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More House Democrats may mean stricter pipeline agency oversight, industry says

With the midterm elections approaching, the top gas distribution industry group is closely watching for a shifting congressional balance that could change federal lawmakers' pipeline safety priorities.

"We're expecting the House to flip [from Republican-controlled to Democratic-controlled]. We're expecting the Senate to stay [Republican]," Christina Sames, vice president of operations and engineering at the American Gas Association,, or AGA, said Oct. 16 at the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives' annual meeting.

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The next Congress will be tasked with reauthorizing the federal agency in charge of pipeline safety, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Sames said that with multiple committees involved in the process, changes in congressional leadership could affect the tenor of the conversation.

Should that electoral prediction come to fruition, AGA anticipates hearings in early 2019 on how PHMSA has done meeting its congressional obligations, how well the agency has overseen state pipeline safety programs and whether legislative action is needed in the wake of the deadly Sept. 13 series of explosions and fires in NiSource Inc.'s Massachusetts gas service territory, Sames said.

Whether the House flips from red to blue is not likely to affect whether PHMSA ultimately gets reauthorization, but rather what kinds of strings are attached to Congress' bill giving the agency permission to continue its work, Sames said on the sidelines of the Santa Fe, N.M., meeting.

"If you watch reauthorization hearings, if you watch the hearings involving pipeline safety, PHMSA tends to get beat up ... on mandates that have not yet been met," Sames said. "I'm expecting the same thing to occur early next year. I'm assuming Congress will want a fix for what happened in Massachusetts."

Three congressional panels play a significant role in overseeing PHMSA: the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee; the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy Subcommittee; and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's Energy Subcommittee.

Democratic Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have already pushed for hearings on the overpressurization of NiSource subsidiary Columbia Gas of Massachusetts' pipelines that killed one person, injured roughly two dozen others and damaged well over 100 buildings. A month after the explosions, Markey said he would look to pass new laws to prevent similar disasters from happening again.

PHMSA has still not fulfilled some of the mandates Congress issued in 2012 addressing issues related to a fatal 2010 explosion in San Bruno, Calif., in which a gas transmission pipeline exploded in a neighborhood, killing eight people, injuring many others and damaging dozens of homes. This issue came up during the agency's most recent reauthorization, which was signed into law in 2016.

The AGA is watching a number of key congressional races, including those with implications for committee members involved in pipeline safety, Sames said.

In Pennsylvania's 11th District, for instance, AGA sees Republican Rep. Lloyd Smucker as an ally for gas pipelines, in contrast to his opponent, Democrat Jessica King, who has been critical of the oil and gas industry. Smucker, who now represents Pennsylvania's 16th District, serves on the pipeline subcommittee. Pennsylvania's 11th district has been redrawn since the last election. The district includes Lancaster County, where in 2016, a dozen pipeline protesters disrupted a state public meeting, and seven were arrested.

Of the 56 members of the House and three senators who are not seeking reelection in 2018, 13 are on committees that focus on the natural gas industry, Sames noted.