A brief history of federal pipeline safety laws

The following is excerpted from: Parker, Carol M., 2004. The Pipeline Industry Meets Grief Unimaginable: Congress Reacts with the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002, Natural Resources Journal, 44: 243-282. We encourage you to read the full article here (pdf, 2.3MB)

The first statute regulating pipeline safety was the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act of 1968, which Congress amended in 1976. Congress added liquid pipelines to the statute in the Pipeline Safety Act of 1979. Subsequent bills included the Pipeline Safety Reauthorization Act of 1988, the Pipeline Safety Act of 1992, the Accountable Pipeline Safety and Partnership Act of 1996, and now the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002.

Congress created the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) in 1968 to oversee and implement pipeline safety regulations. OPS is housed in the Department of Transportation (DOT) under the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) [now under the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)]. OPS oversees interstate pipelines while states are responsible for intrastate pipelines. Since its inception, OPS has had a poor record as a regulator. In 1978, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that OPS had weak enforcement, inaccurate records, and ineffective rules. Twenty-two years later, in 2000, the GAO produced another report that criticized the agency’s unwillingness to work with states and weak enforcement. GAO’s conclusions were reemphasized by the testimony received for the Pipeline Safety Act of 2002. There was much dissatisfaction with OPS. As of 2001, OPS did not have even a map of the pipelines it regulated. Additionally, OPS had the lowest implementation rate of NTSB recommendations (69 percent) of any agency in the Department of Transportation. Even the pipeline industry as a whole had a higher rate of implementation of NTSB recommendations (87 percent) than OPS. The NTSB, the DOT Inspector General, and even the American Petroleum Institute criticized the agency’s accident data collection methods. Recognition of the problems at OPS came from both houses of Congress. For example, Sen. Domenici (R-NM) stated, “Unfortunately the Office of Pipeline Safety has had a poor history of regulation and enforcement.” representatives Dingell (D-MI) and Oberstar (D-MN) criticized the agency’s failure to issue pipeline inspection regulations despite a six-year-old congressional law requiring them; Rep. Pascrell (D-NJ) complained, “there is little or no enforcement of existing regulations.”