Feds halt private funds to study pipeline safety

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently moved to prevent industry groups from funding federal safety studies of onshore pipelines following an investigation by Hearst Newspapers that revealed the practice.

The investigation published Sunday found that over the last decade, two-thirds of the 174 safety studies of such pipelines initiated by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration received significant funding from pipeline operators or industry-controlled organizations.

LaHood's decision overturns a Bush-era rule that required at least half the funding for federal pipeline safety research to come from outside sources, in most cases.

"Credible, independent research is a crucial component of the Department of Transportation's safety agenda," department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said Monday. "This decision is the latest in a series of actions Secretary LaHood has taken to strengthen pipeline safety oversight and hold the industry accountable for managing safe pipelines."

Industry groups said the move will limit pipeline regulators' ability to support critical research on the nation's 2.3 million miles of pipelines carrying natural gas and hazardous liquids.

"I don't think that industry really has a vested interest in seeing a study slanted. Particularly, when they are looking at developing a better mousetrap, they have got as much interest or more than anyone in seeing it work well," John Erickson, vice president for operations at the American Public Gas Association.

Federal pipeline regulators began requiring that at least half of the funds used for safety research come from outside sources in 2002.

Critics of that policy have said it directed safety probes in directions that were palatable to industry.

Over the last decade, PHMSA focused half of its studies on preventing pipeline corrosion and damage from construction crews and outside parties, but few on problems linked to the nation's aging network of gas lines.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still trying to pinpoint what caused a deadly pipeline blast in San Bruno last September, though early reports showed weld defects on the decades-old line could have contributed to the failure. Eight people died in the explosion, dozens were injured, and 38 homes overlooking the San Francisco Bay were destroyed by fire.

A senior transportation official said the agency was evaluating how the new directive would be carried out and how it would apply to research already under way.