Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pipeline Emergency Response Plans

There is an interesting AP article about the status of emergency response plans for natural gas pipelines, a subject of renewed interest because of the recent catastrophic events in San Bruno, California. The author, Sharon Theimer, notes that while PG&E had emergency response plans, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration was required to review those plans, no one outside of PG&E had copies of those plans. Ms. Theimer implies that this was due to a conspiracy to “keep their emergency plans hidden from people who might live near natural gas transmission lines”.

I have no way of knowing if a ‘conspiracy’ is actually involved, but having looked at the issue of emergency response plans in general, I think that I can safely state that what ever plans were in place and reviewed by PHMSA were is full accordance with the standards set by law for such plans; an otherwise blank sheet of paper with the words “Emergency Response Plan: typed across the top would have basically fulfilled those standards. In short, there are no standards to which such plans can be measured against.

More over, there are not an adequate number of people in PHMSA to review the relatively detailed plans that are described in the article; not for the hundreds of natural gas and other hazardous material pipelines currently in existence in the United States. Besides, while PHMSA may have the technical expertise to understand the nature of the pipeline and it’s operation, emergency response is not a matter of significant expertise within that agency. The agency of the Federal Government with that expertise, that responsibility, is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Once again, this is not the fault of PHMSA. PHMSA derives its authority from laws passed by Congress and signed by the President. It has no authority to establish standards for emergency response plans because it has not been given that authority by Congress. PHMSA does not have enough people to adequately review those emergency response plans because it was not given that headcount authority by Congress. PHMSA has not required pipeline operators (other than oil pipeline operators) to submit copies of their emergency response plans because it has not been given authority to require such submissions by Congress.

PHMSA has its share of problems. They have been documented by the DOT IG’s office and Congress. It has been working to correct those problems. Blaming it for this particular shortcoming is completely unfair, unwarranted and counter productive. The blame rests with the politicians who are currently tramping the countryside, trying their best (worst?) to get re-elected.

S 3856

Ms. Theimer notes that Sen. Lautenberg has introduced a bill that may be correcting some of these problems. That bill, S 3856, was introduced in the Senate on September 28th, but a copy of the proposed legislation has yet to make it to the Government Printing Office so that we can see what it actually intends to accomplish and evaluate if it is up to the task.

There is a press release about the bill on Sen. Lautenberg’s web site, but it says nothing concrete about emergency response planning, just platitudes about making “pipeline information, inspections, and standards available to the public on the PHMSA’s web site”. S 3856 is essentially a PHMSA re-authorization bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Rockefeller and is unlikely to get any consideration in the lame-duck session due to the back-log of higher profile authorization bills and budget bills that are still pending.

HR 6295

The Pipeline Safety and Community Empowerment Act of 2010, HR 6295, was introduced one day later in the House, by Congresswoman Speier (D, CA) and fifteen of her fellow Representatives from California. It too has not yet shown up on the GPO site, but Ms Speier has a copy of the proposed legislation posted on her official web site for full public review. As one would expect from a member who represents the San Bruno community affected by the PG&E pipeline blast, this bill proposes to directly address the currently known shortcomings about the pipeline safety program that affected that neighborhood.

This program would require (among other things) that pipeline operators would provide copies of their emergency response plans to PHMSA, “State regulatory officials, State and local emergency responders” {§ 60102(d)}. Unfortunately, it still does nothing to establish effective standards for such emergency response plans and does not involve FEMA in their review and/or coordination.

Because this bill is rather limited in the number of new requirements and is not too radical in the changes it makes, it looks like it could be passed in a lame duck session in the House. The lack of a companion bill in the Senate (Sen. Boxer take note) makes full passage problematic.

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