Ky. Senator Puts Hold on Pipeline Safety Bill
September 28, 2011
Tea Party conservative Sen. Rand Paul is blocking pipeline safety legislation intended to fix some of the problems that led to the rupture of a natural gas pipeline in San Bruno last year that destroyed a neighborhood and killed eight people.
Paul, a first-term Kentucky Republican whose father, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex. is running for president, is using his prerogative as a senator to stymie action because he is opposed in principle to adding regulations and expanding the federal government.
"Sen. Paul doesn't think new regulations and the creation of dozens of bureaucratic positions should be swept through without sufficient debate and vote," said his spokeswoman, Moira Bagley.
Paul has used his Senate privileges to put a hold on the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011, which blocks further action on the bill despite nearly unanimous bipartisan support in Congress for toughening federal regulations.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, whose district includes San Bruno, accused Paul of "putting his personal ideology above life and limb. I just find it deplorable."
The National Transportation Safety Board determined after a yearlong investigation of the San Bruno explosion that federal pipeline regulations need an overhaul. The United States has 2.5 million miles of oil, natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines, many of them decades old. A gas pipeline exploded in Paul's home state of Kentucky last week.
Speier said the Senate bill is "is so modest, it doesn't begin to put the kind of safety requirements in place that are now in place in California as a result of the explosion in San Bruno. ... The only solace I have is at least we're protecting Californians. I'd like to be in a position to protect all Americans."
The Senate bill requires installation of automatic or remote-control shut-off valves on new and replaced pipelines, but Speier and California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, want to require such equipment on existing pipelines, such as the one in San Bruno, because those are at the highest risk of failure.
The legislation passed the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously in May. Given the bill's broad support, Senate Democrats had "hot-lined" it, asking each party's caucus if anyone objected, so that it could be passed quickly by unanimous consent.
'Ready to move forward'
A Democratic aide to the committee said Paul's actions "defied logic. ... This is a bill that had no objections in committee, no one had an issue with it, it's been teed up ready to move forward since July." The aide said that if every piece of noncontroversial legislation were allowed a floor debate, especially this late in the year, few of them would clear the Senate.
Paul's spokeswoman said that if Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wants to overcome Paul's objection, he can "bring this legislation before the Senate at any time."
Reid's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Democratic leaders could bring the bill to the floor if they have a 60-vote supermajority, but such maneuvers eat up considerable time, often leaving all but must-pass legislation to languish. Individual holds by senators, usually made anonymously, have come under criticism but endure as a Senate prerogative.
Boxer and Feinstein wrote to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Sept. 8, asking him to adopt the safety board's recommendations without waiting for Congress, but they have not received a response. Speier also has called for the administration to act on its own.
An official at the Department of Transportation said in an e-mail that LaHood wants Congress to pass legislation but the department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a notice of proposed rule-making last month, seeking comment on whether to call for new safety requirements for gas transmission pipelines. Such a move would allow the White House to sidestep the legislation and impose safety rules on its own.
"The Obama administration is committed to ensuring the safety of America's vast pipeline network," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that the agency is reviewing the NTSB's recommendations.
Speier, Boxer and Feinstein oppose a bill sponsored in the House by Rep. Bill Schuster, R-Pa., as inadequate, saying it ignores some of the safety board's recommendations. Getting the administration to adopt the new rules on its own would eliminate the need to incorporate a House Republican bill and probably lead to stronger regulations.
Some pipelines exempt
Speier, who introduced her own legislation, wants to end an exemption in the law that allows pipelines installed before 1971 to escape pressure testing. She said the Senate bill requires automatic shutoff valves on old pipelines only if they are economically and technologically feasible.
"When's it going to be economically feasible?" Speier said. "There's no requirement for hydrostatic testing where you don't know what you have in the ground. ... So the bill, while it's a nice bipartisan effort, is still, in my view, inadequate."
On Monday, the safety board issued its final report on the San Bruno disaster, saying that Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s record keeping is so flawed that it is impossible to say how much of the company's natural-gas transmission system is at risk of catastrophic failure.
The NTSB found that the San Bruno explosion on Sept. 9, 2010, was inevitable because a seam weld in the pipeline would have failed even a visual inspection when it was installed by PG&E in 1956. The board also found that PG&E failed for more than 50 years to conduct an inspection that would have detected it, compounded the danger by poor record keeping and finally botched a repair and failed to recognize what had happened until the neighborhood was in flames.
The five-member board voted unanimously to blame the explosion on the company.
"Rand Paul is "putting his personal ideology above life and limb."
" I just find it deplorable."
Source: Chronicle Washington Bureau
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