House reps rap pipeline regulator for slow action on safeguards

WASHINGTON — The nation’s top pipeline regulator has taken too long to impose congressionally ordered safeguards, including changes that could have blunted the impact of a recent spill in California, lawmakers said Tuesday.

The stalled reforms include regulations governing how quickly companies must notify authorities after a pipeline spill, leak detection systems and the use of automatic and remote-control shut-off valves that can be triggered in emergencies to swiftly halt flowing oil and natural gas. All told, more than a dozen of the 42 mandates Congress gave the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in a 2011 law remain unfinished, lawmakers said Tuesday.

“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,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich. And with more oil and gas flowing through the United States’ sprawling pipeline network, “the urgency for pipeline safety is greater than ever.”

Federal and state authorities are still probing the May 19 accident in California, which saw more than 100,000 gallons of oil escape Plains All American Pipeline’s Line 901 and some of it reach the Pacific Ocean.

And on Tuesday, PHMSA issued a corrective action order to Houston-based Plains for a separate spill in Illinois, with the agency ordering third-party assessments of the pump station failure that released 4,200 gallons of crude won’t happen somewhere else.

Related story: Workers cleaning oil spilled from Plains All American pump station near St. Louis

PHMSA ordered Plains to keep its Capwood Pipeline offline indefinitely during the testing of the failed pipeline fitting in the pump station and to conduct a root-cause analysis into the incident.

In a statement, Plains said it would fulfill all the steps outlined by the agency, adding its goals is to have no such incidents and will “use the learnings from this and other incidents to get closer to achieving this goal.”

PHMSA also detailed its preliminary findings on the incident, including failed attempts by workers in a Texas control room to close a valve in the system. Although it may have had little effect on the spill, PHMSA noted that “valve closure did not occur as intended.”

“When the first valve did not close, the controller closed another valve upstream of that location,” said Plains spokeswoman Meredith Matthews. “The failure of the first valve to close had little to no effect on the size of the leak due to the elevation profile of the pipeline.”

The interim director of PHMSA, Stacy Cummings, sought to assuage lawmakers and insisted that the agency is working to roll out regulations and boost inspections, even as the two spill investigations are underway.

“We share your concern and sense of urgency,” Cummings told the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. “We have a plan to complete every one of these mandates. . . . Every single one of them is critical and important for pipeline safety.”

But Cummings did not provide a schedule for action, disappointing Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., who called her responses “evasive.”

“I want to restore the trust of the American public,” McKinley said. “What do we have to do?”

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., singled out the “lack of action” on automatic and remotely controlled shut-off valves two decades after federal accident investigators recommended their expanded use.

“I’m deeply concerned about PHMSA’s inability to carry out its mission, numerous safety recommendations or congressional mandates,” Pallone said.

Upton cited the agency’s slow work on a 2011 mandate to PHMSA to require companies quickly notify authorities of oil spills. PHMSA proposed a notification rule on July 7 that would give companies no more than an hour to report incidents to the National Response Center.

It was a relatively “easy” rule, Upton said. “Why did it take so long?”

Cummings stressed that the agency has not waited on the rule making process to act, by launching studies, issuing reports and holding workshops with industry.

And Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, noted that “there is plenty of blame” to go around.

“While PHMSA is certainly the easiest target since they have been slow to produce the required reports and regulations,” he said, “they lack the financial and personnel resources needed to complete their mission in a timely manner.”

Pipeline operators have already taken voluntary steps to boost safety, stressed Don Santa, president of the International Natural Gas Association of America. But he said the slow regulatory timeline discourages some voluntary changes by companies wary of making investments now that might not “be consistent with the final rules adopted by PHMSA.”

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., said she is troubled by possible deficiencies in the in-line inspections of pipelines conducted using smart pigs — devices that travel through them and suck up data along the way.

“These in-line inspections are clearly not very accurate,” Capps said. “There’s clearly a problem here.”

In-line inspections conducted two weeks before the Plains’ Line 901 breach showed corrosion in the pipeline and documented thinning walls with about 45 percent metal loss. But after the ruptured pipeline was unearthed, PHMSA officials in the field estimated it was in far worse shape, with potentially 80 percent metal loss.

Plains has said it is waiting for additional measurements and a metallurgical analysis of the failed section of pipe before it can address inconsistencies between the earlier assessment and the recent field estimate.

Andrew Black, president of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, said smart pigs are the best tool, but research is under way to improve them. And Cummings noted that PHMSA steers many of its research and development dollars to improving in-line inspections.