Energy & Environment

Pipeline regulators pressed to act on gas storage leaks


Lawmakers repeatedly pressed the federal government’s pipeline safety agency to crack down on the potential for leaks at natural gas storage facilities.

A Thursday hearing in a subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee came days after workers with a California gas utility stopped a massive leak that had gone on for 117 days at a storage well just north of Los Angeles.

{mosads}But as the panel works this year to reauthorize the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) power to regulate the safety of hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines, members want to give the agency clear power and a mandate to oversee storage sites.

“They have no regulations for natural gas storage,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), whose district is near the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility, told the panel. “Our California regulations are weak, the history of this incident will show you how weak.”

Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.), whose district is adjacent to Sherman’s, agreed, and promoted legislation he’s sponsored to require PHMSA regulations on underground storage. PHMSA is part of the Department of Transportation.

“We’re looking at setting standards at the federal level, and then making sure that the other 35 or so states that have these types of underground facilities … have some sort of a baseline,” Knight said. “Now, states can take it over … they can take these limits and raise them. But there should be some sort of standards.”

Industry representatives at the hearing voiced support for PHMSA to write regulations on underground storage tanks.

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) said a key takeaway from the Aliso Canyon leak is that PHMSA needs authority to enforce emergency orders to the entire pipeline industry, something most other transportation regulatory agencies have.

“When there’s a problem like the one we know about in California, I think thoughtful regulators should have the ability to immediately implement especially standards that are already accepted by the industry,” he said.

Marie Therese Dominguez, PHMSA’s administrator, said the agency has the authority to write rules on underground storage tanks, but it would have to go through a long rulemaking process to do so.

PHMSA has put out industry advisories amid the California leak, but Dominguez admitted more should be done.

“We have worked for many years with the states, and looked primarily to the states to regulate in this year,” she said at the hearing. “Given the incredible occurrences at Aliso Canyon … it’s very clear that there’s a role for the federal government to play in terms of regulating underground storage.”

Southern California Gas Co. is under criminal and civil investigation for the lead-up and response to the leak, which caused thousands of nearby residents to evacuate. The company allegedly missed numerous warning signs, including problems with old pipes.

PHMSA was also under fire at the hearing for its slow regulatory process. Of the 42 rules mandated in a major 2011 pipeline safety law, the agency has only completed 26.

Lawmakers agreed that their next legislation should focus mostly on helping PHMSA complete the remaining tasks from the 2011 law.

“Work on this reauthorization needs to make sure that PHMSA can stay focused on closing out the 2011 act,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the full Transportation Committee.

The remaining tasks center on leak detection, automatic shutoffs, excess flow valves and a wide range of other major safety problems in pipelines.

“We should give them an opportunity to finish what they’ve been tasked to do,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), the top Democrat on the full committee.

“I’d like to see us put some things in this bill to help them actually get the job done, and the goals and the objectives and the mandates that we put forward in 2011,” he said. “I think there are things we can do to make the agency work better.”

Tags Bill Shuster Brad Sherman Marie Therese Dominguez Michael Capuano Natural gas oil Peter DeFazio Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration pipelines Steve Knight

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