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Feds Seek Tougher Pipeline Oversight

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kzoo oil spill getty Feds Seek Tougher Pipeline OversightThe Obama administration wants Congress to tighten oversight of the nation’s pipelines and more than double penalties for some safety violations in response to a deadly gas explosion in California and a major oil spill in Michigan.

Legislation sent to Congress Wednesday would increase from $1 million to $2.5 million the maximum fine for the most serious pipeline violations involving deaths, injuries or major environmental harm, the Department of Transportation said. It also would pay for an additional 40 inspectors and safety regulators over the next four years.

The proposal follows several accidents, including last week’s huge gas explosion in suburban San Francisco, that have called attention to the nation’s aging pipelines and how they are monitored. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said his department “needs stronger authority to ensure the continued safety and reliability of our nation’s pipeline network.”

Congress is expected to recess for midterm elections in the next 2-3 weeks, making it unlikely a bill can be enacted within the next two months. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which was holding a hearing Wednesday on the Michigan oil spill, said he wants to “scrub” the proposal with the help of administration officials and lawmakers from both parties before the recess so that a bill can at least clear the pipeline subcommittee by then.

“I do think there is urgency,” Oberstar said.

The department’s proposal would eliminate exemptions from safety regulations for pipelines that gather hazardous liquids upstream of transmission pipelines, DOT said.

It also would authorize the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates interstate pipeline safety, to collect additional data on pipelines, including information on previously unregulated lines, the department said. And, it would provide for improved coordination with states and other agencies on inspector training and oversight of pipeline construction and expansion projects involving both gas and hazardous liquids pipelines.

The safety administration is part of the Transportation Department.

Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari told committee the department is also crafting new regulations to enhance pipeline safety, including requiring the installation of emergency flow restricting devices on some pipelines and changing the distance between valves. The regulations would be separate from the legislative proposal.

The department is also considering extending “high consequence area” designations to additional stretches of pipeline, Porcari told the committee in prepared testimony. Regulations put in place after several gas pipeline accidents a decade ago require oil and gas companies to inspect the integrity of pipelines in densely populated areas. Those inspections, which are conducted by the companies themselves, began in 2002 and are supposed to be completed by 2012.

The Pacific Gas & Electric Co. gas pipeline explosion killed at least four people in San Bruno, Calif., and destroyed nearly 40 homes. That pipeline is regulated by the state utility commission.

An oil spill from a pipeline owned by a Canadian company near Marshal, Mich., sent an estimated 820,000 to 1 million gallons spewing into the Kalamazoo River in late July.

Another spill from a pipeline by the same company, Enbridge Inc., was reported within the last week in suburban Chicago.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accidents. Sections of pipeline from each accident have been transported to the board’s facilities in Ashburn, Va., in an effort to determine the cause of the ruptures, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman told the committee.

She noted that California pipeline dates back to 1968 and the Michigan pipeline to 1956.

Some Republican committee members criticized the department for not submitting legislation to extend authority for the pipeline administration’s operations, due to expire on Sept. 30.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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