House, Senate leaders agree on pipeline safety bill

House and Senate leaders have agreed on new legislation aimed at strengthening pipeline safety programs and to reauthorize them through 2015.

Three similar bills had been going through Congress, including two in the House and one that the Senate had passed in mid-October. Congressional leaders hope the agreement will put the legislation on a fast-track for passage in the House and Senate and for President Obama’s signature by the end of the year.

The bill that comes out of the agreement would authorize funding for safety programs administered through the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The administration is in charge of safety programs for 2.3 million miles of pipelines that carry natural gas, oil and other liquids.

The lawmakers said the bill addresses recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board from recent accidents. The board issued lengthy reports with safety recommendations following the 2010 Pacific Gas & Electric pipeline explosion, which killed eight people and injured dozens in San Bruno, Calif.

Among the bill’s specific provisions are a doubling in the maximum penalties for safety violations. It also would require the Transportation Department, “if appropriate,” to hand down rules requiring automatic or remote-controlled shut-off valves on new pipelines “where economically, technically, and operationally feasible.”

The bill doesn’t appear to have one well-known recommendation from the NTSB’s San Bruno report, in which the board recommended regulations to require the shut-off valves on all pipelines in highly populated areas. The San Bruno disaster might not have been as severe if PG&E’s pipeline had the valves, said the NTSB, whose recommendations aren’t legally binding.

“I am proud this final product strengthens current laws and fills the gaps in existing laws where necessary while striking a balanced approach that applies cost-benefit principles,” Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said in a statement.

The office of Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., whose district includes San Bruno, didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

The Transportation Department also would have to write rules for requiring strength tests on previously untested pipelines operating at high pressures.

The department also would have to study other possible new standards, including for expanding so-called integrity management requirements beyond the most densely populated areas. Integrity management refers to steps taken by operators to study and address risks with segments of their pipelines.

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, an industry trade group, praised the agreement.

“We are pleased that the House and Senate reached a bipartisan, bicameral agreement,” Martin Edwards, vice president for legislative affairs, said in a statement without assessing the contents of the agreement. “We are confident that a bill to improve the nation’s pipeline safety will be enacted this year.”