Feds turn to YouTube to beg for safer pipelines


When it comes to the future of oil and gas pipelines in America, we seem to be talking past one another. With production of North American oil and natural gas skyrocketing, thanks to unconventional techniques such as fracking as well as exploitation of Canadian tar sands, Big Oil needs ways to get all that product to market. That’s led to increased use of rail — and also more rail accidents — but the industry’s main goal is to build new pipeline, including the proposed massive Keystone XL project from Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

But as environmentalists are quick to note, the current pipeline system we have is already prone to accidents and malfunctions — such the dramatic ExxonMobil Pegasus oil pipeline spill that trashed an entire community in Arkansas this spring. Other accidents have damaged natural treasures like the Yellowstone River.

Caught in the middle of all this are the regulators. Are the government watchdogs up to the task? This report from the Pulitzer Prize-winning news service, Inside Climate News, should alarm you:

 Jeffrey Wiese, the nation’s top oil and gas pipeline safety official, recently strode to a dais beneath crystal chandeliers at a New Orleans hotel to let his audience in on an open secret: the regulatory process he oversees is “kind of dying.”

Wiese told several hundred oil and gas pipeline compliance officers that his agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA), has “very few tools to work with” in enforcing safety rules even after Congress in 2011 allowed it to impose higher fines on companies that cause major accidents.

“Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty? No,” he said.

Because generating a new pipeline rule can take as long as three years, Wiese said PHMSA is creating a YouTube channel to persuade the industry to voluntarily improve its safety operations. “We’ll be trying to socialize these concepts long before we get to regulations.”

This is beyond farcical. As the article notes, President Obama has assured the nation that if the Keystone XL project is approved, as appears likely, then Americans can count on strict regulation. Posting a video to the Internet urging Big Oil CEOs to be good is simply not going to cut it. As an environmental lawyer who’s done battle with the oil giants inside a courtroom for nearly a quarter century, I can assure you that there’s only one way to make these people behave — and that’s to hit them where it hurts…in the wallet.

What do our pipeline-safety watchdogs need? First and foremost, they need more money; as the article notes, funding for federal regulators has remained flat over the last three years, as the tea party-dominated Congress has ignored pleas from the White House to increase the agency’s budget. What’s more, the new boom in domestic energy production cries out for tougher regulations, but again that would require Washington to somehow grow a spine. We need leadership from the top. I’ve been urging President Obama to reject the Keystone XL proposal; the failure to guarantee its safety isn’t the only reason, but it’s a damn good one.

To read more about pipeline safety from Inside Climate News, please go to: http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20130911/exclusive-pipeline-safety-chief-says-his-regulatory-process-kind-dying

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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