Republican and Democratic lawmakers are considering plans that could spur major upgrades to the nation's aging energy pipelines, driven by a string of recent oil spills, deadly natural gas blasts and what they call federal regulators' inaction.
Since last summer, major pipeline accidents have destroyed neighborhoods in California and Pennsylvania and fouled waterways in Montana and Michigan. That's shaken confidence in the system and exposed gaps in oversight of the sprawling network of underground pipelines.
Now, politicians from both parties are pushing measures that would tighten control of the industry, which currently gives companies broad leeway to make sure their pipelines are running safely. The new ideas include using modern technologies to detect leaks and shut down pipes during emergencies, replacing aging cast-iron pipes and tightening rules for pipeline stream crossings, all problems exposed in recent ruptures and explosions.
"The fact of the matter is we have pipelines almost every-damn-where," said Democratic U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who introduced a pipeline safety bill with many of those elements last week with his Republican colleague, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, also of Michigan. "They're running through parks and refuges, in rural America and in the middle of cities and in this mobile society the risk grows all the time."
Industry representatives vow to push back against technology mandates they describe as unworkable, and they oppose new rules for tens of thousands of unregulated pipelines in oil and gas fields.
As Congress prepares to hold what are likely to be vigorous debates over the various pipeline safety bills this fall, regulators say they are taking a close look at how to improve their oversight of the industry. Lawmakers hope to have rules in place by next year.
So far, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration has been addressing longstanding safety concerns through the slow regulatory process, which requires agencies to give companies months of warning and allow public comment before tightening the screws on inspection regimes or safety requirements.
Last year, the agency announced plans to craft new rules for pipelines carrying hazardous liquid fuels, such as the broken Exxon Mobil pipeline that spilled an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil into the flooding Yellowstone River last month. Pipeline safety head Cynthia Quarterman has since recommended more oversight over the thousands of low flow pipelines within the nation's oil and gas fields, and officials also are writing another rule to boost scrutiny of gas transmission lines.
Sen. Jon Tester, who introduced a pipeline safety bill Tuesday with fellow Montana Democrat Max Baucus, said he was dismayed that the agency could not immediately say how many pipelines that ferry hazardous fuels cross the nation's rivers and streams, nor how deeply those pipelines are buried.
That information is crucial so that other waterways can be evaluated in the wake of the Yellowstone spill, said Tester, whose bill would require federal authorities to review all existing data surrounding crossings in the next six months.
"It's their bailiwick and it's their failure, whether that's due to Congress not giving them what they need for resources or they didn't use the resources they have adequately," Tester said.
After Tester's inquiry, pipeline safety officials estimated two weeks ago that there are 35,000 river, stream and lake crossings within the country's half-million-mile network of natural gas and hazardous liquid transmission pipelines, but the agency could not pinpoint the locations.
No further details have been made available.
Officials said a review of pipeline crossings in the Missouri River basin in Montana and Wyoming is ongoing and there are plans to expand that effort nationwide, given new concerns that other underwater pipelines may have been exposed to debris by high and fast-moving waters that swept much of the U.S. this year.
And as the one-year anniversary of the deadly Sept. 9 San Bruno blast approaches, public pressure is mounting for regulators to fine Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for poor management leading up to the explosion that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
The scrutiny stemming from the industry's high-profile accidents coincides with the need for Congress to re-authorize the last significant pipeline safety rules, adopted in 2006.
Pieces of the various bills being considered are in line with what the industry wants, said Andy Black, president of the Association of Oil Pipelines, a Washington-based industry group. But Black added that Congress risked overreacting to recent accidents and making technological decisions that are better left to operators. He singled out a provision on leak detection systems, saying pipelines companies needed the flexibility to use the techniques that work best for them.
"There is momentum from some of the high-profile accidents," Black said. "We want to be sure our regulators are told by Congress to work on real causes of pipeline failures, and not what somebody thinks a week or two after a pipeline accident."
Safety advocates said recent accidents had put the industry on the defensive.
Carl Weimer, executive director of the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust, said lawmakers had been forced to offer "something that passed the straight-face test," given public outrage over accident-related deaths and oil leaks.
"It's obviously they've looked at recent tragedies and are trying to move things along to prevent them from happening again, but I'm not sure that anyone who has gone through a tragedy will feel that this is enough," said Weimer, whose group was formed after a ruptured line spilled more than 225,000 gallons of gasoline into creeks running through a public park in Bellingham, Wash. and killed three people.