Tougher pipeline bill to be unveiled


Associated Press

WASHINGTON — With time running short to pass a pipeline safety bill this year, a top House Democrat planned to introduce a bill today that is tougher on the oil and natural gas industry than legislation that already cleared the Senate.

The bill includes requirements for pipeline inspections every five years, tests of pipeline employees to ensure they are qualified and fines of $1,000 per barrel of pipeline oil that spills. Those provisions are not in the Senate bill.

The proposal by Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, comes as a split is developing among pipeline safety advocates in the closing days of the 106th Congress.

Some, including Washington state’s two senators, want Congress to pass the less expansive Senate bill with the idea of improving it in coming years.

Failure to pass the Senate bill, which has won the tepid acceptance of the pipeline industry, could mean that nothing will get enough support to pass in the roughly two weeks remaining before Congress adjourns for the year, the Senate bill advocates say.

"I just believe it’s very important to get something to the floor," said Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash.

But other lawmakers, including Oberstar and Washington state Democratic Reps. Jay Inslee, Adam Smith and Jim McDermott, said the short time remaining before Congress adjourns should not prevent passage of a more expansive bill.

Congress will reach agreements on multibillion-dollar spending bills, Inslee said, adding, "There’s no reason to think we cannot get agreement on a pipeline safety bill."

Lawmakers have been pushing for the tougher pipeline safety legislation since a Bellingham gasoline pipeline rupture and explosion last year left three youths dead. The efforts intensified after an Aug. 19 natural gas pipeline explosion in Carlsbad, N.M., killed 12 people.

The Senate bill, by John McCain, R-Ariz., would require pipeline operators for the first time to submit detailed plans to the federal Office of Pipeline Safety showing that the operators had conducted tests and taken other steps to make sure the pipelines are safe.

The operators also would be required to show the Department of Transportation office that they have trained the employees operating the pipelines. Fines for safety violations would be increased from $500,000 to $1 million.

But critics of the Senate bill, including environmentalists, organized labor and the parents of the Bellingham pipeline accident victims, say the measure is no improvement over the status quo.

They complain that the bill relies too much on the Office of Pipeline Safety for enforcement, an office that they say has a poor record in cracking down on the pipeline industry.

Lois Epstein, senior engineer for the group Environmental Defense, said passing a tougher pipeline safety bill next year is preferable to passing the Senate bill this year.

But others argue that if no bill passes this year, nothing may pass next year. A new Congress and new president could have pipeline safety far down their list of priorities, said Martin Edwards, director of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who along with Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., co-authored the McCain bill, said House members have criticized the Senate proposal but have yet to pass a measure of their own.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., has not yet said whether he wants to push the Senate bill or some other approach in the closing days of the session, a committee spokesman said.

Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Wash., whose district includes Bellingham, also has not said whether he favors the Senate bill or some other approach in the closing days.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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