Representative from blast-hit California district says bill just 1st step

New York (Platts)

Pipeline safety legislation passed this week by both houses of Congress is a "modest step forward, a good step forward," but doesn't go far enough on some crucial safety concerns, said Rep. Jackie Speier, whose California district was the scene of a natural gas pipeline explosion in 2010 that killed eight people.

Speier, a Democrate, represents California's 12th Congressional District, which includes the city of San Bruno, south of San Francisco, where a Pacific Gas & Electric gas line blew up in September 2010. In addition to the eight deaths, another 70 were injured and 38 homes were destroyed.

Speaking on Platts Energy Week, Speier said the legislation passed this week--H.R. 2845, The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011--fails to address some of the most significant issues of pipeline safety.

"One of them is in-line leak inspections," said Speier, a Democrat. "The other is automatic and remote shut-off valves. The legislation we just passed says don't worry about older pipe, we're just going to look at newer pipe. And you only have to put automatic or remote shut-off valves when it is operations, technologically and economically feasible. Well, will it ever be economically feasible? It's a loophole that really doesn't exist."

The bill has not yet been signed by President Obama, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has lauded its passage. Speier also credited Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky with holding up the bill in the Senate, where it was beefed up to include maximum allowable operating pressure on pre-1970 pipe, which was not originally in the bill.

'REST EASIER' The US has more than 2.5 million miles of pipeline, carrying gas, oil and hazardous liquids. Since 2006, there have been an average of 40 pipeline incidents a year involving fatalites or injuries. In California since the San Bruno blast, Speier said, PG&E and the state Public Utilities Commission are moving beyond the requirements of the legislation.

"My constituents are going to rest easier because they are going to be the beneficiaries of safeguards that far exceed the legislation that we have just passed," she said. "In California, Pacific Gas & Electric has committed to putting automatic and remote shut-off valves on old pipe as well as new pipe in what are called high-consequence areas, in highly density areas and near seismic activity. So, in California there is going to be a higher level of safeguards than anywhere else in the country."

The California PUC has also boosted its safety efforts, shifting beyond its historical focus on rates, Speier said. "That has changed as a result of this horrific accident," she said. Describing the San Bruno blast, Speier said a fireball spewed into the air for 90 minutes before flow on the line was eventually shut. "If that had been turned off remotely in 10 minutes, what a difference it would have made," she said.

Speier's own pipeline safety legislation--H.R. 22, The Pipeline Safety and Community Empowerment Act of 2011--would require automatic and remote shut-off valves in high density areas. It also requires that pre-1970 pipe would be subject to safety requirements as well.

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