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Senate committee advances pipeline safety bill with Mass. gas blast measures

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Senate committee advances pipeline safety bill with Mass. gas blast measures

U.S. senators advanced a bill to reauthorize the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, including safety provisions spearheaded by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., in the wake of a deadly series of explosions and fires on a natural gas distribution system in his home state.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on July 31 put the bill on a path to the full chamber after tacking on an amendment meant to expedite an outstanding rulemaking on natural gas gathering lines from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA. Among the amendments withdrawn were measures to prevent methane emissions from pipelines and expand protections for whistleblowers.

The committee incorporated a significant portion of Markey's separate bill, the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act, into the PHMSA reauthorization bill introduced by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., chair of the committee's Transportation and Safety subcommittee, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth D-Ill., the ranking member on the subcommittee. Markey's bill was named for the sole casualty of the gas-fueled explosions and fires that damaged dozens of homes in Merrimack Valley in northern Massachusetts.

The PHMSA bill used parts of Markey's legislation that included a requirement that qualified professionals approve gas engineering plans and system updates, as well as mandates for companies to monitor gas system pressure during construction, incorporate backup technology into regulator stations and keep maps of pipeline systems. The measures are meant to prevent disasters like the one that rocked the Merrimack Valley, where excessive gas pressure in a gas distribution system led to the accident.

SNL Image

The Merrimack Valley explosions and fires killed one person and damaged 131 buildings in September 2018.
Source: AP Images

"Andover Fire Chief Michael Mansfield said that the affected communities looked like Armageddon that night," Markey said. "One young man, Leonel Rondon, was killed. Thousands of families were evacuated or left without heat. This day, we begin the process of ensuring that such a tragedy never happens again."

The committee also took up an amendment by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., that would require PHMSA to complete regulations for the gathering lines that collect natural gas from production wells no later than 90 days after the bill becomes law. The amendment would also order the U.S. Comptroller General to study data collection by gathering line operators and report to Congress. Congress ordered PHMSA to issue a rule that applies existing regulations to gathering lines during the last reauthorization process in 2016, but the mandate is one of several that the administration has not yet completed.

"This is an extremely important issue to address the over 430,000 miles of unregulated gathering lines in producing states like New Mexico," Udall said. "These gathering lines present a clear and present danger to communities around them, and we need better oversight and regulation on them."

Despite the committee adopting his amendment, Udall lodged the only vote against advancing the bill after lawmakers failed to reach a deal to adopt an amendment to regulate methane emissions from pipelines. Udall stressed the role of fugitive methane in climate change, calling it a "super pollutant" that "drives near-term climate effects."

Udall pointed out that advanced leak detection and repair technology is widely available, yet communities still largely rely on members of the public to report leaks. "This should not have to be the responsibility of the average citizen," Udall said. "This should be a basic minimum standard required for pipeline companies."

The committee also declined to take up an amendment from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to give whistleblower protections to former government employees and allow them to seek relief in court.

The bill would also order PHMSA to study and report on its inspector training and qualifications program. The bill would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to prepare a workforce plan for PHMSA and regularly report on outstanding administration mandates. It would apply existing pipeline rules to idled lines, and it would call on the transportation secretary to establish a national center for liquefied natural gas safety.

The House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, is simultaneously advancing a PHMSA reauthorization bill that would scrap PHMSA's cost-benefit analysis, reform criminal and civil penalties, and allow citizens to sue the administration for failing to fulfill its rulemaking mandates.