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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Keeping America’s Pipelines Safe and Secure: Key Issues for Congress

Paul W. Parfomak
Specialist in Energy and Infrastructure Policy

Nearly half a million miles of pipeline transporting natural gas, oil, and other hazardous liquids crisscross the United States. While an efficient and fundamentally safe means of transport, many pipelines carry materials with the potential to cause public injury and environmental damage. The nation’s pipeline networks are also widespread and vulnerable to accidents and terrorist attack. Recent pipeline accidents in Marshall, MI, San Bruno, CA, Allentown, PA, and Laurel, MT, have heightened congressional concern about pipeline risks. Both government and industry have taken numerous steps to improve pipeline safety and security over the last 10 years. While many stakeholders agree that federal pipeline safety programs have been on the right track, recent pipeline incidents suggest there continues to be room for improvement. Likewise, the threat of terrorist attack on U.S. pipelines remains a concern.

The federal pipeline safety program was authorized through the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010, and is currently operating under a continuing resolution. The Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011 (S. 275) would reauthorize the program through FY2014.

The 112
th Congress is considering new legislation to improve the safety and security of the U.S. pipeline network. The Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2011 (S. 234) would increase the number of federal pipeline safety inspectors, would require automatic shutoff valves for natural gas pipelines, and would mandate internal inspections of transmission pipelines, among other provisions. S. 275 would increase federal pipeline safety inspectors, would require automatic or remote controlled shutoff valves on new gas pipelines, would require public access to pipeline emergency response plans, would require a review of current regulation for pipelines transmitting “tar sands crude oil,” and would increase civil penalties for pipeline safety violations, among other provisions. The Pipeline Safety and Community Empowerment Act of 2011 (H.R. 22) would require automatic or remote shut-off valves for many pipelines and public disclosure of pipeline locations, among other provisions.

As Congress debates reauthorization of the federal pipeline safety program and oversees the federal role in pipeline security, key questions may be raised concerning pipeline agency staff resources, automatic pipeline shutoff valves, penalties for pipeline safety violations, safety regulations for oil sands crudes, and the possible need for pipeline security regulations, among other concerns. In addition to these specific issues, Congress may wish to assess how the various elements of U.S. pipeline safety and security activity fit together in the nation’s overall strategy to protect transportation infrastructure. Pipeline safety and security necessarily involve many groups: federal agencies, oil and gas pipeline associations, large and small pipeline operators, and local communities. Reviewing how these groups work together to achieve common goals could be an oversight challenge for Congress.

Date of Report: July 11, 2011
Number of Pages: 35
Order Number: R41536
Price: $29.95

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