Legislation to give the U.S. Dept. of Transportation broader authority for oil and gas pipeline safety has cleared Congress and will soon be on President Obama's desk. Final action came on June 13, when the Senate unanimously approved the measure, just five days after the House had passed it, also unanimously. 

The bipartisan Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety, or PIPES, Act, directs DOT to write the first federal “minimum safety standards” for underground natural-gas storage facilities.

It also gives DOT the ability for the first time to impose “restrictions, prohibitions and safety measures” on multiple pipelines in the case of an “imminent hazard.”

In addition, the bill reauthorizes DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), providing $605 million over four years.

Moreover, the legislation takes steps to prod PHMSA to complete regulations mandated by the last major pipeline bill, enacted in 2011, a provision that industry endorsed.

PHMSA has only completed slightly more than half of the 42 regulations that the 2011 law said it should produce, according to the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Energy and Commerce Committees.

The Associated General Contractors of America has supported the PIPES Act, spokesman Brian Turmail said in an email. He said AGC is “glad that the need to keep construction workers safe during the digging process continues to enjoy bipartisan support and will work to ensure the measure’s final passage and enactment.”

The Senate had passed a different pipeline bill in March. But Martin Edwards, vice president for legislative affairs at the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), said in an interview that Senate staffers consulted with House aides as they drafted the new bill. That clearly paved the way for the Senate's fast approval of the House-passed measure.

A important provision in the bill is its new standards for underground gas storage facilities, a provision spurred by last year’s gas leak at a Southern California Gas underground  storage site at Aliso Canyon near Los Angeles.

The leak began in October and wasn’t shut until February. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the leak emitted an estimated 97,100 metric tons of methane. That lead to the evacuation of some 7,000 families, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said before the House vote.

Edwards says INGAA hopes that, as PHMSA writes the new safety requirements for gas storage facilities, it will draw on consensus standards and “best practices” that industry has developed after four years of discussion and drafting.

The emergency-order authority is another notable change from the status quo. Edwards says that PHMSA now has the ability to issue orders to operators of an individual pipeline to reduce or halt its operation until a problem is rectified. But, he adds, the PIPES Act provision would allow the agency to issue an emergency order to multiple pipelines at the same time.

But the legislation also says that, before PHMSA issues an emergency directive, it must consider the order’s impact on public health and safety, the local or regional economy and energy service. Edwards also notes that the PIPES Act allows industry to seek reviews of the emergency directives by a DOT administrative judge or by federal district courts.

Turmail says AGC is pleased that the bill includes state damage-prevention grants, which fund programs that affect contractors.

He also says the association also is “definitely intrigued” by a provision calling for a DOT study of how technologies, such as global positioning system digital mapping, can prevent damage to pipelines caused by excavation. Turmail notes, “We will be monitoring that one to see how effective that tactic is.”

Story updated and revised on June 13, with Senate vote.