Pipeline office will face congressional scrutiny

The Austin American-Statesman
20 December, 2001

USA, Washington, Dec 20 2001. Pipeline office will face congressional scrutiny - Lawmaker requests investigation by General Accounting Office The General Accounting Office will conduct a new investigation of the Office of Pipeline Safety and "the adequacy of its regulation" of the nation's network of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said Wednesday that the accounting office will conduct the probe at his request and will concentrate on what he called the agency's decision to "essentially let the industry regulate itself." It will be the second time in recent years that the office, which is Congress' investigative arm, has examined the pipeline agency at Dingell's request.

In a report released last year, the investigators criticized the pipeline safety office for failing to implement 22 safety mandates Congress has issued since 1988 and for drastically reducing the number of incidents in which it levied fines for violations of pipeline safety laws.

"I'm pleased that GAO once again has agreed to investigate OPS," Dingell said, adding that as a result of the earlier investigation, "there have been some positive changes at OPS over the past year, but we need to know if they have gone far enough."

Stacey Gerard, the Department of Transportation official who heads the pipeline safety office, said the agency already has had two interviews with investigators from the accounting office who are working on the new audit. Thus far, they have concentrated on whether the agency has the resources to carry out its duties, Gerard said.

In a series of articles published this year, the Austin American-Statesman reported that the pipeline safety office had 55 inspectors and was responsible for ensuring the safe operation of more than 2 million miles of natural gas and liquid pipelines.

For decades, the agency has not known the precise location of many of these pipelines _ or in some cases that they even existed. With a relatively small budget and staff, the Office of Pipeline Safety is responsible for policing some of the richest and most powerful companies in the world.

"In the aftermath of September 11 and the revelations about Enron (Corp.) _ which owns a number of pipelines _ it is important to have an independent agency like GAO examine the basis for OPS's approach to regulating the industry," Dingell said. "Has letting industry regulate itself left us exposed to terrorist attacks? Can pipeline operators be trusted to make the right decisions to protect the public if their superiors only see the business as a resource for elaborate and risky schemes?"

James Ratzenberger, the accounting office investigator who will direct the probe, said it will concentrate on three issues:

  • Evaluating a risk-based approach that a 1996 law requires the pipeline safety office to use in attempting to reduce pipeline incidents, "both accidental and intentional." The law shifted authority to pipeline operators for designing and implementing integrity plans to prevent pipeline leaks.
  • Determining whether the agency "can reasonably be expected to have the resources and experience to carry out this approach."
  • Assessing the agency's progress in improving its data on the causes of pipeline incidents.

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