PIPELINES:

Oil spill makes an unlikely gadfly out of famous conservative

After a Michigan pipeline leak in 2010, a House Democrat led the local push for safety reforms. When a Montana pipeline spilled in 2011, a Democratic senator took federal regulators to task.

Now this year's 5,000-plus-barrel gusher in central Arkansas has found an unlikely champion for stronger oversight in a stalwart conservative who made a national name for himself working under GOP strategist Karl Rove.

Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) last week released the latest in a series of reports that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had previously kept secret at the behest of Exxon Mobil Corp., whose Pegasus pipeline sent Canadian oil sands crude pouring from a 22-foot gash into a Little Rock suburb five months ago.

The former U.S. attorney -- one of several targeted during a 2007 Democratic probe of politically motivated prosecutorial firings -- might appear an unlikely Exxon foe, but he has also prodded the oil company this summer to extend aid to spill-displaced homeowners and to move Pegasus out of a local watershed if it is ultimately rebuilt.

"Exxon Mobil and President Obama's PHMSA should move faster in responding to my requests for information regarding the cause of the pipeline spill," Griffin said through a spokesman when asked to elaborate on his vow to give constituents in the affected town of Mayflower the inspection and testing data that PHMSA had refused to share.

"If public officials and Arkansans would have known prior to the spill what we know now, changes to the operation of the pipeline may have been demanded years ago," he added. "The Mayflower oil spill has shown the need for greater transparency before a disaster occurs. Proactive transparency would ensure that those who operate and inspect these pipelines can be held accountable when tests show potential vulnerabilities."

Griffin first released a metallurgical study of the broken pipeline that Exxon had only summarized for the public and press by linking the spill to hook cracks caused by a low-frequency welding technique that PHMSA's predecessor agency first flagged as a problem 25 years ago (EnergyWire, July 17). The second-term lawmaker followed up by releasing Pegasus inspection reports from 2010 and from several weeks before the March 29 spill as well as the slides from a PHMSA briefing he received, and successfully nudging the agency to unshield the results of a seven-year-old hydrotest conducted on the failed pipeline.

When Griffin last month won passage of an amendment shifting $500,000 in spending for the next fiscal year to PHMSA's bottom line, Arkansas Democrats aiming to unseat him in November 2014 blasted him for voting to preserve an across-the-board sequestration of federal funds that forced the White House to cut $5 million from the safety agency's current budget.

"It's a huge issue in his race and continues to add to his vulnerability as he's running for re-election," Candace Martin, a spokeswoman for Arkansas Democrats, said in an interview. "What voters continue to see is that Congressman Griffin has empty promises. He's happy to send out a press release saying he's doing this or that to fight for the people of his district, but it's just another empty promise because he wants to hide the fact that he voted to keep cuts to pipeline safety."

Griffin, in his statement to EnergyWire, criticized "political attempts to misrepresent" his voting record as obscuring his support for GOP-backed measures that would replace sequestration cuts with alternative spending reductions.

"I am proud to have a strong record of supporting pipeline safety -- including the bipartisan Pipeline Safety Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2011," the Arkansan said. "It strengthened regulations and increased penalties on operators who break the rules."

Keystone XL scrutiny

Griffin's push for Exxon to move Pegasus out of the Lake Maumelle watershed, which provides drinking water for an estimated 400,000 residents of his state, also drew scrutiny from opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline -- which would carry the same heavy Canadian crude that spilled in Mayflower. Those critics asked how the Republican could take a firm hand with the oil line running through his district while clamoring for KXL to win Obama's approval.

Pipeline Safety Trust Executive Director Carl Weimer, whose group works with environmentalists and industry to improve oil and gas transportation safety, said he saw nothing "contradictory" in Griffin's positions on the two pipelines.

"I know a lot of conservatives who very much believe in transparency, and it was a little unclear to a lot of people why PHMSA and Exxon were withholding this information," Weimer said in an interview.

Griffin pointed to last month's oil-by-rail disaster in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic as he affirmed support for new pipe construction.

"American pipelines are indisputably the safest way to move critically important energy resources like oil -- much safer than loading it on trucks or rail cars," the lawmaker said. "Every year, pipelines transport more than 11 billion barrels of oil, and last year, less than five ten-thousandths of 1 percent of it was lost to spills. Saying no to new energy infrastructure isn't a plan for the future. It simply means more oil is moved in riskier ways."

But Griffin has not wavered in his request that Exxon choose a new location if it decides to rebuild the 93,000-barrel-per-day, six-decade-old Pegasus. The oil giant has not ruled out shuttering the pipeline permanently and has yet to submit a proposed restart time frame to PHMSA (Greenwire, Aug. 16).

Due to the hilly landscape surrounding the current pipeline, Griffin told NPR host Diane Rehm on Monday, "if there was to be some sort of spill like in Mayflower, it would be almost impossible to keep the oil from, very quickly, getting into Lake Maumelle and the watershed more broadly."

The Republican's proposal met with a swift dismissal as "not a practical suggestion" from Association of Oil Pipe Lines President Andrew Black, who told Rehm that the cost of such a move could reach $3 million per mile of steel oil conduit.

Politics of pipelines

Griffin has yet to draw a challenger for his second re-election run after winning 55 percent of the vote against a Democratic foe arrested for driving while intoxicated during the 2012 campaign season. But state Democrats are eyeing Bill Halter -- the former lieutenant governor who challenged ex-Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) from the left in 2010 and recently dropped out of the governor's race -- as well as state legislator Linda Tyler as possible opponents.

If pipeline safety remains a top-tier issue in the race, Griffin could receive significant cover from his willingness to push PHMSA and Exxon over the Pegasus spill. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel (D) aligned with Griffin during his own NPR appearance this month, citing "bipartisan outrage" over Exxon's initial attempt to end housing assistance payments to Mayflower residents next month.

Weimer, of the nonprofit Safety Trust, said that "we'll look for any ally we can find," regardless of party affiliation. He pointed out that resistance from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) helped secure bipartisan support for pressure testing of aging natural gas pipelines during the 2011 pipeline safety debate that was partly galvanized by the explosion of an older gas pipe in San Bruno, Calif. (E&E Daily, Oct. 18, 2011).

Asked whether Griffin's stand might help nudge PHMSA into changing its transparency practices for the nation's 2.5-million-plus miles of oil and gas lines, however, Weimer demurred. "For the most part, I'm not even sure if PHMSA ever sees this type of data for most pipelines," he said of the once-secret Pegasus documents.