President Barack Obama signed legislation to toughen oil and gas pipeline regulations.
The president signed the legislation Tuesday as part of a post-holiday, back-to-business day that included approval of several other measures approved by Congress late last year.
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The pipeline law aims to close gaps in federal safety regulations made apparent by a fatal gas pipeline break near San Francisco in 2010.
The Senate gave its final approval in early December to a bill that doubles the maximum fine for pipeline safety violations and adds penalties for obstructing safety investigations.
That was the good news. The bad news is the bill does not deal with several key recommendations arising from investigations of a deadly natural gas explosion and two high-profile oil spills over the past two years.
The compromise bill cleared the Senate by a voice vote and went to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature. The House approved the same measure a few days before the Senate.
The bill is the result of weeks of negotiation between advocates of tougher safety rules and lawmakers who wanted to avoid overburdening industry with unnecessary regulation.
Communities that neighbor pipelines “can rest a little easier knowing that Congress has implemented tougher safety rules,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Safety advocates said the bill is a modest step forward. They said it doesn’t follow through on several key recommendations arising from investigations of the 2010 San Bruno, CA, gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people, injured dozens of others and damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes in a suburban neighborhood near San Francisco, as well as two recent high-profile oil spills in Michigan and Montana.
The United States has approximately 2.3 million miles of pipelines that transport oil, natural gas, and hazardous liquids. Since 2006, there have been 40 serious pipeline incidents each year that resulted in a fatality or injuries.
The bill doubles the maximum fine for pipeline safety violation to $2 million and authorizes the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to hire 10 more safety inspectors. That’s far fewer new inspectors than most safety experts said the agency needs.
The bill would allow the transportation secretary to require newly constructed pipelines include automatic shutoff valves that isolate a section of pipe in event of a rupture, preventing further gas or liquid from escaping. But the National Transportation Safety Board said in its investigation of the California gas explosion the valves need to be in place on aging pipelines in highly populated areas. Pipeline operators don’t want the government to force them into installing valves in those areas because it costs significantly more to install valves on lines already in place than newly laid lines.
In the California accident, gas continued to escape for nearly 90 minutes after the rupture, feeding a giant pillar of fire that was at times 80 feet high. Investigators said the damage would have been less severe had automatic valves been in place.
The bill requires federal regulators hold off for at least two-and-a-half years before they issue new rules to require pipeline operators to inspect the structural integrity of major transmission lines in lightly populated areas. But the bill has a caveat that allows regulations to go in effect if the transportation secretary determines there’s a public safety risk.