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Pipeline safety bill mandates new rules for natural gas storage

By Michael Doyle | McClatchy Washington Bureau via Associated Press Published: June 9, 2016 9:14 AM

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers hope to prevent the catastrophic pipeline breakdowns that have devastated parts of California with a bill approved by the House on Wednesday.

Co-authored by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., the bill updates federal Department of Transportation programs that could affect the 200,000-plus miles of gas and hazardous materials pipelines that currently snake through the Golden State.

“We’ve got great bipartisan support,” California’s Denham said in an interview Wednesday, adding, “We put a lot of good provisions in there for California.”

The pipeline safety bill appears to represent a rare example of congressional cooperation in an election year, involving neither Donald Trump nor transgender equality. The House approved it by voice vote, on the suspension calendar that’s set aside for noncontroversial bills.

The Senate has already approved by voice vote its initial version of what lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill call the PIPES Act, a four-year authorization crammed with technical details as well as some state-specific provisions.

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The package, for instance, calls for a federal inquiry into the massive leak discovered last year at Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility. The Los Angeles-area leak emitted upward of 107,000 tons of methane, among other toxins.

“The Senate recognizes the importance of reviewing the Aliso Canyon gas leak so we can protect other communities in the future,” Boxer said following the Senate’s approval of the bill in March.

Boxer is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Denham chairs the House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, giving both Californians opportunities to shape the bill.

With differences ironed out, the last step on the way to the White House is final Senate passage.

“For any piece of legislation coming out of Congress, getting support of both parties and both houses is a challenge,” Denham said.

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Spanning about 55 pages, the bill would authorize $720 million for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration through Fiscal 2019. The agency provides grants and oversees the nation’s 2.6 million miles of gas and hazardous liquid pipelines.

The agency would be required to set new minimum safety standards for underground natural gas storage facilities. California has about a dozen of the underground facilities, with more than half located in the Central Valley between Butte County in the north and Madera County in the south.

The bill authorizes federal officials to issue emergency orders to pipeline owners and operators who violate safety standards, and directs officials to quickly brief the owners and operators of any inspection concerns. California is currently crisscrossed by more than 213,000 miles of gas pipelines, as well as 7,100 miles of other hazardous liquid pipelines.

The bill, at the urging of lawmakers, including Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., also clarifies that coastal beaches are unusually sensitive areas where pipeline safety standards might be stricter, and orders a study into pipeline corrosion like that associated with last year’s spill near Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County.

“While these pipelines are an essential part of our nation’s energy infrastructure, we all know, many from firsthand experience, that our reliance on these pipelines is inherently risky,” Capps said Wednesday.

Among its other activities, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration provides grants that in recent years have ranged from working on “pipeline damage prevention radar” to helping survivors of the Sept. 9, 2010, explosion from a ruptured PG&E gas pipeline in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes.

PG&E reported spending $3.1 million on federal lobbying last year, with pipeline safety legislation only one of its areas of interest. The company’s political action committee also contributes to the campaigns of myriad lawmakers, including Denham and others in key positions.

 


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