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Bipartisan support may shield pipeline safety from big change under Trump

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Bipartisan support may shield pipeline safety from big change under Trump

Pipeline safety regulation is not expected to change dramatically under the Trump administration, but safety oversight will not be entirely immune from the sweeping changes affecting federal agencies, according to a legal expert.

Incidents have historically dictated the pace and direction of pipeline safety regulation, and "accidents happen in all manner of congressional districts," which has largely depoliticized the issue, James Curry, pipeline safety expert and partner at law firm Babst Calland, said during a Jan. 31 webinar.

The past two reauthorizations of the federal natural gas Pipeline Safety Act have passed with resounding bipartisan support, and each law mandated that the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration put out significant new regulations. Given the congressional impetus behind many of PHMSA's recent rulemakings, including an end-of-year regulation on underground gas storage, Curry said he does not expect Congress to use the Congressional Review Act to ax PHMSA regulations.

The Congressional Review Act gives Congress 60 legislative days after a final rule is printed in the Federal Register to pass a resolution disapproving the regulation.

"Accidents drive policy. I really don't see that changing, especially given the bipartisan support," Curry said.

Pending rules may get walked back or delayed, though, Curry noted. He pointed to President Donald Trump's recent executive order stipulating that "for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination" and that the rule eliminations make it possible for there to be no net increase in regulatory costs.

One of the biggest and costliest rules on PHMSA's plate is a 550-page gas transmission pipeline safety rule proposal that the agency has been working on for years. PHMSA has estimated that the rule would result in a roughly $597 million increase in costs, while the industry has argued the price tag could be as high as $33.4 billion.

Trump's executive order did say that the net cost of regulations may not have to come out to zero if "otherwise required by law." Given that, PHMSA may be motivated to remove or curtail elements of the rule proposal that were not explicitly required in the Pipeline Safety Act reauthorizations, Curry noted.

Further complicating PHMSA's regulatory duties, some of the elements of the gas transmission regulatory proposal were based on federal agency recommendations, which have historically served as valuable guidelines for rulemakings and sometimes drive congressional mandates.

Until the U.S. Office of Management and Budget draws up guidance for how to implement the executive order, its impacts will remain unclear, Curry said.

"The only thing that's really certain in this administration is uncertainty," Curry said. "Who can really say what the new administration will do?"