Congress recently convened its third Committee Hearing on reauthorization of the Pipeline Safety Act, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Much of the discussion of focused on pipeline security, among other issues that have been discussed in prior hearings. Adding to the focus was the absence of an invited representative from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency who is tasked with sharing oversight of pipeline security with PHMSA. The TSA has come under criticism in light of a recent Government Accountability Office report that was critical of the agency’s Pipeline Security Division and its ability to ensure the safety and reliability of pipeline energy network from both cyber and physical security saboteurs. That report cited “significant weaknesses” in TSA’s program and pointed to, among other challenges, a shortage of qualified inspectors to address cyberattacks and other physical intrusions facing pipelines.
Days before the Hearing, several trade groups sent the House Committee on Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee a letter requesting additional appropriations for the Transportation Security Administration to carry out its responsibilities. Noted in that letter and at the Hearing was the fact that the TSA has only six full time employees tasked with its pipeline security oversight, which includes roughly 2.7 million miles of pipelines and associated facilities. Since the GAO report issued, the number of staff charged with oversight of pipelines has dropped to four. Industry argued that adding resources within TSA to support the pipeline program would allow the agency to better succeed in its mission, by referencing a 2013 staff that was twice the current size as well as recent appropriation bills for TSA that do not provide for an increased focus on pipeline cybersecurity oversight.
Some representatives at the Hearing questioned whether TSA was the right agency for the job, particularly in the light of the fact that it did not send a representative to the hearing. In response to critiques of TSA, industry is quick to point to voluntary efforts and public-private partnerships to ensure the security and reliability of their pipeline assets. While both PHMSA and TSA (and DOE) share authority over different aspects of pipeline security, TSA standards specific to cybersecurity have been voluntary to date.
Other pipeline safety issues of discussion touched upon leak detection, new technology, state participation in pipeline safety, possible revisions to clarify the citizen suit provision of the statute, cost-benefit analysis, and outstanding rulemakings. While Congress has now convened three reauthorization Committee hearings on the PSA, there has been only one bill introduced in the Senate (S. 1097) and one in the House (HR 2139) both by Democrats. The bills are identical and focus almost exclusively on distribution pipelines to address issues identified in the Merrimack Valley incident (with the exception of a proposal to increase civil penalty authority for all operators by a factor of 100). Ultimate reauthorization legislation, however, is sure to focus more broadly on other aspects of pipeline safety as indicated by the oral and written testimony submitted in conjunction with the hearings. In addition, several Senators and Representatives indicated they would be submitting follow up questions to the record to PHMSA, NTSB, and TSA, among others.