After spill, Montana senators float pipeline safety proposal

The Hill

by Andrew Restuccia

Montana Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Jon Tester (D) floated legislation this week aimed at preventing another pipeline accident like the one that spewed thousands of gallons of oil into a river in the state last month.

It’s the latest effort by lawmakers to ratchet up pipeline safety in the aftermath of a string of recent pipeline accidents.

The Baucus-Tester bill would require that federal pipeline regulators review safety rules for pipelines near rivers, boost leak detection standards and update oil spill response plans.

The bill is a response to a July Exxon Mobil pipeline spill that dumped an estimated 50,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana.

“Montanans have the right to all the information possible about pipelines and their safety,” Tester said in a statement. “Since seeing the Yellowstone River spill, it’s clear we must have more transparency and accountability. This bill adds public input, improves safety procedures and gives our first responders the information they need to do their jobs.”

The Exxon Mobil spill followed two major pipeline accidents that have gained national attention in recent months. A natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, Calif., last September, killing eight people. Last summer, a pipeline spill dumped about 800,000 gallons of oil into a Michigan waterway.

The incidents come amid an ongoing State Department review of TransCanada’s massive proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil sands from Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf coast.

Environmental and public lands groups have long objected to the proposal, raising the prospect of oil spills along the pipeline. They have also raised concerns about greenhouse-gas intensive oil sands production.

A series of recent leaks at TransCanada’s existing Keystone pipeline have exacerbated opposition to the proposed project.

House Republicans have nonetheless pushed for the speedy approval of the pipeline project, passing legislation last month to force an Obama administration decision on the proposal by Nov. 1.

At the same time though, the House GOP has pressed for pipeline safety reforms.

A panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bipartisan pipeline safety bill last month that would require improved leak detection, mandate the use of automatic or remote shutoff valves and set a one-hour time limit for operators to report incidents to a national response center.

The bill won quick praise from pipeline safety advocates.

“We are happy, and a little surprised, that this committee has worked together in such a bipartisan manner to move pipeline safety forward in a variety of ways,” Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said at the time.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved similar pipeline safety legislation authored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and others in May.

While both chambers are moving forward with pipeline safety bills, it’s unclear how soon the legislation could come up on the House or Senate floors.