As the September 30th deadline for the Pipeline Safety Act reauthorization draws near, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation convened a pipeline safety field hearing in Billings, Montana and recently scheduled a second hearing for September 29th in Washington, DC.  Newly confirmed PHMSA Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez’s comments at the field hearing provide insight into current developments and priorities of the federal agency that is tasked with pipeline safety.  In particular, Administrator Dominguez committed to issuing two outstanding rulemaking proposals in the near term, signaled that the Agency is increasing its focus on inspection and enforcement, committed to “vigorously” promote pipeline safety management systems, and conduct its own organizational self-assessment.

On the rulemaking front, Dominguez noted that PHMSA intends to issue its hazardous liquid rulemaking proposal by the end of September and a proposed natural gas transmission rule by the end of 2015.  With regard to inspection and enforcement, the FY 2015 Omnibus bill provided PHMSA with 109 new positions, 80% of which will be dedicated to inspection and enforcement.  In addition, the Agency appears to be sharpening its enforcement tools, as Dominguez noted that PHMSA is “committed to using all enforcement authorities wisely to address the greatest risks and maximize safety.”

Further, Dominguez outlined the Agency’s commitment to pipeline safety management systems and newly published API RP 1173, which is not required by PHMSA regulations but has coincidentally appeared in recent enforcement orders.  She noted that PHMSA “fully supports the implementation of RP 1173 and plans to promote vigorous conformance to this voluntary standard.”  Other notable topics include reference to increased data sharing with PHMSA State partners and participation in an internal review of the Agency, to include a gap analysis of PHMSA data, an organizational assessment, and identification of additional ways to improve safety.

Since that hearing, Senator Fischer of Nebraska scheduled a second hearing on pipeline safety, entitled “Pipeline Safety:  Oversight of Our Nation’s Pipeline Network” to be convened on September 29, 2015.  Witnesses have yet to be announced, but additional information on the hearing will be included on the Committee’s website.  Meanwhile, Michigan Senators Stabenow and Peters introduced the Pipeline Improvement and Preventing Spills Act on September 23, 2015.  In addition to proposals specific to the Great Lakes region, this legislation would expand PHMSA criteria for high consequence areas to include age of pipe, type of oil transported, and assessment capabilities; require the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies to review oil spill response plans and cleanup activities; and require operators to make certain pipeline information publicly available.

All of the above reflects the increasing possibility that reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Act will contain new Congressional mandates.