As tens of thousands of barrels of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico every day, legislators on Thursday turned their attention toward ensuring that what happened off the Gulf Coast doesn't occur somewhere inside the United States.
During an afternoon hearing, the Senate Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security Subcommittee discussed how the federal government could improve pipeline safety as it anticipates reauthorizing the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The agency, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of U.S. pipelines, expires in September.
"The ongoing Deepwater Horizon crisis in the Gulf is an unfortunate wake-up call not only to oil production safety, but to the safety of the Nation’s vast oil and gas pipeline system," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson.
Three thousand companies operate over 2.5 million miles of pipeline carrying flammable and dangerous fuels, such as natural gas and diesel, across the United States to the nation's homes and businesses, according to PHMSA.
While the number of pipeline incidents has declined by 50 percent over the past two decades, accidents still happen. Fifty-eight people have been killed, 225 people have been injured, and $900 million in property damage has occurred since November 2006, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group. And in just the past month alone, a natural gas pipeline exploded in Texas and two oil pipeline spills occurred in Alaska and Utah, noted Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).
Despite these incidents, PHMSA Administrator Cynthia L. Quarterman told legislators her office within the Department of Transportation has made significant strides toward ensuring the safety of the nation's pipeline systems.
Under the Pipes Act of 2006, Congress empowered the PHMSA to aggressively regulate companies responsible for operating the nation's pipelines. Since then, Quartman explained, the agency has increased its inspection staff and mandated gas distribution pipeline operators implement an integrity management plan that requires they install excess flow valves, which cut off gas to a house when a line breaks, in new and replaced service lines for single family homes when feasible.