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Friday, January 18, 2013

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 and drawn criticism from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Both government and industry have taken numerous steps to improve pipeline safety and security over the last 10 years. Nonetheless, while many stakeholders agree that federal pipeline safety programs have been on the right track, the spate of recent pipeline incidents suggest there continues to be significant room for improvement. Likewise, the threat of terrorist attacks, especially cyberattacks on pipeline control systems, remains a concern.

The federal pipeline safety program is authorized through the fiscal year ending September 30, 2015, under the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 (P.L. 112- 90), which was signed by President Obama on January 3, 2012. The act contains a broad range of provisions addressing pipeline safety and security. Among the most significant are provisions that could increase the number of federal pipeline safety inspectors, require automatic shutoff valves for transmission pipelines, mandate verification of maximum allowable operating pressure for gas transmission pipelines, increase civil penalties for pipeline safety violations, and mandate reviews of diluted bitumen pipeline regulation.

Both government and industry have taken numerous steps to improve pipeline safety and security over the last 10 years. Nonetheless, the NTSB has identified improvement of federal pipeline safety oversight as a “top ten” priority for 2013. The leading pipeline industry associations have concurred. Whether renewed efforts by industry, combined with additional oversight by federal agencies, will further enhance the safety and security of U.S. pipelines remains to be seen.

As Congress oversees the federal pipeline safety program and the federal role in pipeline security, key issues of focus may be pipeline agency staff resources, automatic pipeline shutoff valves, penalties for 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 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: January 9, 2013
Number of Pages: 38
Order Number: R41536
Price: $29.95

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