Pipeline Safety Neglected Despite Deaths, Damages
By Michael Coleman

Albuquerque Journal
14 July, 2002

WASHINGTON _ Almost two years after a naturalgas pipeline exploded near Carlsbad and killed 12 New Mexicans, Congress still can't agree on how to make pipelines safer.

Several bills to beef up federal pipeline rules have languished in the House and Senate since the Carlsbad catastrophe, and it remains uncertain whether the two chambers will agree on a bill this year.

Meanwhile, pipelines continue to rupture and explode across the country, often causing property and environmental damage, and sometimes injuring and killing people.

Last year alone, the federal Office of Pipeline Safety reported 214 accidents involving natural gas and liquid gas and oil pipelines. Those accidents caused two deaths, 13 injuries and nearly $50 million in property damages, the agency reported.

Rep. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat who has co-sponsored one the most stringent pipeline safety bills pending in Congress, said the lack of legislative action is frustrating.

"I think it's appalling we haven't had any action on this," he said.

One of the most horrific pipeline explosions in U.S. history happened early on the morning of Aug. 19, 2000, at a campsite 25 miles south of Carlsbad.

As members of an extended New Mexico family camped and fished along the Pecos River, a natural gas pipeline ruptured, sending a massive fireball into the air killing the 12 people, including five children.

Advocates and industry

A preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed corrosion in the pipeline's interior wall. The study also found that the section of pipe that ruptured had never been inspected. The NTSB has not issued its final report on the incident.

El Paso Energy, the owner of the pipeline, has requested a hearing with the Department of Transportation in connection with a $2.5 million fine the DOT levied against the company last year.

Pipeline safety advocates are pushing Congress to:

  • Improve qualifications and training of pipeline workers;
  • Require more frequent and thorough inspections of pipelines;
  • Provide more information to the public about the whereabouts of pipelines and the safety records of pipeline operators;
  • Provide stiffer penalties for safety violations;
  • Provide more money to devise technology for safely operating and inspecting pipelines;
  • Ensure whistle-blower protections for pipeline workers who report unsafe pipelines or industry practices.

Bill Hickman, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, said the oil industry supports stronger pipeline standards, in part to demonstrate that it is serious about making pipelines safer.

"The oil pipeline industry has been very eager to raise the bar on safety standards," Hickman said, adding that he was unaware of a single provision in the leading pipeline bills that the industry opposes.

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America's Web site said it is also committed to safety reforms, as long as they are "rational, cost-effective and flexible." The association's officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

Legislative divide

The Senate has approved a pipeline safety measure three times in the past two years, and the latest version of that bill is now included in national energy policy reform legislation passed by the Senate in March.

An earlier version of the Senate bill was defeated on the floor of the House last year at the urging of members _ including Udall _ who felt it wasn't strong enough.

Two years after it first took up the debate, the House is still mired in differences about how to approach the issue.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee last month approved a pipeline safety bill that had widespread support among Democrats and Republicans. But the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which also has jurisdiction over the legislation, approved a different _ and many observers say weaker _ version. That committee is chaired by Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican with close ties to the oil and gas industry.

Pipeline safety advocates are particularly concerned about a provision in the House Transportation Committee bill that would have allowed speedy environmental reviews for pipeline repairs. That bill, unlike others, would also give states no additional authority to regulate pipelines within their borders.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the energy bill the Senate approved is the best hope for enacting pipeline safety legislation this year.

That bill would provide for increasing civil penalties from $25,000 to $500,000 for pipeline companies that fail to mark pipelines' locations, carry out routine inspections or allow public access to inspection records. Repeat violations would increase the fines from $500,000 to $1 million.

The measure would also require thorough pipeline inspections at least once every five years.

The House also approved an energy bill this year, but it did not include any pipeline safety reform measures. Some Capitol Hill observers doubt that the House and Senate will be able to reach a compromise on the vastly different energy bills, which could again prove a dead end for pipeline safety reform.

But Bingaman, a leader in the upcoming House-Senate negotiations, said he's optimistic that common ground can be found on the two bills. He said history has proven that it is difficult to get a free-standing pipeline safety bill approved by both chambers.

"Quite frankly, the things that get attention around the Congress are the issues that have strong lobbyists," Bingaman said. "There is really not a strong lobby for this."

But the senator also said he has not been lobbied particularly hard by pipeline operators opposing strict rules either.

Grass-roots struggles

Carol Parker, a spokeswoman for Citizens for Safe Pipelines in Placitas, said citizens can't begin to compete with the influence of oil and gas companies, which pour millions into congressional campaigns.

Parker and her neighbors in Placitas are fighting to force Equilon Pipeline Co. LLC to replace, rather than refurbish, parts of an aging, 406-mile oil pipeline that the company wants to reactivate for pumping diesel, gas and jet fuel.

At public hearings this year, the company has maintained that the existing pipe, especially once it's refurbished, is perfectly safe.

Parker said she has traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers on pipeline safety, only to realize how little clout regular citizens have in the halls of Congress. She said the issues that get attention in the nation's capital are pushed by well-organized and often well-paid advocates who lobby Congress full time.

"Who's going to lobby for (pipeline safety)? It's not going to be a paid lobbyist," Parker said. "It's going to be people who have other full-time jobs. It's very discouraging to go to Washington and talk to people about this and have their eyes glaze over."

Uncertain future

Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the House is committed to passing a pipeline improvement bill this year. She said she has pushed for extra money for research into technology that could make pipeline inspections faster and more thorough.

Some of that work could be conducted at New Mexico's national laboratories, she said. Bingaman has also pushed for extra research and technology money for pipeline safety.

"All of us believe pipelines have to be operated safely and inspected regularly so people who live near them can be safe," Wilson said. "The House is going to go ahead and pass a strong pipeline safety bill."

Until that time, and until the president signs the bill into law, Bingaman said the potential for tragedy will continue to loom along much of the nation's 2.2 million miles of interstate pipelines.

"There are more accidents out there waiting to happen if we don't improve the inspections of pipelines," Bingaman said.

Copyright Albuquerque Journal

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