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Senate Panel Advances Four-Year Pipeline Reauthorization Bill

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Wednesday sent a four-year reauthorization of pipeline safety programs to the full Senate by voice vote.

The bill (S 2276) would increase authorized funds for federal pipeline safety programs under the Department of Transportation by about 40 percent in fiscal 2016 and increase the amount available from a trust fund established to help pay for oil spill cleanup by almost 7 percent in the current fiscal year from fiscal 2015. Safety programs were last reauthorized in a 2012 law (PL 112-90) that expires at the end of this year.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., the bill’s sponsor, told the panel the legislation would ensure the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration completes work required by the last reauthorization, addresses staffing challenges and establishes minimum standards for natural gas storage facilities.

PHMSA has been under fire for its management of pipeline safety programs. During a hearing convened by Fischer in September, the agency was sharply criticized for failing to carry out safety recommendations and slowness to issue regulations, which industry groups have complained cause uncertainty.

Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said after the markup it was “very unlikely” the bill could move much this year, but he is hopeful “we can get it to the floor some time next year, and hopefully get it to the president’s desk some time next year.”

Unlike surface transportation programs, pipeline programs keep running in the event authorization lapses.

The last pipeline program reauthorization, in 2012, followed a gas explosion in San Bruno, Calif., in 2010 that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. This year, a pipeline rupture near the coast in Santa Barbara County, Calif., caused major environmental damage and raised questions about state and federal pipeline program effectiveness.

Senators adopted a substitute version of the bill with five additional amendments, including one from Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., that would require a federal audit of state policies on natural gas leaks.

Increased Authorization

Authorization levels for the Department of Transportation pipeline programs would increase under the bill from approximately $91 million a year to $127 million in fiscal 2016, and then increase each year to just over $135 million in fiscal year 2019.

Authorization from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund would also rise from approximately $18.6 million a year to about $19.9 million in fiscal year 2016, and then increase to $21.1 million in fiscal 2019.

The bill makes a number of policy changes, including restricting resources for further pipeline safety rulemakings until current rulemaking work is completed; directing the Transportation Secretary to consider establishing a national pipeline inspection database; requiring minimum safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities within two years of the bill’s enactment; and adding the Great Lakes as a high risk area for pipelines.

Fischer said the underground storage standards were requested by Kansas’s two Republican senators: Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts.

Moran told the panel that Kansas utilities regulators and others in his state were anxious for PHMSA to develop the regulations.

In a move that affects more transportation programs than just pipelines, the bill would also require a federal audit of the Transportation Security Administration’s pipeline security programs and other surface transportation programs.

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