Thursday, January 13, 2011

HR 22 Introduced – Pipeline Safety

Back on January 5th Rep. Spier (D, CA) introduced HR 22, the Pipeline Safety and Community Empowerment Act of 2011 and it was finally made publicly available by the GPO last night. This bill is a duplicate of HR 6295 introduced last September in response to the natural gas pipeline explosion and fire in San Bruno, CA earlier last year.


As I mentioned in an earlier blog posting, one of the problems identified in that incident was that there was inadequate emergency response planning by both the pipeline operator and the local response agencies. The only thing that this bill does to address this issue is to require that operators provide State and local governments as well as local response agencies with copies of their inadequate emergency response plans. It’s better than nothing, I suppose.

Another thing that this bill does do is to require that pipeline operators periodically inform property owners within 2000 feet of their pipelines of the location of the pipeline. It seems that many of the affected property owners in the San Bruno disaster did not even know that their homes were built almost on top of a large natural gas pipeline.

There has been some concern expressed about the security problems associated with publicly disclosing the location of natural gas and hazmat pipelines. Since it is practically impossible to protect every foot of a pipeline from attack, the disclosure of the actual location of the pipeline could provide a terrorist with vulnerable target information. This provisions in this bill avoid some of this concern by requiring direct communication between the pipeline operator and the property owner rather than a more general public disclosure.

Safety Assurance

There are a couple of provisions that address the issue of safety assurance. Pipeline inspection requirement are enhanced. There are also provisions for requirements for automated or remote shutoff valves to mitigate the effects of a pipeline failure. Leak detection requirements are more clearly spelled out and the definition of ‘high consequence areas’ is expanded.

Incorporated by Reference

A relatively minor provision in this bill may raise the most controversy. Section 7 of the bill requires the Transportation Secretary to ensure that any of the industry standards or procedures ‘incorporated by reference’ in the ‘Federal pipeline regulatory program’ is available to the public free of charge.

It is a fairly standard procedure for regulatory agencies to take technical standards produced by industry groups and engineering societies and refer to them in regulations, effectively making those standards federal law. They do this because there is no way that the Federal government has the personnel resources to develop these standards on their own.

The problem is that many of these standards, particularly those developed by professional associations, have a fairly high cost associated with access to the standards. The reason is that these organizations spend a great deal of money assembling the experts necessary to develop these consensus technical standards. The experts are not typically directly compensated, but there are meetings to hold and documents to produce and print. The market for these documents is very small so the price has to be high to recoup those costs.

The simple language involved in §7 of this bill provides an apparently simplistic solution to a complex problem. It clearly needs to be addressed, but this section will complicate the approval process for this bill since it raises copyright issues and funding for standards development.

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