WASHINGTON — Despite industry backing and bipartisan support, legislation to improve pipeline safety is being delayed by Sen. Rand Paul, who contends it shouldn’t be given expedited Senate consideration because it contains new federal regulations.
He also criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for mismanaging the legislative process in an effort to pass the bill quickly.
“I believe legislation should have open debate and votes,” Paul, R-Ky., said in a statement Wednesday. “It need not take weeks. Certainly we could spend an afternoon for the people’s elected representatives to discuss whether they got massive new regulations right.”
The Senate’s Democratic leaders want the bill passed using a fast-track procedure — with no debate and a voice vote when many senators might not even be present — that would allow them to spend most of the dwindling time left in this session on legislation aimed at job creation.
But such speedy passage of bills requires unanimous consent, and Paul is the lone member objecting.
Senate leaders could overcome Paul’s objections by considering the bill under normal Senate procedures — requiring 60 votes to cut off debate. But to do so would require more time.
At issue this time is the reauthorization, through 2014, of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an agency that oversees the nation’s 2.5 million miles of oil, gas and hazardous materials pipelines.
The reauthorization bill, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Jay Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, includes several new safety provisions adopted after some major pipeline accidents, including one last year in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people and injured dozens more. Since 2006, an average of 40 pipeline accidents each year have caused fatalities or injuries.
Paul said in his statement that “absolutely nothing in the current bill would have prevented the recent pipeline problems, or would have prevented the tragedy in San Bruno last year.”
“The bill puts in place new mandates; it hires new bureaucrats,” he said. “But it doesn’t properly diagnose the problem, and it grandfathers in the very pipelines that have had recent problems. It makes no sense. As a doctor, I find it offensive to rush through treatment when you haven’t diagnosed the problem properly.”
Among the new safety steps are increased civil penalties for violating pipeline regulations, new civil penalties for obstructing investigations, additional safeguards for digging around utilities, requirements for shut-off valves in new pipelines, and additional pipeline inspectors and safety experts.
“While our pipeline system is largely safe, when accidents occur the consequences can be catastrophic,” Lautenberg said in a statement in May. “This bill would help to ensure the safety and efficiency of our pipeline network.”
The bill was approved unanimously in May by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and sent to the Senate. Paul is not on that committee.
In a July 26 letter to senators, the industry groups said “our organizations support continuous improvement in pipeline safety. (The Lautenberg-Rockefeller bill) would provide legal support for important ‘next steps’ in improving safety.”
The new regulations proposed in the bill would be subject to risk-assessment and cost-benefit analysis, the groups said, adding that the pipeline safety program “is completely paid for by industry — not taxpayers.”
“We thought (the bill) provided a reasonable framework and good congressional guidance for the regulators to go ahead and proceed down a path that would enhance pipeline safety over time,” said Jerry Morris, president and CEO of Southern Star Central Gas Pipeline Inc. in Owensboro, who spoke to Paul about the matter in a June meeting in Owensboro.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., supports the pipeline bill, but also defends Paul.
“Senator McConnell believes that every senator has the right to ask for sufficient time to review important legislation,” said spokesman Robert Steurer.
Paul insisted he was not a roadblock.
“The Senate can deal with and likely pass the new pipeline regulations bill,” he said. “In fact, they could have done so at any time since this bill has been ready since July. Time could have been scheduled for debate and votes during any one of the many weeks we sit here all week with few votes.
“The fact is Senate Democrat leaders woefully mismanage the process in the Senate, leaving days and weeks of ineffectively used time, then asserting that bills need to pass with no debate or vote at all,” Paul said.
Given the broad support for the bill, Reid apparently would have the 60 votes needed to overcome Paul’s opposition, but it could take additional time for passage.