Understaffed Agency Regulating Pipelines Depends on Oil Industry to Regulate Itself

Sunday, September 11, 2011
Oil Spill Cleanup, Yellowstone River July 2011 (photo: Jim Urquhart, Associated Press)
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), charged with overseeing nearly 170,000 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines in the United States, is coming under scrutiny in the wake of oil spills in Montana and Michigan, and the recent State Department approval of the controversial 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline which would carry oil sands crude from Canada to Texas.
PHMSA has been described as woefully understaffed and underfunded. It also has been accused of not levying enough fines on companies responsible for pipeline spills, and allowing industry to regulate itself too much of the time.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees the agency, wants Congress to bolster PHMSA’s budget and toughen penalties for negligent pipeline operators. But it remains to be seen if lawmakers worried about federal spending and under pressure from oil industry lobbyists, among others, will be willing to expand funding for the pipeline watchdog.
Companies say don’t focus on anecdotal episodes like last year’s natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people, or the Exxon Mobil Yellowstone River oil spill in July of this year caused by a ruptured pipeline that came weeks after a government review claimed the pipeline was safe. Instead they note that federal statistics show there were 25% fewer major pipeline spills from 2001 through 2010. However, there are still more than 100 spills a year.
With only 118 inspectors, the PHMSA has been forced leave 56% of the nation’s land-based liquid pipelines almost unregulated, even by the managing companies themselves. In the carefully chosen words of a PHMSA 2009 report, there were “some significant differences between what the company reports and an objective view of these events.”
-Noel Brinkerhoff, David Wallechinsky
Pipeline Spills Put Safeguards Under Scrutiny (by Dan Frosch and Janet Roberts, New York Times)


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