A 2010 pipeline explosion in California that killed eight people, a pipeline disaster in Michigan that spilled 800,000 barrels of oil into sensitive waterways, and a pipeline explosion right here in Kentucky last week, are the kinds of accidents that have convinced all of the major pipeline industry associations, and Republicans and Democrats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, that pipeline safety regulations need to be updated -- except Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky). While rare bipartisan support has Congress all but ready to vote on and pass the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011, the Associated Press  and other news outlets report that Rand Paul is single-handedly blocking it in the Senate.
The conventional wisdom is that he is taking the opportunity to oppose the regulations on principle - wisdom that is bolstered by statements that he does not take issue with any specific provision of the bill.
The conventional wisdom has a leak, however, in that the death of this bill at Sen. Paul's hands will not prevent new pipeline safety regulations from going forward. Quite the contrary. The U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration [PHMSA] has already begun the process  of updating pipeline safety regulations and can complete that process without this bill from Congress. In fact, one reason the bill has so much support from industry and Congress is that it waters down the PHMSA's rulemaking ability and prevents it from addressing several critically important safety concerns.
Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Rep. Jackie Speier (all Democrats from California where the deadly explosion happened last year), have urged Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood to implement recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board that would, among other things, require new safety equipment on both old and new pipelines. The Senate bill only requires this equipment on newer pipelines, even though older pipelines are more at risk. According to the San Francisco Chronicle , Rep. Speier went so far as to say the Senate bill "is so modest, it doesn't begin to put the kind of safety requirements in place that are now in place in California as a result of the explosion in San Bruno.... The only solace I have is at least we're protecting Californians. I'd like to be in a position to protect all Americans."
With the new and improved -- and apparently much more liberal -- Rand Paul at the switch, it appears that Representative Speier may actually get the tougher regulations she seeks.
According to PHMSA data , "significant" pipeline incidents since 1991 have resulted in over 378 deaths, over 1,582 injuries, and nearly $5.5 billion dollars in property damage.
Photo: Courtesy of KRON 4 News.
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