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GOP chairman: Feds dropped the ball in Calif. oil spill

GOP chairman: Feds dropped the ball in Calif. oil spill
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The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee blamed the outcome of the California oil spill two months ago on the Obama administration for missing regulatory deadlines.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said that had the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) implemented rules from a 2011 law when it should have, the spill on Santa Barbara County’s coast would have been different.

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“Some of these provisions, I am convinced, would have made a difference in the recent oil spill in Santa Barbara, had they been implemented by PHMSA in a timely manner,” Upton said at a Tuesday hearing on pipeline safety.

Upton’s blame came as part of a bipartisan tongue-lashing of PHMSA’s acting chief, in which lawmakers accused the agency of delaying many of the high-priority regulatory actions that Congress called for in the Pipeline Safety Act of 2011.

“The Pipeline Safety Act will not achieve its primary objectives until it is fully implemented, and I’m most disappointed that more than a third of the requirements remain incomplete, long after congressional mandated deadlines have passed,” Upton said.

Upton’s Democratic counterpart joined in.

“I am deeply concerned about PHMSA’s inability to carry out its mission, numerous safety recommendations or Congressional mandates,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). “Almost five years after the last reauthorization, it is especially troubling how many mandates that have yet to be implemented by the agency.”

The Santa Barbara County spill happened at a Plains All American pipeline, which broke and caused hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil to leak onto a beach and into the Pacific Ocean, harming wildlife, tourism and the environment.

That incident, along with a Monday spill at an Illinois pipeline owned by the same company, provided an urgent backdrop to Tuesday’s hearing.

“I recognize progress that has been made in recent years, but we still have a long way to go,” said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), who represents the area where the spill happened. “While PHMSA has certainly dragged its feet in implementing key reforms, Congress has also failed to provide the agency with the resources it needs to meet the growing demand.”

Rep. Ed WhitfieldEd WhitfieldOvernight Energy: Green group sues Exxon over climate science Lobby firm hires Republican who resigned after ethics investigation Kentucky Republican to resign from House MORE (R-Ky.), who chairs the subcommittee hosting the hearing, said PHMSA’s implementation of the law “has not been satisfactory. Many of the mandates — at least 17 out of 42 included in the Pipeline Safety Act — have not been completed, including several described as key mandates with potentially large impacts on pipeline operations nationwide.”

Many lawmakers were prepared to blame the White House Office of Management and Budget for the delays, and discussed bringing in current or former officials from that agency, which reviews every major regulations from PHMSA and other agencies.

PHMSA was created just over a decade ago, and is part of the Department of Transportation.

Stacy Cummings, PHMSA’s acting head, recognized the lawmakers’ anger and said her agency is working urgently on the actions called for in the law. 

“I speak for the entire agency when I say that I share your concern and your sense of urgency,” she said. “We are committed to satisfying every mandate.”

In the last month, PHMSA has proposed two rules mandated under the law and made a third final.

But she also wouldn’t confirm Upton’s assertion that either the spills in California or Illinois could have been prevented or mitigated by regulations from the law.

“Because those two investigations are going on, I don’t think I can presuppose what the cause was,” she said.