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Oil Spills Inspire Bipartisan Surprise on Federal Pipeline Safety Reforms

Three bills moving through Congress would significantly strengthen federal oversight for pipelines like the proposed Keystone XL

Aug 12, 2011
Silvertip Oil Spill

WASHINGTON—A series of headline-grabbing ruptures along the nation's 2.5 million-mile network of oil and gas pipelines is prompting a rare attempt at bipartisanship. Democrats and Republicans seem equally intent on significantly beefing up the pipeline safety standards that might have prevented some of these spills.

The timing of the legislation they're considering is especially vital because the State Department is in the midst of deciding whether a Canadian company should be allowed to expand its U.S. presence by building a $7 billion pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer and other fragile landscapes in the nation's heartland.

TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline would pump millions of gallons of diluted bitumen —a particularly dirty grade of heavy crude — 1,702 miles from the oil sands mines of Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Three bills — two Democratic measures in the Senate and one cross-party initiative in the House — are now circulating. All of them would give federal regulators a bigger hammer to prevent pipeline leaks and accidents. Provisions include studying how diluted bitumen affects a pipeline's structural integrity, improving leak detection technology, increasing inspections, requiring steeper penalties for violations and mandating advances such as automatic shutoff valves and excess flow valves.

One unusual development is that industry groups and environmental and public interest advocates seem heartened by what they are hearing and seeing on the legislative front. The Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Wash.-based nonprofit whose sole mission is promoting fuel transportation safety, is also satisfied with where Congress is headed.

The Trust's executive director, Carl Weimer, and others from his organization have spent hours testifying before congressional committees.

"Before the rash of pipeline tragedies in the last 15 months, we'd be happy to have three of the 12 items on our laundry list in a bill," Weimer told SolveClimate News. "But this time around we've got most everything on our list in these bills.

"We're kind of surprised. We thought Sen. Frank Lautenberg's bill would be the high-water mark and things would go downhill in the House," he said, referring to the first bill introduced this session. "But in reality, by the time they got done with the House bill, in some ways it is stronger than the Senate bill."

Weimer says that a muscular law could emerge relatively quickly if another anticipated House bill doesn’t gum up the process — as it well could — and if legislators are judicious enough to combine the strongest pieces from each bill.

A Brief Look at the Bills

Lautenberg of New Jersey teamed up with fellow Democrat Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia in February to introduce the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011. In addition to provisions that focus on studying diluted bitumen, improving leak detection and requiring advanced shut-off technology, it would authorize the hiring of additional pipeline inspectors and give pipeline operators deadlines for notifying local and state officials and emergency responders about accidents and leaks.

In early May, the measure passed the Democratic-majority Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which Rockefeller chairs. Lautenberg is chairman of the subcommittee that handles surface transportation. It is now awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.

The latest entry on the Senate side, the Clean Rivers Act of 2011, is co-sponsored by Montana Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester. It was rolled out just a week ago, less than a month after a ruptured Exxon Mobil pipeline spilled an estimated 50,000 gallons of oil into Montana's  Yellowstone River. That Silvertip pipeline reportedly carried both conventional and oil sands crude.

In addition to upgrading oil spill response plans, the Baucus-Tester bill would update leak detection standards and require federal regulators to pay extra attention to pipelines sited near waterways. If TransCanada’s Keystone XL plans are approved, a section of 36-inch diameter pipeline would be buried in the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides most of Nebraska's drinking and irrigation water.

Over in the Republican-majority House, Rep. Fred Upton — the same Michigan Republican backing legislation that would force the Obama administration to give a "yea" or "nay" to Keystone XL by Nov. 1 — has teamed up with another Michigander, Democratic Rep. John Dingell, to cosponsor the Pipeline Infrastructure and Community Protection Act of 2011.

Environmental organizations are invigorated by the heft of the bill that Upton, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, co-crafted with Dingell, former chair of the same powerful committee.

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