The top federal regulator of oil and gas pipelines is facing withering criticism for her ties to industry and her agency's floundering response to recent oil-pipeline spills in the Midwest and last week's deadly gas pipeline explosion in California.
Cynthia Quarterman, chief of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, is having her work and that of her agency compared with the infamous Minerals Management Service, whose lax oversight of offshore drilling was spotlighted by the April explosion of a BP PLC-hired drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico and a record-shattering oil spill that followed. The Gulf disaster forced the Obama administration to dismantle and reorganize MMS, which is now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
Parallels between the pipeline agency and MMS cannot be denied, said Lena Moffitt, who represents the Sierra Club in Washington on oil and gas issues. "These are agencies," she said, "that have a very cozy relationship with the industries they're regulating."
A sore point for her critics is that Quarterman -- who was MMS director during the Clinton administration -- had represented the company responsible for the two Midwest pipeline spills in cases at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before President Obama nominated her to head PHMSA. Quarterman, who was then a partner in the Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson, represented pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. on issues involving pipeline tariffs.
Pipelines owned by Calgary-based Enbridge recently spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil in separate incidents in Michigan and Illinois.
Quarterman -- who took PHMSA's helm last November -- has recused herself in matters involving Enbridge, an agency spokeswoman said in a statement. The statement added that Quarterman signed an ethics pledge that "precludes her from handling particular matters involving her former private sector clients for two years from the date of her appointment."
"Safety is this Department's top priority," the statement added.
But critics say her appointment conflicts with Obama's vow to avoid appointing regulators with industry ties.
"She was an advocate for one of the biggest pipeline firms in the nation," said Paul Blackburn, an attorney with Plains Justice, a Western environmental group fighting for tougher pipeline regulation. "I have a hard time believing that she would have an objective perspective on pipeline safety."
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) in a hearing on the Michigan oil spill called PHMSA "a disaster of its own."
And last March, PHMSA was criticized by its own inspector general for "serious deficiencies" in its special permits and approvals program, which provides relief from hazardous materials regulations under certain conditions.
Quarterman, who sat out Oberstar's hearing on Wednesday because of her recusal, appeared before the committee in an April hearing soon after the inspector general's report and testified, "We inherited a program that suffered from almost a decade of neglect and was seriously adrift."
She added, "We have set a new course."
But PHMSA -- a Department of Transportation agency -- continues to struggle with staffing shortfalls. It currently employs 110 inspectors, despite being authorized for 137, to oversee 2.3 million miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines.
"Given the staff that we had, we relied on our state partners in most cases, and we also relied on the inspection and record-keeping that is done by the private-sector owners of the pipeline," DOT Deputy Secretary John Porcari testified this week. "It is clear that there are some lessons learned from this incident."
Quarterman, 49, a Savannah, Ga., native, earned an bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Northwestern University and a law degree from Columbia University, where she was executive editor of the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law. She practiced law at Benson & McKay in Kansas City, Mo., as well as at Steptoe & Johnson. She served as MMS director from 1995 until she went to Steptoe in 1999.
PHMSA's associate administrator, Jeffrey Wiese, is also an MMS veteran. He worked 15 years in its offshore oil and gas division and served five years as chief of staff for offshore operations.
"It is an interesting mirror to the mess in the Gulf," said Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who called Quarterman's work on behalf Enbridge "troubling."
"It doesn't engender a lot of public confidence," Mogerman said, "when we start to have this rash of oil infrastructure failures."