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April 20, 2016 4:00 PM, EDT

House Transportation Panel OKs Pipeline Safety Bill

Legislation aimed at improving pipeline safety by reforming federal rules was approved unanimously April 20 by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration would be reauthorized for four years under the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act.

The legislation, which advances to the floor of the House, would extend oversight authority and call on the agency to focus on unfinished mandates by Congress.

The bill also would call on PHMSA to establish minimum safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities and put together a national pipeline safety database.

The Government Accountability Office would be tasked with researching the latest in innovations of pipeline materials and corrosion prevention technology.

Additionally, a group consisting of PHMSA officers, state officials, industry leaders and watchdog groups would be established to come up with recommendations on how to improve information sharing. The bill is similar to a Senate-passed measure.

“Pipelines are critical to the economy of central and southwestern Pennsylvania, and the entire country,” said committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). “Moving energy products safely and efficiently improves our quality of life, keeps energy costs more affordable and leads to significant job creation.

“The PIPES Act continues to build upon the pipeline safety advances we’ve been making in the U.S., improves our pipeline transportation system and provides more regulatory certainty. We look forward to working with the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate to complete a final bill this year.”

Shuster is co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials subcommittee. “We have a responsibility and opportunity to ensure the efficiency and safety of the 2.6 million miles of pipelines transporting energy resources to Americans across the country,” Denham said. “This bipartisan legislation requires PHMSA to complete mandated safety requirements and to evaluate and report to Congress on their rulemaking process, making our pipelines safer than ever before.”

California Reps. Janice Hahn and Jackie Speier, both Democrats, sought to make changes to Shuster’s legislation. The congresswomen introduced legislation April 15 that would aim to increase accountability for pipeline operators found at fault for accidents. The committee did not adopt Hahn’s amendment. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General has indicated that pipeline safety prosecutions are not common due to a high bar for establishing a criminal violation. Hahn said she will seek support from colleagues on the Transportation Committee to include her bill in Shuster’s measure.

“For years, pipeline operators have not made safety a priority and have been able to walk away from destructive and deadly pipeline accidents by just paying administrative fines,” Hahn said. “Fines have become nothing more than the cost of doing business for these companies. The possibility of criminal prosecution would make the safety of our communities a priority and allow the federal government to better enforce pipeline safety law.”

Last month, PHMSA announced its final rule offering guidance for return of hazardous materials from retailers back to manufacturers, suppliers and distribution facilities. PHMSA’s hazmat “reverse logistics” rule applies primarily to shippers and motor carriers who transport hazardous materials. The rule does not apply to rail or vessel transport carriers.