May 24, 2024

Transportation Chief to Unveil Pipeline Safety Effort

“I want to be able to say to people, when you throw a light switch, you shouldn’t cause an explosion in your front yard,” the secretary, Ray LaHood, said in an interview. “We ought to have the decency to tell people there’s a pipeline in the front yard, if they want to know that.”

And pipeline owners will come under pressure to assure that their pipelines, mostly out of sight and out of mind, are safe, he said.

Mr. LaHood will announce the campaign in Allentown, Pa., where an explosion from a natural gas pipeline killed five people on Feb. 9.

In September, a 30-inch-diameter pipeline in San Bruno, Calif., exploded, killing eight people and burning down three dozen houses. Federal safety investigators, busy with the San Bruno catastrophe, said they did not have time to investigate the Allentown accident and would have to leave it to Pennsylvania officials.

And in July, a pipeline in Kalamazoo, Mich., ruptured and spilled more than a million gallons of a petroleum mixture derived from Canadian tar sands. The form of oil, which has become more popular as world prices have risen, is especially corrosive, according to Anthony R. Swift, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. But federal regulations have not caught up with this problem, he said.

Mr. LaHood is asking Congress to increase the civil penalties his department can levy on companies that violate pipeline rules — to $250,000 a day from the current $100,000, and to $2.5 million for a series of violations, up from $1 million. He also wants to close some regulatory loopholes, including those that allow some pipelines to escape any regulation at all.

Companies that drill natural gas wells often transfer the gas to high-pressure transmission hubs through pipes that are sometimes completely unregulated, experts say.

Deborah Nardone, a natural gas expert at the Sierra Club, said that to get permission to drill on private property, companies sometimes promise to deliver gas to the landowner’s home, and the pipe to the home is unregulated.

Despite the series of recent accidents, the Transportation Department says those that result in death or serious injury are down nearly 60 percent over the last 20 years. But some of the accidents reveal deep problems.

At San Bruno, for example, Pacific Gas and Electric did not understand what kind of pipe it had buried in the ground. Pipe fabrication flaws in the 1950s helped lay the groundwork for the accident, and more recent problems, including a poor understanding of the computers used to manage the system, may also have played a role.

Aging pipelines are also a problem. In Pennsylvania, according to the Transportation Department, some cast iron pipes laid in the 1930s do not legally have to be replaced until 2111, when they would be 180 years old. New York State has a requirement that its oldest cast iron pipes be replaced by 2090, but many are already decades old, according to the department.

Mr. LaHood said he had met with the executives of major natural gas companies to discuss better surveillance of pipelines and a new replacement schedule.

Cynthia L. Quarterman, the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said her office did not have the authority to order replacement of pipes unless it found an “imminent hazard.” And, she said, pipes only had to be “fit for service.”

“There is no hundred-year deadline for any piece of pipe,” she said, although companies “have to assure it’s been operated and tested appropriately.”

But Mr. LaHood said “the point of this is to get everybody around the table and say, O.K., another 100 years in the ground is not going to cut it. We’re trying to work with all the stakeholders to reach a conclusion.”

Mr. Swift, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “Part of the problem is there hasn’t been a focus on the replacement schedule, what we do with these 50 or 70 years down the line. People are aware it’s aging, but it’s a process we didn’t plan for gracefully.”

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