A pipeline safety bill passed the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent Oct. 17. It assesses new fees on the natural gas industry and requires modernization of the nation’s aging gas distribution system under stepped up federal oversight. Calling the legislation “long-overdue,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said that the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011, S 275, would set “safeguards such as verifying pipeline records, establishing maximum operating pressure, and allowing inspections and penalties to ensure that the law is followed.” She called the bill especially important in light of the nation’s aging pipeline system. The legislation passed after the Pacific Gas & Electric gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno last year. Federal investigators found PG&E was responsible for the accident due to a whole series of failures. They also found that federal and state oversight of the utility was too lax (Current, Sept. 2, 2011). The federal legislation, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), was featured during an Oct. 18 hearing by the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Subcommittee on Surface Transportation & Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, & Security. Pipe Safety Trust vice president Rick Kessler said the legislation is needed because the problems that caused PG&E’s San Bruno accident are “pervasive” throughout the gas industry. Federal pipeline safety officials, PG&E, and industry trade groups endorsed the legislation, mirrored by a similar bill still pending in the House. “We at PG&E support it,” utility gas operations vice president Nick Stavropoulos told lawmakers. Gas trade group executives joined him in applauding the legislation. Stavropoulos also pointed out that California already is moving to set up the most stringent gas pipeline standards in the nation after the San Bruno blast. The requirements are outlined in five separate bills enacted into law earlier this month. A California Public Utilities Commission staffer added that the federal legislation doesn’t require “anything the CPUC doesn’t already have teed up in its rulemaking or in the five state bills.” Sen. Barbara Boxer criticized the federal Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for not doing enough under its emergency authority to require the industry to undertake many of the steps Lautenberg’s bill seeks to require. Boxer also lambasted the Administration for inadequate oversight of the CPUC’s enforcement of gas pipeline safety regulations before the San Bruno disaster. Cynthia Quarterman, Safety Board administrator, said that limited staffing at the federal agency has been an ongoing issue. Lautenberg said the new fees in his bill would boost staffing levels for pipeline regulation The New Jersey Democrat’s bill includes a number of provisions, including: -Strength-testing for previously untested natural gas transmission pipelines in high-population areas that operate at high pressure, which also is covered by the CPUC and new California state laws; -Verifying records to confirm pipelines’ physical and operational characteristics and their established maximum allowable operating pressure, also covered in California; -Additional pipeline inspectors and pipeline safety support employees through a phased-in increase over four years, which also are being added at the state level under the new California bills; -Requiring pipeline operators to report all maximum allowable operating pressure exceedances to the Department of Transportation, similar to new California requirements requiring such reports; -Increasing the cap on federal civil penalties for violators of pipeline regulations and adding civil penalties for obstructing investigations, similar to a higher state penalty limit under the recently enacted legislation; -Installing automatic or remote-control shut-off valves on new pipelines, also now required in California; -Establishing time limits on accident and leak notifications by pipeline operators to local and state government officials and emergency responders; -Increasing public availability of pipeline information, inspections, and standards by requiring that they be made available online; -Eliminating all exemptions given to local and state government agencies and their contractors on notifying “One-Call” centers before digging; and -Expanding excess flow valve requirements to include multi-family buildings and small commercial facilities. The Senate quickly passed the bill after Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)--a libertarian Tea Party member who opposes regulation--lifted a hold, effectively ending a filibuster.