Senate Questions Pipeline Safety After Deadly San Bruno Blast
Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 6:01 pm
Once PG&E discovered that a natural gas pipeline had exploded in San Bruno, Calif., earlier this month, employees from the utility company had to drive in rush-hour traffic to manually turn off two separate safety valves in order to stop the flow of gas that was fueling the blaze. It took the employees more than an hour to reach the valves and shut them off.
[Environment1] Lawmakers and pipeline safety advocates said today at a hearing of a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee that this is unacceptable. Utilities that operate pipelines in so-called high consequence areas — or areas near dense populations — should be required to install remote or automatic shutoff valves that will immediately stop the flow of gas in the event of an emergency.
This is not a new idea. Rick Kessler — vice president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit group that advocates for pipeline safety — said his group has been calling for federal regulations that require the use of remote shutoff valves for about a decade. And Sen. Frank Lautenber (D-N.J.), chairman of the subsurface transportation subcommittee that held the hearing, has been calling for the valves since a massive 1994 natural gas pipeline explosion in Edison, N.J., killed one person and left 100 people without homes.
The San Bruno explosion killed eight people, injured many more and destroyed dozens of homes. The disaster has refocused attention on the issue of pipeline safety, an issue that was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when a pipeline break in Michigan spilled 1 million gallons of oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. As The Washington Independent reported in its series on pipeline safety, regulation, both at the state and federal levels, is severely lacking.
Now, Congress is moving forward to take action. The Obama administration offered its own proposal to reform pipeline oversight (the administration is also developing new leak detection rules), a proposal that Kessler said was woefully inadequate. The administration “put out a proposal that doesn’t address any of the issues raised by San Bruno,” he said, adding that it’s “too little, too late.”
Kessler recommended that any pipeline safety proposal require the installation of remote shutoff valves in high consequence areas, require companies to upgrade pipelines that cannot accommodate the best inspection equipment and mandate a complete review of the federal government’s requirements that the public be made aware of the existence and location of pipelines.
There are two other pipeline safety proposlals on the table in Congress. The first comes from California’s senators — Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Barbara Boxer (D). The proposal is largely based on the Obama administration’s plan, but it would also require the use of remote shutoff valves, mandate advanced inspection technology, and require that the Obama administration write leak detection regulations. Lautenberg, along with full committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), introduced their own pipeline safety bill today that requires remote shutoff valves.
Meanwhile, in the House, the Transporation and Infrastructure Committee is in the process of reviewing the administration’s pipeline proposal and developing its own plan. As I’ve reported, it’s unlikely that any of these proposals will pass any time soon, since Congress is focusing on the mid-term elections.
Boxer, noting the potential for the legislation to take some time to move through Congress, pressed California Public Utilities Commission Executive Director Paul Clanon to require PG&E, the owner of the San Bruno pipeline, to begin installing more remote shutoff valves. Clanon said he had asked PG&E to identify the areas that it makes the most sense to install the valves.
PG&E President Christopher Johns, pressed by Boxer on the issue, said, “I will work with the PUC to put them in wherever it makes sense to put in.” Boxer said the valves should be put in all high-consequence areas. There are 3,600 miles of natural gas pipeline in high-consequence areas in California alone.
Installing the new valves across the whole country would be a massive undertaking that would require significant additional resources. As it stands now, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency in charge of overseeing pipeline safety, is already significantly under-resourced.
PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman, pressed by Boxer on what the agency is doing to improve pipeline safety in light of the San Bruno disaster, said she is looking into the possibility of requiring more remote shutoff valves, but added that she was waiting to make significant decisions until the National Transportation Safety Board finished its investigation into the explosion.
Boxer said Quarterman should not wait. “It’s on our collective shoulders now. We have been warned,” she said. “I think you need to be proactive on this one and not wait for new information to come out.”
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