Sheila McNulty Congress must improve gas pipeline safety

The aftermath of the California explosionThere have been a string of leaks from natural gas pipelines in recent months in the US. Chevron had two leaks on the same line in Utah this past summer. PG&E suffered a natural gas transmission line explosion in September in California that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes. El Paso just suffered a leak outside of Houston. And there have been others.

Ray LaHood, US Transportation Secretary, has sent to Congress proposed legislation to provide stronger oversight of the nation’s pipelines and increase the penalties for violations of pipeline safety rules.

From the letter:

The nation’s pipelines, our energy highways, are by far the safest way to quickly transport large volumes of fuels and other hazardous liquids over long distances. However, as the recent oil pipeline failures near Marshall, Mich., and Romeoville, Ill., have shown, as well as the tragic gas pipeline explosion in Northern California, the Department needs stronger authority to ensure the continued safety and reliability of our nation’s pipeline network.

He proposed an increase from $1m to $2.5m the maximum fine for the most serious violations involving deaths, injuries, or major environmental harm. New regulations would also provide additional resources for the enforcement program by authorising 40 additional inspection and enforcement personnel over four years.

The legislation would require a review of whether rules requiring the strictest safety requirements only for “high-consequence” areas – urban centres, sensitive areas or navigable waterways – should be applied to entire pipelines, including sections located in rural areas. And the regulations would eliminate exemptions from safety regulations for pipelines that gather hazardous liquids upstream of transmission pipelines.

These all sound like sensible suggestions and something Congress should not wait any further on. Natural gas pipelines criss-cross the US. The gas flows into homes. There already has been one terrible accident in California. Any of the string of recent leaks could have turned deadly.

Why do regulators always wait until the worst possible scenario hits to hire more staff, tighten regulations and better enforce what already is on the books? One reason is because they are not given adequate funding by the authorities.

One would have thought the authorities would have learned the lessons provided from the Macondo disaster and rushed to tighten regulatory oversight in all aspects of the industry.