Environmental regulation — measures to protect water, reduce carbon emissions, and limit mercury — is divisive in the 114th Congress. Almost all Democrats support it, and almost all Republicans despise it.
But there’s at least one area of environmental regulation lawmakers are agreeing on these days: Fixing our old, decrepit oil and gas pipeline system. At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, representatives from both sides of the aisle took the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to task for failing to implement several provisions of a pipeline safety law.
Those provisions, they argued, are necessary to prevent environmental incidents, like the 105,000-gallon oil spill from a pipeline near Santa Barbara, California this past May.
“The urgency for pipeline safety is greater than ever,” said committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), noting the country’s record levels of natural gas production. “Although pipelines are some of the safety means of transport, the Santa Barbara spill is a harsh reminder that rigorous risk-based enforcement needs to be a priority.”
Democrats on the committee agreed.
“I am deeply concerned about PHMSA’s inability to carry out its mission, numerous safety recommendations or Congressional mandates,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said, calling it “especially troubling how many mandates that have yet to be implemented by the agency.”
This is far from the first time PHMSA — the agency that oversees America’s sprawling pipeline network — has been called out for not doing its job. A deep look at the agency from POLITICO in April found that it “stubbornly failed to take a more aggressive regulatory role, even when ordered by Congress to do so.” This has corresponded with a fossil fuel production boom that is increasingly stressing pipeline infrastructure to the point of catastrophic failure.
PHMSA is required to craft regulations for pipelines under a law passed by Congress in 2002 — the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act. But many of those required regulations are still not in effect — specifically, 17 out of 42 congressional mandates in the law remain incomplete.
That’s at least according to a letter sent to PHMSA by both Democrat and Republicans members of the House Energy and Commerce committee last month. That letter said the agency has failed to issue regulations on pipeline damage prevention, pipeline integrity management programs, and accident notification, among others.
At Tuesday’s hearing, PHMSA’s acting head Stacy Cummings told concerned lawmakers that the agency was making “significant progress” on getting up to speed, noting that two more regulations had already been proposed this month. But she also did not outright accept the notion that lack of pipeline safety regulations were directly responsible for the Santa Barbara pipeline spill, much less other spills and explosions that have occurred in the last few years.
Environmentalists tend to agree, noting that while inadequate pipeline infrastructure and safety does cause spills, the massive increase in U.S. oil and gas production and consumption is also a factor. That puts stress on aging U.S. pipelines, approximately half of which are at least 50 years old.
Many Republicans say the solution to that is to build more pipelines. In fact, Upton — who called the hearing on pipeline safety — is pushing a plan called the Architecture of Abundance that seeks to make it easier for new pipeline infrastructure to be built. It also seeks to “improve coordination and strengthen energy partnerships” with Canada, which could translate to a push for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which Upton supports.
The simultaneous call for both pipeline safety and more pipelines is one that some environmentalists believe to be disingenuous.
“You cannot cry foul over one oil spill when you are pushing an energy bill that could lead to many more,” said Lukas Ross, a climate and energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth .”It is frankly appalling for a man who has voted repeatedly to steamroll Keystone XL through Congress to take up the cause of pipeline safety.”