern of understaffing. Which means that it’s often pipeline workers who notice and report problems – if they catch them in time.

In recent years, a series of major accidents have further raised the profile of dangerous pipelines. In addition to the San Bruno blast, 800,000 gallons of oil spurted into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River last July after a 30-inch pipeline sprung a leak. Another 42,000 gallons spilled in July into the Yellowstone River in Montana from a ruptured pipe.

Thousands of other pipelines could potentially share the same fate. More than 60 percent of the country’s gas pipelines are at least 40 years old, and they often aren’t compatible with the latest in safety technology (the Philadelphia Inquirer has a recent series on aging pipelines).

We’ve covered the recurring troubles with Alaska’s pipelines, which federal agencies have repeatedly flagged, urging repairs or entire replacements of dangerously corroded pipes. Even portions of the pipelines that BP inspectors didn’t give an “F” ranking (BP is the largest single owner of the Alaska pipelines) have burst, spewing thousands of gallons of oily water and methanol.

Another problem, as we’ve noted previously, is who writes the regulation standards. As it happens, the gas and oil industry has written at least 29 ­of the standards later adopted by the pipeline agency.

The bill comes alongside a Republican attempt to speed up the approval of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, a 1,700 mile long pipeline that would run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying a particularly viscous form of crude called oil sands. As mentioned in the Times, the bill makes no reference to Keystone, but calls for more studies on whether oil sands needs extra regulation.

What about whistleblower protection Mr President like you promised?
After all we did not recieve protection when we blew the whistle on safety.So why should these pipe line workers speak up about safety issuies that they uncover even under OSHA ‘s so called whistleblower protection program.OSHA is a complete joke in protecting whistleblowers even with all the indisputible company documentation we provided that would have sent anyone of us to prision Mr President they turned on us.This employer was so arrogent that even on the day i was terminated after years of warning them of what i was uncovering they sent into a Sunoco refinery a five ton machine i just locked out unsafe with complete indisputible company documentation they knowingly commited this act and OSHA let them walk away.The manufacturer even stated that machine should never have left the yard let alone be in that refinery Mr President.I have been posting some of my case on the Department of Labor ‘s “Work in Progress"blog comment section where they have been denieing some posts even after i follow there comment guide lines.This case has cost two more coworkes there jobs after i made the first call to OSHA and one was the only recepitionist who also was uncovering these safety issuies.
Someting is wrong here and i have tried to contact senator Frank Launterberg who handles my district but of course no response.
Remember what Deepwater Horizion survivor Daniel Baron on CNN stated in front of five other survivors about BP
  “You could call time out for safety,they would’nt fire you for it ,but they would find another way to fire you for it”
Now they have OSHA seaman protection act,But according to my OSHA 11(c) investigator who got the first case in the the U.S under this program stated to me ‘It doesent work Gregg ,This is why i’m trying to get out of OSHA” This investigator talked because he was a friend of my brother where they grew up together in Philadelphia.

sammy the bull

Dec. 20, 2011, 4:18 p.m.

Definitely the Number One industry in need of Govt Regulation. But what good does it do when the industry makes its own rules, like the banking industry and the pharmaceutical industry?  Answer: None.  WHICH IS WHY WE OCCUPY WALL STREET.

Stephanie Palmer

Dec. 20, 2011, 4:30 p.m.

Congress had better start funding the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration or these existing problems will just get worse. And they had better stop trying to push the Keystone pipeline through in a hurry. They have already taken most of the money from us not to mention our jobs, people had better stop spending so much time in front of the boob tube and pay attention to what’s happening around them. Once we have an emergency it’s too late.

Face it - our congressional delegates, for the most part, only care about the businesses who invest in their campaigns and the lobbyists who represent those businesses.  Allowing any industry to regulate itself is a joke.  Workers are the only ones being “regulated” and watched under the ever-more-intrusive eye of Big Brother.

Peter Snowden

Dec. 20, 2011, 5:48 p.m.

I want the Keystone pipeline.  I do not want our country to feel like it needs to invade oil producers in the middle east.  I want us to be energy independent. But I also want pipeline safety.  They should both be goals of a national energy policy.  The technology is there for pipeline safety—make the pipeline companies use it, and load them up with really nasty penalties for spills.  Fine them enough and they’ll figure it out. 

What is our national energy policy?  Yeah, thats right.  We don’t have one.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr

Dec. 20, 2011, 6:12 p.m.

Let’s see if I have this straight:  Each year in the USA 10-15 people are killed in pipeline accidents.  How many of those deaths occurred during the building or replacement of pipeline wlith “safer"pipelines.  News for you:  People die doing construction work, especially heavy construction work. 
Another thing:  This article would appear to be “relevant” only because of the current controversy surrounding the proposed Keystone pipeline. Furthermore, if the govt. were to shut down all of the pipelines in the country for safety and environmental reasons, presumably the materials now carried by those pipelines would then have to be carried by barge,rail, or truck.  How many more lives would then be lost, streams polluted, ground contaminated, etc.

Gloria Alvarez

Dec. 20, 2011, 6:53 p.m.

Walter: It isn’t all about the current level of deaths, injuries and pollution, but more about the possible future levels due to pipeline ruptures and leaks.

As the article stated, many of the pipelines in the US are more than 40 years old, and not in good shape. Onshore and offshore. Above- and under-ground. The companies do a spotty job of maintaining them and worse in monitoring them—and the putative regulators don’t have the manpower and resources to even make a good start towards picking up the slack.

Without automatic shut-off valves, the damage done by any rupture or leak is multiplied many-fold. We’ve stinted on all manner of infrastructure spending during the last few decades—and ‘we’ includes both the public and private sectors. If we don’t begin correcting that by spending the necessary money, time and effort, a lot of Americans are going to regret it, by and by.

The titles to these laws belong on The Onion website.  This one contained the phrase, “Regulatory Certainity”.  You can’t make this stuff up. In the middle of fundraising activities for an national election the timing couldn’t have been worse.  I can’t imagine any regulation with teeth managed to get through that political filter.  A maximum $2 million fine for the Oil & Gas behemoths is laughable.  This is the maximum fine if they pollute the Ogallala Aquifier or the Delaware River.  Please.  By the way, the 7th Circuit shot down a Wisconsin law limiting private donations to PACs to $10,0000 usiing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United precedent.  Federal law trumps state law.  You see where this is going.  State laws will be routinely overridden when they try to stop fracking and other fossil fuel disasters from occurring.  Just yesterday an industry hack on PBS said they’ve got to get back to more deep water drilling in the nation’s unofficial toilet, the Gulf of Mexico.

A big problem is that, traditionally, Congress believes that regulation is only of interest to the regulated industry.  That is, they believe that only banks care about financial law, media companies copyright, and oil companies pipelines.  It’s starting to dawn on them (thanks to aggressive environmentalists) that others need input, but that’s a slow process of changing two centuries of institutional memory and the lobbyists aren’t going to let that go without a fight.

So of course they go to the oil companies for “ideas” (read as “bills”) for regulation, and of course they’re extremely liberal in how they work.

Louisette Lanteigne

Dec. 21, 2011, 10:05 p.m.

The Environmental Impact Studies being done currently are a joke. There are no regulations on securing proper test times and methods to assess seasonal variants, 12 month creek studies, proper bore hole depths, proper test times for rare species etc. There is no law to assure transparency when it comes to pre-development data modeling. Often times data can’t be independently tested because the computer models being used are flawed, data too subjective with no explanation on numbers punched in or how they get their results. I’ve seen studies being done with data taken as far back as 1944. No law to state data need be current. Water risks are downplayed by ignoring spring thaw water levels. Flow and flow rates to creek are often done in a day without regard to seasonal changes and without regard to the anticipated climate change impacts expected in that area. Many locations are currently doubling flood zones for planning issues but often these studies don’t have to have regard to that. The poor baseline data is a strategic move because it protects companies from liability risks because the poor data makes it difficult to prosecute when spills happen because there is no good record of the pre-development conditions. Can’t properly plan remediation/restoration without that sort of data. We need solid laws mandating reasonable test times and methods to secure the best base line data possible and insure that the models can be independently replicated. We also need to assure proper oversight and enforcement to assure compliance.

Malcolm McLean

Dec. 22, 2011, 10:59 a.m.

@ Gregg - Where’s the whistleblower protection Obama promised?

PLEASE! Are you asleep at the wheel (no disrespect intended) Obama has the worst record of any president to protect the people he promisded to protect (does that make sense?).

Anyway read this Barack Obama has been accused of having the worst record of any US president on dealing with whistleblowers by the Oscar-nominated director of a documentary about the man behind the Vietnam war Pentagon Papers leak.

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