Boxer & DiFi introduce new pipeline safety bill

California’s U.S. Senators introduced a bill today to strengthen pipeline oversight and increase penalties when federal pipeline regulations are violated, inspired by last September’s deadly San Bruno gas pipeline blast that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

It’s similar to a bill the Senators introduced last September; S.3824 was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation but was never heard before the 111th Congress drew to a close.

The new Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2011, however, also would enforce recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released in early January.

“We must make sure the system of pipelines crisscrossing our country is safe. Americans shouldn’t have to worry that the pipes beneath their feet will suddenly explode, and no neighborhood should have to endure the tragedy that befell San Bruno,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a news release. “That is why we are introducing legislation that will improve the safety of pipelines and increase penalties for those who violate federal regulations.”

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer said while San Bruno residents recover and rebuild, “we must do everything we can to protect our communities by increasing inspections of our nation’s pipelines while setting tougher penalties for safety violations.”

The legislation would:

  • double the number of federal pipeline safety inspectors.
  • require deployment of electronic or remote-control valves capable of automatically shutting off the gas in a fire or other emergency.
  • mandate the use of inspection devices called “smart pigs” or an inspection method certified by the Secretary of Transportation as equally effective at finding corrosion.
  • require pipeline operators to establish a complete record of pipeline components in order to verify the “maximum allowable operating pressure,” based on the weakest section of the pipeline. Pipelines with incomplete records must be pressure tested or replaced, and must operate at reduced pressure until testing is completed. This provision was recommended by the NTSB after it discovered serious problems with Pacific Gas and Electric’s record keeping during the investigation of the San Bruno explosion.
  • prohibit natural gas pipelines from operating at high pressure if they cannot be inspected using the most effective inspection technology.
  • prioritize old pipelines in seismic areas for the highest level of safety oversight.
  • direct the Transportation Department to set standards for natural gas leak detection equipment and methods; there are no uniform national standards for how to detect leaks now.
  • The bill also includes provisions that would increase civil penalties for safety violations; expand data collection to be included in the national pipeline mapping system; close jurisdictional loopholes to assure greater oversight of unregulated pipelines; and require consideration of a firm’s safety record when considering its request for regulatory waivers.

    Josh Richman

    Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.