Yellowstone spill puts Republicans in tough spot

Republicans eager to undo regulatory burdens they say are hindering economic growth have advanced a series of proposals designed to rein in the power of the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies.

They have taken aim at the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, pollution from offshore drilling projects in the Arctic and ash from coal-fired power plants. And Republicans in control of the House just advanced a federal spending bill that would place other limits on the EPA and Interior Department’s power to regulate.

But the July 1 oil spill from an Exxon Mobil pipeline in Montana and a series of other pipeline accidents may be changing that dynamic. House Republicans are feeling new pressure to abandon their strategy, at least when it comes to federal oversight of pipeline safety.

At the same time, the Yellowstone River spill also is putting Republicans in a politically tricky position advancing a top priority: legislation that would force the Obama administration to soon decide whether it will approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil sands from Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — and one of the EPA’s leading congressional antagonists — has pledged to swiftly move new safety legislation this year. Under Upton’s watch, the panel is developing legislation that would boost civil penalties for pipeline spills and force federal regulators to reassess whether existing standards are good enough.

That measure dovetails with a bill advanced by a Senate committee in May that would boost existing civil fines for violating pipeline regulations and would create new penalties for violations that cause medical injuries or damage to the environment. The Senate bill also would authorize more federal safety inspectors.

Although pipelines are chiefly regulated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, the EPA takes a lead role in assessing public health and environmental damages from any spill.

The Yellowstone River spill was unleashed the evening of Friday, July 1, when a 12-inch pipeline owned by Exxon Mobil ruptured. According to the EPA’s latest update, Exxon Mobil stands by its estimate that 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, of oil ultimately gushed into the river. The EPA says there is no danger that more crude will spill from the site, now that nearby pipeline segments have been drained.