PIPELINES:

Insults fly in fight between federal safety agency, watchdog

Federal pipeline safety regulators and an employee watchdog group are trading sharp and occasionally personal jabs over the latter's charge that senior officials responsible for 2.6 million miles of U.S. oil and gas pipelines are misusing the agency's limited budget.

The battle between the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), part of the Department of Transportation, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) began last year, when the nonprofit group used freedom-of-information laws to seek copies of emergency plans for pipeline leaks and the agency's participation in spill response exercises that Congress required in the wake of 1989's Exxon Valdez spill. When PEER last month released a report showing that PHMSA spent more staff days and money traveling to industry events since 2007 than it did responding to pipeline incidents, a senior agency official pushed back in writing.

PHMSA and state-level safety employees "often face cataclysmic devastation" at accident sites, having "left their families for the call of duty" to investigate high-profile failures such as the 2010 spill of Canadian oil sands crude in Marshall, Mich., and the March leak of similar heavy crude in Mayflower, Ark., the agency's associate administrator, Jeff Wiese, wrote Oct. 30 to PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

A PEER statement comparing PHMSA to a student doing homework at a fraternity party, Wiese added, is "insulting to our employees" and "unprofessional."

Wiese's letter sought a meeting with PEER to discuss the group's reports on safety regulators' staff time, a sit-down that Ruch said he plans to pursue next week to request that regulators allow online access to emergency response plans. PEER began probing PHMSA in response to agency employees working in the field who "contacted us and have been endorsing the information we gave," Ruch added in an interview.

"Mr. Wiese believed we were insulting the inspectors, and really we were insulting him," Ruch said.

At the heart of the dispute is PHMSA's mandate to police nationwide oil and gas pipelines that could circle the Earth "about 100 times," according to the agency. PEER disclosed internal data that showed less than one-fifth of that number, or 583,692 miles, had received federal or state inspections since 2006 -- a number that Wiese described as misleading, since the agency only directly inspects 289,000 miles and gives states power over the remaining oil and gas pipelines.

Ruch stood by the charge yesterday, given that his group had included state-level inspections in its totals.

PEER also contrasted data showing that the pipeline industry inspected 132,300 miles of its own transportation network with a PHMSA response that it had no records on "independent reviews" of those operator tests. Wiese disputed the suggestion that agency inspectors do not look at industry's self-assessments, describing that process as an integral part of safety reviews that occur at least every five years.

Perhaps the most volatile element of the PHMSA-PEER feud, however, is the watchdog group's finding that the agency expended nearly $75,000 more on attending oil and gas industry events than it did on visits to investigate pipeline failures and other safety challenges.

That total "does not attempt to include investigation work that occurs in an office, on-line, or at local facilities," Wiese said in his letter, slamming the group's comparison as "flatly wrong."

PHMSA data provided to PEER show that the $21,808 spent on Wiese's travel to industry events since 2007 was eclipsed by the travel bills of two other agency officials: Joshua Johnson, a materials engineer named in official documents as a lead investigator of Exxon Mobil Corp.'s Yellowstone River spill in 2011, and Eastern regional director Byron Coy.

A PHMSA spokeswoman yesterday declined to comment further on Wiese's letter.

'Under-informed populace,' 'uninformed media'

PHMSA's annual budget of less than $250 million, roughly equivalent to the price tag of a Boeing C-17 military cargo plane, leaves the agency perennially strapped to fulfill its ample regulatory mission of policing a fuel transportation network that has swelled in size and profile, thanks to the domestic shale boom and controversies over running oil sands crude.

At the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust's annual meeting last year, Wiese shared a presentation that pointed to a "terribly under-informed populace highly dependent on a fossil fuel fed, overly lean, energy supply chain," a "growing public intolerance to risk," and an "uninformed media" as "environmental factors" affecting the agency's missions.

Another point in his presentation noted that "the Congress gives work, but not much help."

In public remarks at the conference, Wiese acknowledged the difficulties PHMSA faces in a lean budget climate governmentwide.

"There's only so much we're going to be able to do with 200 people at a federal level, nationwide -- I'm being honest with you," Wiese said, adding that "I'm very proud of our people. They're very committed."

Like PHMSA chief Cynthia Quarterman, Wiese is a veteran of the now-defunct Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department arm that took heavy fire for its offshore drilling regulatory record after the 2010 BP PLC oil disaster and ultimately saw itself dismantled by the Obama administration. Environmentalists took aim at PHMSA at times immediately after the Michigan oil sands crude spill that occurred three months after the Gulf of Mexico calamity (Greenwire, Sept. 17, 2010).

Since then, however, few green activists have closely scrutinized PHMSA's role in oversight of pipelines both operating and proposed, such as Keystone XL. "It's a question of what they're choosing to do with the money they have and the power they have," PEER counsel Kathryn Douglass said of the agency in an interview yesterday.

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