WASHINGTON — With a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara County fresh on the minds of Californians, members of Congress voiced frustration Tuesday with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s failure to write and enforce more than a dozen safety regulations required by a 2011 law.
Though the investigation into that spill is ongoing, some in Congress are already criticizing the agency’s slow progress for worsening the situation in California.
“They may not have prevented this, but they would have made a difference,” Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, said Tuesday after a House Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing examining oil pipeline safety. Capps represents the stretch of California coast where the Plains All American Pipeline spill dumped more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil in May. “It’s unfortunate that we haven’t gotten further with communication between Congress and the regulatory agency, and also that they haven’t stepped to the plate faster.”
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., even deviated from his prepared statement at the hearing to address the link between the agency’s sluggish pace on new rules and the California spill.
“Some of these provisions, I am convinced, would have made a difference in the recent oil spill in Santa Barbara, had they been implemented by PHMSA in a timely manner,” Upton said.
His planned remarks, as distributed to reporters, said the provisions “probably” would have made a difference.
Federal officials will meet with Plains CEO Greg Armstrong on Friday in Washington, Stacy Cummings, the agency’s interim executive director, said during the hearing. Capps was not aware of Armstrong’s plans to come to Washington.
“He’s not in the habit of telling me what his travel plans are, I don’t think,” Capps said.
Cummings defended the amount of time it’s taken to act on 16 of 42 mandates that her agency admits it has not yet completed, as required by the Oversight of the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011. In-depth studies, public hearings and notices — all necessary parts of issuing a new regulation, Cummings said — have slowed the process of putting regulations in place.
“We do recognize that we do have a lot of work to do, and we are very, very focused on it,” she said. “We want to make sure we get it right. The methodical, open and transparent process enables us to do that.”
Capps originally asked for a congressional hearing at the site of the oil spill in California, but the logistical challenges of holding a hearing outside Washington blocked her plans.
Even before the hearing, members had criticized the agency, which regulates oil pipelines in the United States, for failing to meet the mandates.
Capps joined leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in sending a letter to the agency last month that cast doubts on its ability to manage pipeline safety.
“The administration has not fulfilled its duty to implement these requirements,” the letter said. “This lack of progress diminishes the public’s confidence in the ability of our nation’s leading safety and enforcement authority to administer its duties.”
One of the mandates that the agency has not yet fulfilled directs it to require remote or automatic shutoff valves on new pipelines. The Plains pipeline that failed in May did not include an automatic shutoff valve.
Some in the oil pipeline industry say automatic shutoff valves are not the solution, since unintended shutoffs would halt oil transportation and could damage pipelines.
But Dianne Black, Santa Barbara County assistant director for planning and development, testified that automatic shutoff systems in her county have not caused problems.
“I’ve heard the testimony from oil companies’ representatives that they don’t believe it’s the best practice and there’s some risk involved,” Black said. “That’s not been our experience. ... They’re more effective because they don’t require human intervention. They shut off based upon preset parameters so an operator isn’t having to make a decision.”
Capps, who proposed an amendment that passed last month to allocate $1 million toward creating a rule requiring automatic shutoff valves on all new pipelines, said federal pipeline oversight has been “weak and ineffective” for years.
“While PHMSA has certainly dragged its feet in implementing key reforms,” Capps said, “Congress has also failed to provide the agency with the resources it needs to meet growing demand.”
In addition to requiring automatic and remote shutoff technology, other congressional mandates that still need to be completed include requiring pipeline operators to evaluate and confirm the strength of untested lines and updating a map every two years of areas where pipeline accidents would have particularly devastating consequences.
In June, the pipeline safety agency issued proposals to tighten rules about how much time pipeline operators have to notify officials after an incident, as well as to expand requirements for excess flow valves, which restrict oil flow when pressure increases past a safe level.
The agency will publish more proposed rules before the end of the year, Cummings said.
But that’s not quick enough for Capps, who said she wants to see the remainder of the 42 mandates from 2011 fulfilled “tomorrow.” Asked about a realistic time frame, she said that’s a more difficult question to come to terms with.
“Each one makes a difference,” Capps said. “So somebody’s got to ride them.”