Calif. methane leak casts shadow over safety debate

By Ben Panko, Hannah Hess | 02/26/2016 06:42 AM EST

The worst natural gas leak in U.S. history is adding renewed urgency to the ongoing debate in Congress over the future of pipeline safety legislation. And the Senate may pass bipartisan legislation in the coming days.

The worst natural gas leak in U.S. history is adding renewed urgency to the ongoing debate in Congress over the future of pipeline safety legislation.

During a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing yesterday, the shadow of the recent leak at a Los Angeles gas storage facility loomed large, with California lawmakers calling for enforceable federal standards to reduce methane pollution.

The oversight authority of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration expired last September, and scrutiny has fallen not only on PHMSA’s lack of oversight of underground natural gas storage facilities, but also on the agency’s slow pace in implementing 42 mandates required in its last authorization in 2011.


In the Senate, a bipartisan bill to reauthorize PHMSA through fiscal 2019, S. 2276, appears on the fast track to passage (E&E Daily, Feb. 22). California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer this week signed on as co-sponsors.

Under the legislation, the Secretary of Transportation would convene a working group to collaborate on efforts to improve pipeline inspection and information sharing.

Sponsor Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) told E&E Daily the working group was key to gaining the support of Feinstein and Boxer, who helped draft those provisions. She said she expects the Senate to consider the bill next week.

"We all have a responsibility to prioritize not only the efficient permitting and construction of energy infrastructure, but also the safety and the security of our nation’s extensive pipeline network," Fischer said yesterday in a floor speech.

‘Too damn long’

Mirroring the bipartisanship in the Senate, House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee members showed no obvious split on PHMSA’s reauthorization, though several Democrats said they would seek to increase the agency’s powers by giving it "emergency order" authority.

That step would allow PHMSA to implement necessary safety actions without going through an often lengthy rulemaking process. The Transportation Department, which oversees PHMSA, used its emergency order authority last year to limit the speed of oil trains traveling through major cities (EnergyWire, April 20, 2015).

"We need to get emergency order authority into this legislation," subcommittee ranking member Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) told PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez. "I think corrective action authority takes too damn long and jeopardizes people’s lives when we know there is a problem."

Full Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who led the subcommittee when it passed the prior authorization, stressed that the new legislation should in no way distract PHMSA from implementing the 16 remaining mandates of the previous law.

"Work on this reauthorization needs to make sure that PHMSA stays focused on closing out the 2011 act," Shuster said.

Andrew Black, testifying on behalf of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines and the American Petroleum Institute, also urged the subcommittee to add no "significant new provisions" to the reauthorization. Cheryl Campbell, Xcel Energy Inc. senior vice president, expressed the same wish on behalf of the American Gas Association.

"AGA members desire a path forward with certainty rather than with uncertainty, duplicative actions, or additional cost burdens on their customers," Campbell said.

Donald Santa, head of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, echoed the sentiment but added that the legislation should mandate underground storage safety actions.

Dominguez, who took office last year, touted her agency’s plans to propose or finalize rulemakings on half of the remaining 2011 mandates in the next few months.

She also introduced a planned reorganization of her agency called PHMSA 2021, which would seek to make it more data-driven and transparent.

"PHMSA’s vision for 2021 is to become the most innovative transportation safety organization in the world," Dominguez said.

Aging infrastructure

Reps. Steve Knight (R-Calif.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) pushed their own legislation in response to the four-month-long Aliso Canyon methane leak.

Knight introduced the "Natural Gas Leak Prevention Act," H.R. 4429, earlier this month. Sherman introduced the ""Underground Gas Storage Safety Act," H.R. 4578, roughly two weeks ago.

PHMSA has no rules governing intrastate underground gas storage, but it issued an advisory earlier this month and is contemplating rulemakings on the topics, Dominguez said (EnergyWire, Feb. 3).

"We need national standards," said Sherman, who lives in the Porter Ranch neighborhood, which was evacuated during the leak (Greenwire, Feb. 15).

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), meanwhile, attacked PHMSA for having a too "cozy" relationship with the industry, a sentiment Capuano echoed in questions about industry-funded studies.

"What we have here is a situation where curbing bad corporate behavior is not a priority," Speier said.

Former PHMSA acting Administrator Brigham McCown said he didn’t expect the House reauthorization bill to change too much from the Senate version.

"The biggest issue is we have aging infrastructure," McCown said, comparing pipelines to America’s crumbling highways and bridges.

McCown expressed dismay about a clause in Sherman’s bill that would allow state regulators to add additional regulations on interstate pipelines, saying it would create an expensive and complex patchwork of laws.

He also said PHMSA could do more about underground gas storage without new rules and that Congress should have expected delays when it set down 42 mandates for the agency, especially with difficulties in dealing with the White House Office of Management and Budget’s cost-benefit rules.

"It’s like your parents giving you this laundry list of stuff that you’ve got to do and complaining when it’s not all done, even though you’ve been up till midnight," McCown said.