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Pipeline Safety Act Deters New Safety Regulations On Natural Gas Pipelines

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last fall, a series of gas fires north of Boston destroyed homes and even killed a person. Since then, federal lawmakers have been calling for new safety regulations on pipelines, but they've been considered for years and gone nowhere. Craig LeMoult of member station WGBH explains one reason why.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Calls flooded emergency dispatchers the night of September 13 as dozens of fires erupted across Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Mass.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We've got a fire on the second floor. We've got people in there. We're going in to get them out.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We just had a house blow up.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There's something wrong with the gas lines. We've got fires everywhere.

LEMOULT: A preliminary investigation said the fires were caused by an over-pressurized gas distribution line. In a Senate field hearing two months later, Senator Ed Markey laid much of the blame for the disaster on the agency charged with regulating the natural gas industry, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA.

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ED MARKEY: This agency often takes many years to issue required regulations, dragging its feet while our communities remain in danger.

LEMOULT: In fact, members of Congress have been calling on PHMSA to pass new safety regulations ever since another catastrophe in 2010.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Dozens of homes destroyed after a huge explosion last night. It was a...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Flames roared some 60 feet into the air as...

LEMOULT: In San Bruno, Calif., eight people were killed, and 35 homes were destroyed when a gas transmission line ruptured. After that, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a range of new rules. Carl Weimer heads the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust.

CARL WEIMER: PHMSA, the federal regulators, came up with the mega rule. And it included a whole bunch of those fixes like better leak detection, better automated valves, better risk assessments. They came out with the first draft of that rule in 2011, and they still haven't passed any of it yet.

LEMOULT: A third of the people on the advisory committee that reviews newly proposed PHMSA regulations represent the gas pipeline industry. And Weimer says those members are armed with an unusual tool to stop new regulations. When the federal Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act was reauthorized in 1994, Republicans worked in a provision that says new safety regulations can be added only if it can be shown the cost is justified by the benefits. University of Arkansas professor Sara Gosman is on that committee that advises PHMSA on new regulations.

SARA GOSMAN: And because we have that requirement, people can then sue and challenge the rule. It really constrains what the agency is able to do.

LEMOULT: She says the industry members on the committee have no problem coming up with the cost side of the equation.

GOSMAN: The tricky side is the benefits side.

LEMOULT: Because it's hard to quantify the benefits of something rare and potentially unprecedented not happening. In a written statement, a PHMSA spokesperson said the agency has proposed a range of regulations that are currently under review. And Christina Sames of the American Gas Association says the industry does support improving safety.

CHRISTINA SAMES: However, we have questioned, is it technically feasible to do what you're asking; is there a more reasonable approach to meet the goal?

LEMOULT: She points out the costs are ultimately paid for by gas customers. Massachusetts and other states have passed their own more stringent rules about pipelines. But more than eight years after the San Bruno explosion, Sara Gosman still doesn't expect her advisory committee to push through new federal safety regulations.

GOSMAN: No, not if Congress doesn't take it upon itself to change the statute that makes PHMSA's job so difficult.

LEMOULT: Congress could choose to do that this year. The Pipeline Safety Act is once again up for renewal, and some lawmakers say this time they plan to examine whether the cost-benefit requirement benefits the industry over public safety. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.