Partisanship holding back pipeline safety
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Not very long ago, the expectations for the bill to reauthorize the pipeline safety programs of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) were summarized by one energy sector reporter as a “bill that many thought would breeze through Congress.”

That has not happened. The prior optimism related to the proposed reauthorization bill submitted by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) back in June 3, 2019. That proposal was the result of profound effort and deliberation, and we at DOT continue to believe that it follows the proper priorities and sound strategies for continuing to improve pipeline safety.

Recent reauthorization bills covering pipeline safety have been passed with not only bipartisan, but near unanimous support. This year, there seems little chance of that happening, which is unfortunate for such an important and far-reaching safety topic and for the agency charged by Congress with overseeing the safe operations of the nation’s pipeline network.

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This is also particularly worrying when the programs being considered are aimed at ensuring that the transport of energy products and other hazardous materials not only proceeds safely, but gets even safer. For obvious reasons, the safety of the nation’s pipeline system should reside above partisan causes. To allow that to happen is to set aside further safety improvements that benefit the general public, first responders, and industry workers, all of whom are put at greater, unnecessary risk if the safety mission of PHMSA is impeded by uncertainty that renders long term planning much more difficult.

Ensuring the safety of our nation’s pipeline system is a challenge with three inescapable elements: it is very large, very complicated, and very, very important.

Large because the network consists of 2.8 million miles of pipelines – far longer than any other country.

Complicated because there are many varieties of pipelines, comprised of different materials, carrying different products, operating at various maximum allowable pressures, constructed in different eras, and subject to different atmospheric, seismic, corrosion-based, and other types of threats.

Very, very important because while the industry record shows pipeline-delivered products reaching their destinations safely more than 99.997 percent of the time, that we should not be satisfied with anything less than a perfect safety record.

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In the absence of a reauthorization, PHMSA will continue to faithfully pursue its important safety work based upon its expired authorization. Fortunately, inspections, investigations and other crucial programs will remain in operation, but keeping up with the most recent matters affecting our nation’s pipeline system will be very difficult without an updated law.

Pipeline safety has gained a lot of attention over the last few years. We know that Congress has a lot on its plate, but we also know that the safety of our country’s energy infrastructure should remain an area of widespread bipartisan support and agreement. There is no benefit to anyone in not doing so.

PHMSA respectfully asks that it be granted the ability to effectively plan for ensuring the safe operation of the 2.8 million miles of pipelines that are under its purview. We are eager to accept the responsibility for doing our job and continue to demonstrate our resolve by publishing five important rules mandated by Congress just within the last four months. But we cannot continue to improve our nation’s pipeline safety until members of Congress put partisanship aside and pass a new authorization bill.

Howard "Skip" Elliott was sworn in as the fifth Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) following his unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate on Oct. 5, 2017.