Bush: Speed pipeline reviews
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- New natural gas pipelines would get faster reviews and approvals from federal regulators under a Bush administration proposal that has safety advocates worried that it could overwhelm their push for tougher oversight of the nation's 2 million miles of underground gas and oil pipes.
The plan, which could be introduced by Senate Republicans in early February, calls for an interagency task force to cut back on the time and money involved in getting permission for new pipelines, according to a copy of the draft legislation obtained by Gannett News Service.
The bill would also establish an accelerated research program to develop pipeline safety and inspection technology, which safety activists and the industry have called for. But the measure calls for ordering the Energy and Transportation departments to get input from pipeline industry groups when deciding research priorities, while leaving discretionary consultation with state pipeline safety officials, environmental organizations and other outside interest groups.
The Bush plan comes as safety activists have pushed to overhaul pipeline regulations, especially in the wake of fatal accidents in Bellingham and Carlsbad, N.M., in the past two years. Advocates of tougher oversight said the massive energy bill would make a good vehicle for the changes they want, such as independent safety standards or harsh fines for spills. So far, though, it includes only the call for more research.
"It seems in this draft, at least, the administration has failed to take the opportunity to stress the need for safety in pipelines and has in fact gone the other direction, away from making our pipelines more safe," said Brent Durbin, a spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray co-sponsored a pipeline safety bill last year with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that activists said was too watered down by industry lobbying to support.
White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said the administration would not comment on the energy proposal until it is formally released, but added that anything the White House put out would include methods for weaning the country from its dependence on foreign oil. He said the administration would wait to examine pipeline safety bills before commenting on them.
Many safety advocates have criticized the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, which is part of the Transportation Department, for failing to go after companies that violate safety regulations. With a weak watchdog, anything that speeds up the review of pipelines might prove dangerous, said Lois Epstein, an engineer with the public interest group Environmental Defense. Now, federal officials don't even have a comprehensive map of existing pipelines, making it hard to determine whether new ones are needed, she said.
"I'm worried about things being moved faster if it's going to mean that there's going to be less attention to environmental and safety issues," Epstein said after reviewing the draft energy bill. "That can be speeded up from a public perspective if you're comfortable that when the pipeline is there it's going to be done well, but of course people are going to slow down the process, because right now we don't have a system that comes anywhere near making the public feel that they're being protected."
House Democrats, who killed the Murray-McCain bill last fall because they didn't think it went far enough to promote safety, might try to get some of their provisions into the final energy package, said Jim Berard, a spokesman for Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., whose district includes Bellingham, also said the proposal raised concerns because it does not include new safety rules.
Martin Edwards, a lobbyist for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said he believed Senate Republicans would try to keep the safety measures separate from the energy bill. Another INGAA lobbyist, Gay Friedman, is on the panel that is advising the administration on energy issues.
The industry has given GOP lawmakers some feedback on the legislation, Edwards said. To meet growing energy needs, natural gas pipeline companies will have to spend $2.5 billion a year for the next decade on new pipe construction, he estimated. Speeding up the process could cut costs, and Edwards said safety would not be compromised.
But if the energy draft does become law without new safety legislation, "you have the worst possible situation for us," Epstein said.
"You have speeded up efforts to put in new pipelines with absolutely no guarantee that pipeline safety is going to be improved," she said.