INGAA’s Edwards Keeps Watch On Capitol Hill

October 2011, Vol. 238 No. 10

Jeff Share, Editor

There are few Washington insiders who know more about energy legislation that Martin Edwards, Vice President of Legislative Affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA).

Edwards joined the INGAA staff in 1995, prior to which worked for several years as a staffer on Capitol Hill.  From 1987-95, he held various positions in the office of U.S. Representative Ralph M. Hall, ending as the congressman’s Legislative Director. 

Edwards was involved in Hall’s assignment to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he handled legislation relating to telecommunications, finance, foreign trade and energy policy. Edwards worked on initiatives as the Energy Policy Act of 1992 and the Cable Television Act of 1992. In 1995, Mr. Edwards joined INGAA as director of Legislative Affairs.  In 2002, he became vice president of Legislative Affairs.  During his tenure at INGAA, he has worked on the Pipeline Safety Act of 1996, the One-Call Notification Act of 1998, the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002, and the Energy Policy Act of 2003, among others.

Edwards, married and the father of two, received his BBA from the George Washington University in 1986.  The affable, straight-talking Memphis, TN native has a keen understanding of congressional legislation and its likely impact on the natural gas pipeline transmission industry. In an interview with P&GJ last month, Edwards discussed many of the topics on the congressional agenda and their potential impact on the industry.

P&GJ: What are the issues on Capitol Hill that are and should be of most concern to pipeline operators today?

Edwards: Right now the main issue for INGAA is the reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Act, which is pending in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate. Because Congress is focused on so many other pressing issues, particularly those related to the economy, and because it is in a state of partisan gridlock, very few bills are being worked on this year.

Pipeline safety is one of the few. It is notable that the debate on this issue has been bipartisan and consensus-driven. Committees in both the House and the Senate have passed reauthorization bills with strong bipartisan support. The question now is whether there is political will to see this – or, really, any non-economic – bill passed this year.

There still are a number of steps that must happen to see this legislation become law. In the House, the two committees (Energy and Commerce and Transportation and Infrastructure) that have passed reauthorization bills must agree on a single, compromise bill that then must be passed by the full House.

The Senate will have to either pass the House-approved bill or the bill the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee reported out in May. If it does the latter, a conference will be necessary to reconcile differences in the two chambers’ bills, which would be followed by another vote by both full House and full Senate on the reconciled bill. Then, of course, the bill would have to be signed by President Obama.

P&GJ: What is the status of pipeline safety authorization and what are the prospects of a bill passing this year? If not, what will stand in its way?

Edwards: At this point in time (end-September) there is probably a 60% chance of pipeline safety reauthorization being completed this year. The reason is not large philosophical differences over pipeline safety or major disagreements between the House and Senate on what should be done.

In fact, the pipeline safety provisions of the House and Senate bills are relatively close, and generally speaking, there is broad bipartisan support for the bill’s completion. In addition, all stakeholders – industry, public interest groups and regulators – have indicated support for reauthorization and are generally favorable about the specific bills. INGAA has supported all the bills in committee.

There are some small things we would like changed, but we have backed the general approach of the committees – providing guideposts and aspirational goals to the regulator (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration – PHMSA) in terms of pipeline safety, but allowing the regulator, which has the technical expertise, to work out the specifics. If pipeline safety is derailed this year, it probably will be because of unrelated issues – whether it be partisan gridlock, lack of time, or unrelated issues (for instance, a senator holding up all votes over a judicial nomination).

We are hopeful, though, that the Pipeline Safety Act will be reauthorized. We believe that reauthorization, combined with a credible, effective regulator and the industry’s renewed commitment to pipeline safety will create greater confidence in the safety of this critical energy infrastructure. Continuous safety improve is critical to future pipeline expansion — and American job creation — as natural gas continues to grow in the coming decades.

P&GJ: PHMSA is moving forward with new regulations so is it important for Congress to pass pipeline safety reauthorization? Which of the two do you think is preferable?

Edwards: Pipeline safety is an important subject, and we think it’s critical that Congress put its stamp on the issue. It is clear that PHMSA will move forward with pipeline safety regulations, and it should. But Congress, as elected public policymakers, should provide the groundwork, including performance metrics and timeframes, to inform those regulators. It is Congress’ job to provide the goals and guidelines, and the regulators’ job to fill in the details.

P&GJ: As the 2012 elections get closer, do you think we’ll see more or less regulations proposed or enacted by Congress?

Edwards: Historically, we see increasing legislative gridlock as elections draw closer. I think it’s safe to say that this trend will continue in 2012. We already are seeing it now, a full year from the election. Legislative snarls are being intensified by partisan politics, particularly over the debt and budget.
Some in the House and Senate are opposed to any new regulation on business for fear that it could further harm the fragile U.S. economic recovery and they have made a concerted effort to block any legislation that proposes new regulations. As a result, while it will be difficult to get any legislation passed in the coming year, it will be nearly impossible to move legislation proposing new regulations.

P&GJ: What do you think will be included in either the new regulations or congressional bill, and how might this affect the pipeline industry?

Edwards: Other than a Pipeline Safety Act reauthorization bill, it is difficult to see any other bills in Congress being enacted over the 1.5 years that contain new regulations relative to pipelines.

P&GJ: How do lawmakers view the topic of “aging infrastructure” and what do they realistically expect the industry to do?

Edwards: Most lawmakers tend to think of “aging infrastructure” and pipelines in the same manner as they think of roads, bridges, or commercial aircraft – that natural gas transmission pipelines have a defined life expectancy. This really isn’t the case. In fact, with proper maintenance and upgrades, gas transmission pipelines can last for many decades. We like to use the analogy of a home. My own home, for example, was built in 1941, but it remains a perfectly acceptable residence for my family, due to the maintenance and upgrades we have undertaken.

P&GJ: When you talk to government officials both in the regulatory and legislative arenas, what is their general opinion(s) of the pipeline business, particularly in light of recent incidents?

Edwards: Pipelines still are viewed as being critical infrastructure for the nation, just like electric transmission lines or communications systems. Government officials rightly were concerned about pipeline safety in light of recent accidents, but I also think they recognize that the industry, and particularly the natural gas transmission industry, has used these events to renew its commitment to safety. We’ve received very good feedback from government officials, both in the legislative and regulatory arenas, on our guiding principles and action plan to improve pipeline safety.

As we’ve told these officials, we don’t see our anchor goal of zero pipeline incidents as simply a series of words; we see it as a true commitment that we will work on every day. Safety is not a goal that is reached and then forgotten about. Safety is something that you have to work on all the time – on an evolving basis. It has to be part of the culture of each company and of the entire industry.

For us, safety is about continuous improvement. Not only have we set aspirational goals, but we’ve followed through with a series of commitments to reach those goals. While we’ve released nine specific commitments, we anticipate adding more. The knowledge base for pipeline safety evolves, and we need to evolve with it.