Plains ordered to act as Congress criticizes regulators for pace of pipeline fixes
By Jennifer A. Dlouhy | July 14, 2015
By Jennifer A. Dlouhy | July 14, 2015
WASHINGTON - Federal regulators on Tuesday ordered Plains All American Pipeline to probe a pump station failure that caused 4,200 gallons of oil to leak in Illinois, even as lawmakers blasted the government for moving too slowly to impose critical safeguards that could limit the impact of such spills.
The stalled reforms include regulations governing how quickly companies must notify authorities after a pipeline spill, leak detection systems and the use of automatic and remote-control shut-off valves that can be triggered in emergencies to swiftly halt flowing oil and natural gas. All told, more than a dozen of the 42 mandates Congress gave the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in a 2011 law remain unfinished, lawmakers said Tuesday.
"Some of these provisions, I am convinced, would have made a difference in the recent oil spill in Santa Barbara had they been implemented by PHMSA in a timely manner," said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich. And with more oil and gas flowing through the United States' sprawling pipeline network, "the urgency for pipeline safety is greater than ever."
Federal and state authorities are still investigating the May 19 accident in California that Upton cited. More than 100,000 gallons of oil escaped Plains' Line 901, and some of it reached the Pacific Ocean.
The pipeline agency is also looking into the most recent pipeline accident involving Houston-based Plains, triggered Friday morning by the failure of a fitting inside a pump station in Illinois. In its order to Plains on Tuesday, the agency said the company must get third-party metallurgical and mechanical assessments of the failed fitting and analyze the root cause of the incident.
The pipeline agency ordered Plains to keep its Capwood Pipeline offline indefinitely during the tests and said the company must determine if any activities in its Texas control room contributed to the size of the leak. In detailing preliminary results of its own investigation, the agency documented failed attempts by workers in the control room to close a valve in the system. Oil had already stopped flowing, but the agency said that "valve closure did not occur as intended."
In a statement, Plains said it would fulfill all the steps outlined by the agency, adding its goal is to have no such incidents and will "use the learnings from this and other incidents to get closer to achieving this goal."
'We share your concern'
On Capitol Hill, the pipeline agency's interim director, Stacy Cummings, sought to assuage lawmakers.
"We share your concern and sense of urgency," Cummings told the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. "We have a plan to complete every one of these mandates."
But Cummings did not provide a schedule for action, disappointing Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., who called her responses "evasive."
"I want to restore the trust of the American public," McKinley said. "What do we have to do?"
'Lack of action'
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., singled out the "lack of action" on automatic and remotely controlled shut-off valves two decades after federal accident investigators recommended their expanded use.
Upton cited the agency's slow work on a 2011 mandate to require companies to quickly notify authorities of oil spills. The agency proposed a notification rule on July 7 that would give companies no more than an hour to report incidents to the National Response Center. It was a relatively "easy" rule, Upton said. "Why did it take so long?"
Cummings stressed that the agency has not waited on the rule-making process to act, by launching studies, issuing reports and holding workshops with the industry.
And Carl Weimer, executive director of the not-for-profit advocacy group Pipeline Safety Trust, noted that "there is plenty of blame" to go around.
"While PHMSA is certainly the easiest target since they have been slow to produce the required reports and regulations," he said, "they lack the financial and personnel resources needed to complete their mission in a timely manner."
Pipeline operators have already taken voluntary steps to boost safety, stressed Don Santa, president of the International Natural Gas Association of America. But he said the slow regulatory timeline discourages some voluntary changes by companies wary of making investments now that might not "be consistent with the final rules adopted by PHMSA."