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Congress achieves some compromise in heated pipeline safety bill dispute

House Democrats and Republicans struck some common ground in a dispute over pipeline safety legislation, but they remained at loggerheads on some of the legislation's biggest issues after two days of meetings.

The Energy and Commerce Committee advanced along party lines a left-leaning bill Nov. 19, followed by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Nov. 20. Democrats packed the bill with measures long sought by safety advocates but opposed by industry and Republicans. There is also an unprecedented focus on climate policy in the legislation, which Congress takes up every few years in order to reauthorize the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The committee chairs released the "Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Environmentally Responsible Pipelines Act of 2019" on Nov. 15, immediately drawing criticism from minority Republicans for breaking with the chamber's history of bipartisan cooperation during the drafting process. The parties blamed one another for the breakdown in negotiations during two days of marking up the SAFER Pipelines Act.

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"Unfortunately, negotiations reached a standstill when it became clear that my Republican counterparts were unwilling basically to incorporate or really give much on our top priorities," Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said.

Source: AP Photo

Republicans claimed Democrats pulled back a nearly complete bipartisan bill after the August recess and then spent two months crafting new legislation without Republican input. They said there is no chance the GOP-controlled Senate will adopt the majority's bill, which Republicans called a giveaway to anti-fossil fuel activists.

Democrats countered that they kept negotiations open for months in the hope of reaching a compromise but that Republicans were ultimately unwilling to concede on any of the Democrats' top priorities. Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said Democrats have put aside those priorities for years.

"This bill ... would finally bring the law back to a place where it's truly balanced, giving as much consideration to people and the environment as it does to industry," he said.

Parties remain at impasse on key issues

Democrats held the line on several fronts, rejecting Republican amendments to strip long-held priorities from the bill. Those included repealing PHMSA's cost-benefit analysis process, clarifying the federal code to allow citizens to sue the agency for failing to do its job and lifting the cap on civil penalties for pipeline safety regulation violations.

The bill would raise the maximum penalty for violating pipeline safety statutes or regulations to $20 million, a 100-fold change from the current cap of $200,000 per violation. It also would remove the $2 million cap on repeated violations.

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"I've got to say that I'm disappointed that it's come to this ... And after months of bipartisan negotiations, the majority has decided to go it alone and jam through a partisan bill chock full of riders and carve-outs for special interest groups," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said.

Source: AP Photo

Democrats also beat back Republican attempts to maintain the existing criminal standard, which currently applies to operators who "knowingly and willfully" violate safety regulations. The SAFER Pipelines Act hushed to lower the bar, looking to allow the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against operators that "knowingly and recklessly" violate laws.

However, the Energy and Commerce Committee did adopt an amendment by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., that would change the standard to "knowingly and intentionally," signalling a softening of the majority's stance. The change would mean prosecutors would have to prove companies intentionally violated laws.

"I think we need to be very careful we don't create a situation where we end up discouraging pipeline operators from openly sharing information about incidents," Schrader said. "If we inadvertently criminalize good faith efforts made by operators to identify, assess and manage pipeline risk priorities, we put the system at risk."

Representatives spar over climate change

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee also rejected GOP amendments to throw out the bill's climate change policies.

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"Climate experts around the world agree. If we're going to be serious about combating the climate crisis, then we have to take steps now to stop the methane emissions," Rep. Diana Degette, D-Colo., said.

Source: AP Photo

Those include requiring operators to use the "best available technology" to capture planet-warming methane emitted during operations, maintenance and emergency situations. Rep. Diana Degette, D-Colo., also championed a provision in the bill that would codify into law Obama-era methane emissions rules, which the Trump administration is rolling back.

Republicans argued that Democrats were pushing climate policy at the expense of pipeline safety measures that would prevent loss of life, property damage and immediate environmental harm. However, the majority made the case that global warming is a pressing problem the poses a risk to public health and welfare and falls within PHMSA's mandate to protect the environment.

"If you don't believe in climate change, I guess you don't care about it," Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said. "I believe in climate change, so that's a big deal on this side."

Committees achieve compromise on a few issues

Despite the simmering rancor and occasional outbursts, Democrats and Republicans found common ground on several measures. Some of those compromises incorporated ideas put forward by Transportation and Infrastructure Republicans in an alternative to the SAFER Pipelines Act released Nov. 19.

Both committees pushed forward Republican amendments that would criminalize acts of pipeline vandalism, including tampering with pipeline valves, shooting pipes with a firearm and intentionally causing damage to under-construction oil and gas infrastructure. GOP lawmakers pushed the measures in response to recent protests by climate activists and won Democratic support by including language to protect First Amendment rights to peaceful protest.

The Transportation and Infrastructure committee also adopted a bipartisan amendment that would authorize the secretary of the transportation department, PHMSA's parent agency, to initiate a pilot program to test new technologies and safety practices on operational gas and hazardous liquid pipeline facilities. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, argued companies need to conduct tests in real-world settings to gather data, but revised her amendment at fellow Democrats' request to prohibit the tests in high-consequence areas, or regions where an accident is likely to cause death, injury or serious property damage.

Democrats also adopted amendments from Fletcher and Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, that would soften the bill's stance on prioritizing advanced pipeline assessments like in-line inspection and hydrostatic testing over more cost-effective direct assessment.

Meanwhile, Republicans threw their support behind a suite of measures from Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., meant to address the root causes of the deadly 2018 Merrimack Valley disaster. The Senate adopted a similar amendment from Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., in the chamber's pipeline safety bill.