Congress has approved amendments to the Pipeline Safety Act (PSA), reauthorizing PHMSA’s pipeline safety program through 2019. The bill is expected to reach the President’s desk soon to be signed into law. S. 2276 was approved in the House of Representatives by voice vote in the first week of June, representing a compromise between two House committees on several topics. The Senate took up the bill and approved it by unanimous vote on June 13, 2016.

Among the notable provisions of S. 2276 is Section 16, which would provide PHMSA with the authority to issue Emergency Orders to an individual operator, a group of operators, or the entire industry, based upon a written finding that an unsafe condition or practice constitutes or is causing “an imminent hazard.” The measure would allow PHMSA under such circumstances to impose emergency restrictions, prohibitions, and safety measures on owners and operators of gas or hazardous liquid pipeline facilities without prior notice or an opportunity for a hearing. An entity subject to the order would be able to petition PHMSA for administrative review of the order and subsequent expedited judicial review in federal District Court. Other notable provisions include:

  • Underground Natural Gas Storage: Section 12 requires PHMSA, in consultation with other Federal agencies, to issue minimum safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities within two years;
  • Post Inspection Briefings: Section 7 requires PHMSA to conduct post-inspection briefings outlining any concerns within 30 days and providing written preliminary findings within 90 days to the extent practicable;
  • Safety Data Sheets to Emergency Responders: Section 14 requires liquid pipeline operators to provide safety data sheets on spilled product to the designated Federal On-Scene Coordinator and appropriate State and local emergency responders within 6 hours of telephonic or electronic notice of an accident to the National Response Center; and
  • Updates on Outstanding Mandates: Section 4 requires PHMSA to publish updates on its website every 90 days on the status of an outstanding final rule required by a statutory mandate.

Notably, the bill does not include a controversial measure that would have granted Congressional committee members access to liquid pipeline operators’ unredacted oil spill emergency response plans. In addition, the bill does not revise the PSA standard for criminal liability for pipeline safety violations, as recommended by the DOT Office of Inspector General (that would have reduced the existing ‘knowing and willful’ standard to ‘recklessly’). It omits certain provisions in previous draft legislation requiring PHMSA consultation with FERC in the pre-filing and permitting processes for new natural gas pipelines; a Comptroller General report on staffing and management of TSA’s pipeline security program; allowance of civil actions for mandamus to compel PHMSA to perform ‘non-discretionary duties,’ and transparency in OMB review of PHMSA proposed rules.

Certain new provisions appeared in the bill that were not contained in previous drafts that would require the following: (1) PHMSA advisory bulletin regarding requirements to change the status of a pipeline facility from active to abandoned; (2) GAO study on State pipeline safety agreements and requirement that PHMSA to notify a State if its request for an interstate agreement is denied; and (3) PHMSA-commissioned a study on the safety, existing regulation, and best practices for propane gas facilities.

On the heels of the S. 2276 approval, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on June 14, 2016, to discuss oil and gas pipeline infrastructure and associated economic, safety, environmental, permitting, construction, and maintenance considerations. Witnesses testified on the relative safety of pipeline transportation in relation to other modes of transportation and the need to update energy policy to facilitate pipeline permitting and approvals, in anticipation of increased demand for new pipeline infrastructure in coming years. Senator Cantwell (D-Washington) expressed concern that new natural gas pipeline infrastructure may overestimate energy demand and delay a transition to carbon free energy. The Senator failed to note that FERC requires new gas pipeline operators to demonstrate actual demand for service, as well as extensive environmental and other review, before issuing a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity and approving construction.