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Democratic bill sparks debate over mixing pipeline safety, climate policy

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Democratic bill sparks debate over mixing pipeline safety, climate policy

Democratic legislation that injects climate policy into a periodic pipeline safety agency reauthorization has polarized parties over whether marrying these two issues represents environmental progress or cumbersome complication.

The bill introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., immediately drew pushback because Democrats drafted it without input from Republicans, raising questions about its viability in the GOP-controlled Senate and the breakdown of the historically bipartisan process.

The legislation is also raising eyebrows because it explicitly aims to mitigate climate change. The legislation, which reauthorizes and funds the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, traditionally focuses on proposing measures to prevent energy infrastructure accidents.

SNL Image

"This comprehensive legislation will help protect people, the environment and our climate from unsafe pipelines," Rep. Frank Pallone, center, said.

Source: AP Photo

Industry groups including the American Gas Association and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America immediately called on lawmakers to return to a cooperative process.

"We encourage you to maintain the tradition of bipartisanship that has characterized pipeline safety legislation for decades. We worry that absent such an approach, PHMSA will remain unauthorized and important opportunities to enhance our nation's pipeline safety program will be forfeited," the heads of seven industry groups said in a letter to the House committees chaired by Pallone and DeFazio.

The Pipeline Safety Trust, an advocacy group representing citizens, also raised concerns that lack of compromise could stand in the way of implementing measures to hold PHMSA and pipeline operators accountable and help the agency implement long-stalled rules.

"[O]n the House side, while there is much talk about bipartisan cooperation, what that has amounted to is lip service to such cooperation while one side or another is unwilling to entertain anything they don't want," Carl Weimer, the trust's executive director, said in an email. "That is not bipartisan cooperation. That is spin and stonewalling."

Bill zeroes in on methane leaks

The bill put forward by Democrats is "much more aggressive" than past legislation, according to Keith Coyle, a former PHMSA attorney-adviser who worked on recent reauthorizations. He said no pipeline safety bill has ever focused so squarely on methane emissions.

The legislation would add three entirely new sections to the civil code that direct the Transportation Secretary to issue new regulations to prevent the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Those include requiring gas pipeline facility operators to deploy advanced leak detection technology, immediately repair and report large gas leaks, and adopt "the best available technology" to capture gas vented during routine operations, maintenance and emergency situations.

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"Combine all of those things that individually may have champions in the committees, and overlay it with the current toxic political atmosphere in D.C., and it is not hard to see why getting a bill that actually moves the safety ball forward is hard to get through," Pipeline Safety Trust Director Carl Weimer, left, said.

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

"There's been this provision in the statute to consider environmental impacts, but ... at least some of these provisions seem to be specific to regulating methane emissions not necessarily from a pipeline safety perspective but more from a climate change or an overall emissions perspective, which would seem to fall more within EPA's mandate than PHMSA's," said Coyle, now an attorney who advises energy clients on regulatory matters at Babst Calland.

Some environmental groups welcomed the opportunity to leverage PHMSA's jurisdiction over pipelines to help mitigate the planet-warming impact of methane emissions.

"By putting in place critical new public safety and climate protections, the SAFER Pipelines Act is a win-win for all American families," Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. "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."

But PHMSA's relatively limited expertise on the environmental side may require adding staff if Congress expects the agency to venture into climate policy, former PHMSA administrator Cynthia Quarterman told S&P Global Market Intelligence earlier this year.

Industry warns bill would stop pipeline safety progress

Industry representatives warned that mixing the reauthorization and climate policy would likely put the brakes on pipeline safety measures during this year's Pipeline Safety Trust conference, held a week before Democrats unveiled their bill.

"Obviously climate change is a big policy debate going on across the nation, right? Congress hasn't been able to do much about it, and if we bring those fights down into our little pipeline safety bill, it's going to stop forward progress on pipeline safety," John Stoody, vice president for government and public relations at the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, said during a Nov. 7 panel.

The industry has been working for years to reduce methane emissions from its operations, but people want companies to move faster and do more in light of the climate debate, said James Gordon, manager of U.S. government relations and policy at TC Energy Corp.

"That's a debate certainly worth having, but this is a pipeline safety bill and PHMSA is a pipeline safety administration, and if you're going to start giving them also more responsibility on the environmental side of things ... their mandate is kind of out of whack," he said during the same panel.

Weimer, by contrast, said that the agency does in fact have an environmental mandate.

"PHMSA's mission is not only to protect people, but is also to protect the environment, so clearly dealing with methane through asking for best control technologies, or better reporting of pipeline emissions, are clearly fair game and we support those things," he said.