WASHINGTON – Legislators questioned federal officials Friday about their plans to tighten the country’s pipeline safety rules following numerous high-profile spills and explosions during the past year, asking whether the lead agency overseeing energy pipelines had been overly cozy with the industry.
The agency’s highest concern is public safety, and reform proposals pending before Congress will give the government the authority it needs to prevent accidents, Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told a congressional committee.
“Having spent time with the employees within the agency, I know they may have concerns about upper-level leadership but in terms of their commitment to the mission, it is the highest thing on their mind,” Quarterman testified at the hearing. “To a person, their concern is the safety of the public.”
It will likely be months before investigators determine what caused an oil pipeline to rupture near Billings, Mont., on July 1, spilling about 1,000 barrels of crude into the scenic Yellowstone River. The spill fouled dozens of miles of shoreline and backwaters.
Committee members also quizzed Quarterman and other panelists about a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas pipeline explosion last year in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people, injured many more and left 38 homes in smoking ruins.
Also mentioned was the rupture of an Enbridge Inc. pipeline in July of last year in southwest Michigan, which spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.
“The industry has been driving policy,” said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat whose district includes San Bruno. “We’ve got to make it safe for the consumers, for the ratepayers.”
Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, who chairs the Committee on Energy and Commerce, compiled a large list of witnesses including several members of the oil and gas industry, but testimony from ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. was postponed for a second hearing next Thursday.
Quarterman said the Montana accident has focused her agency’s attention on preventing pipeline failures.
She previously said it will likely be August or September before water levels in the river are low enough to exhume the section of damaged pipe responsible for the spill.
It could take two months after that before investigators identify a cause, and her agency won’t know for certain how large the leak was until it examines records at the company’s control room in Houston, she said at another congressional hearing Thursday.
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