January 2020, Vol. 247, No. 1


House Democrats to Approve Tough Pipeline Bill

Democrats in the House are about to pass a new pipeline safety bill that is unlikely to attract any Republican support. The Pipeline Safety Act (H.R. 5120), which passed by two House committees in November with no GOP votes in favor, also clashes with the bi-partisan bill passed last summer by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. 

The House Democratic bill was praised by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an environmental group, which has typically been at loggerheads with the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) with regard to how safety and environmental factors should affect pipeline permitting. INGAA supported a rival bill proposed by Republicans in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. That bill attracted support from one Democrat. 

A few days before the Transportation and Commerce Committees voted to approve H.R. 5120 on Nov. 19 and 20, a number of natural gas industry trade groups, including INGAA and the American Petroleum Institute, sent a letter to members of those committees expressing concern about the lack of bipartisan support for H.R. 5120. 

The letter stated, ‘Pipeline safety legislation historically has been enacted on a bipartisan basis, and bipartisanship will ultimately be essential to achieve the bicameral support needed in this Congress to reauthorize PHMSA.” 

PHMSA’s legislative authorization ceased at the end of September 2019, but the agency can continue to do its business nonetheless although new legislation is eventually needed.

The INGAA letter ticked off a number of actions the industry would support in a new pipeline safety bill, including enhancing PHMSA’s workforce, increasing funding for state pipeline safety regulators, reauthorizing emergency responder grant funding, promoting innovative technologies and updating PHMSA regulations to address the intent of relevant National Transportation Safety Board recommendations.  

Prior to the Nov.19 and 20 votes by both House committees, Democrats in the Energy & Commerce Committee supported a much milder version of H.R. 5120. But they ditched that bill and jumped on the more radical – from industry’s perspective – bill presented by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president, EDF, lauded H.R. 5120, called the “Safe, Accountable, Fair and Environmentally Responsible Pipelines Act of 2019”.  

“By putting in place critical new public safety and climate protections, the SAFER Pipelines Act is a win-win for all American families,” she said. “It’s well past time to give PHMSA the tools and direction to contribute to our nation’s efforts to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.”

One of the provisions of the bill would essentially prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from completing an ongoing rulemaking announced last September that would change current regulations imposed in 2012 and 2016 obligating pipelines to reduce methane leaks. 

The creation in those years of Clean Air Act new source performance standards (NSPS), Subparts OOOO and OOOOa, subjected pipelines to limits on emissions of volatile organic chemicals and methane from controllers and compressor stations. There were subsequent legal challenges in 2016 and 2017, which led to the EPA reconsidering a few provisions of the 2016 final rule, including those having to do with fugitive emissions. Then, last September, in a proposed rule, the Trump EPA essentially proposed canceling the 2016 final rule which dealt primarily with methane.

At the end of November 2019, a week after the House committees acted, INGAA submitted comments on the EPA’s September proposed rule. The group said it was particularly concerned about the provisions in the 2016 EPA final rule dealing with “certain repairs” but added, “Although INGAA’s participation in the legal challenge of NSPS OOOOa was limited to this particular technical issue, INGAA does support a broad review of these rules...” 

The comments point out that the INGAA board of directors had formally committed to methane reductions in voluntary pledges issued on July 19, 2018. These included core principles such as minimizing emissions from interstate natural gas pipelines, pneumatic controllers and compressor stations. 

More specifically, members of INGAA said they will install air-driven, low-bleed, or intermittent pneumatic controllers when installing new pneumatic controllers, unless a different device is required for safe operations; minimize emissions during maintenance, repair and replacement of pipelines; replace rod packing on all transmission and storage reciprocating compressors; conduct leak surveys at all member-owned and operated transmission and transmission and storage compressor stations by 2022 and at all natural gas storage wells owned and operated by INGAA member companies by 2025; and transparently report methane emissions.   

Those voluntary commitments obviously did not move House Democrats. H.R. 5120 goes beyond the Obama-era 2016 “methane release from pipelines regulation” by imposing a host of new federal requirements in the area of leak detection and elsewhere. 

Another provision would require comprehensive pipeline mapping for the first time. Automatic shutoff or remote-controlled valves would be required on existing, new and replaced pipelines. The maximum civil penalties that could be imposed by PHMSA would be increased from $200,000 to $2 million per violation. It would be easier for the PHMSA to assess criminal penalties for operators who act recklessly. Operators would have to immediately repair major gas leaks. 

Democrats in the House believe those far-reaching actions are necessary. 

“There are nearly 3 million miles of pipelines transporting hazardous liquid and natural gas just feet below countless communities across the U.S., yet federal efforts to ensure these pipelines are safe, reliable and environmentally sound are woefully outdated,” Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said, “Last year alone, there were 636 pipeline incidents that left eight people dead and injured another 90, including the horrific incident that killed one person, sent 21 others to the hospital, and damaged 131 structures in Merrimack Valley, Mass.”

But those provisions go too far for the pipeline industry, and for Republicans in the House, and most likely, for GOP members of the Senate, where Republicans are in control. 

After the Transportation Committee vote Nov. 20, ranking member said Sam Graves (R-M.), said, “The most disappointing fact about today’s partisan markup is that if Republicans had been offered the chance to work on these bills with our colleagues in the majority, we could have produced legislation that every member of the committee supported.” 

The GOP bill, which one Democrat supported, is called the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2019. It includes a number of industry “asks,” including prohibiting three overt actions that jeopardize safety:  unauthorized turning of a valve; puncturing of a pipe, pump, or valve; and causing a defect to a pipe, pump, or valve. It also creates a safety-enhancing testing program for innovative technologies and operational practices. 

Don Santa, president and CEO of INGAA, said, ‘The Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2019 includes a number of provisions that enjoy wide support … and along with elements of the SAFER Pipeline Act of 2019 reflects the bipartisan approach that has characterized each renewal of this important law. We urge the committees to work together to reconcile these proposals into a legislative package that can be signed into law.”

 The House Democratic bill is considerably different from the bill passed by the Senate Commerce Committee on July 31. That bill is milder than even the bill the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed, and then jettisoned on Nov.19 in favor of the tougher H.R. 5120. The Senate bill is the Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act of 2019 (S. 2299). 

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