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Federal Agency Pressured Over Long-Delayed Pipeline Regulations

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The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is under increasing pressure to implement long-delayed pipeline regulations aimed at preventing catastrophic oil spills and deadly explosions.

Congress Sought Tougher Pipeline Regulations After Sun Bruno, California Explosion

Congress mandated the stronger pipeline regulations in 2011, the year after a natural gas transmission line explosion killed eight people and destroyed more than three dozen homes in San Bruno, California.

Eight years later, the PHMSA has yet to finalize several of the regulations, including requirements for automatic/remote shut-off valves on newly constructed transmission lines and leak detection systems on hazardous liquid pipelines.  A 2016 directive granting the PHMSA emergency order authority to address systemic, industry-wide pipeline hazards has also stalled.

Congress has clearly become tired of the foot-dragging. On Wednesday, PMHSA Administrator Howard “Skip” Elliott was called before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee to explain the delays.

“It’s personal,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich) told him. “We had to deal with a bad pipeline accident in my home state in 2010 on the Kalamazoo River, which led to the passage of the Upton-Dingell Pipeline Safety Bill in 2012.  In 2016, we came together again to pass another bipartisan pipeline safety bill which now is set to expire in October.”

PHMSA May Finalize Some Stalled Regulations This Year

Elliott acknowledged the lawmakers’ frustration, and suggested his agency might be ready to implement two of the stalled pipeline regulations later this year.

“The liquids pipelines safety rule moved out of DOT for final review several months ago,” he noted. “We’ve also completed our work on the gas transmission pipeline final rule and the valve and rupture detection rule. These rules are undergoing internal review at DOT.

While Elliott also indicated that the remaining 11 mandates were either awaiting “reports or other actions” or “tied to in-progress rulemaking efforts,” he did not provide a timeline for their implementation.

President Trump Looks to Speed Pipeline Construction

Over the last two years, it’s become quite apparent that stronger pipeline regulations aren’t high on President Trump’s priority list.

In fact, one of his most recent executive orders aims to accelerate the construction of natural gas and oil pipelines by stripping individual states of their ability to block projects that might endanger water quality. Another seeks to give the president sole authority to approve international pipelines, such as the controversial Keystone XL project.

Several states and environmental groups have already promised to challenge those orders in court.

“This isn’t the first time President Trump has tried to use executive power to advance dirty energy interests,” said Jill Tauber, Earthjustice’s Vice President of Litigation for Climate and Energy. “Just last month, a federal judge declared his order to open up the Arctic and Atlantic oceans to offshore oil and gas drilling unlawful, following an Earthjustice lawsuit. We will continue to stand up for the rule of law and the power of communities to protect their environment.”

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