Obama oil pipeline rules face uncertain future
Billings, Mont. — President Barack Obama’s administration is expected to push through long-delayed safety measures for the nation’s sprawling network of oil pipelines in its final days, despite resistance from industry and concern that incoming president Donald Trump may scuttle them.
The measures are aimed at preventing increasingly frequent accidents such as a 176,000-gallon spill that fouled a North Dakota creek earlier this month. Thousands more accidents over the past decade caused $2.5 billion in damages nationwide and dumped almost 38 million gallons of fuels.
Fights over pipelines have intensified in recent years, illustrated by the dispute over TransCanada’s Keystone XL plan and efforts by American Indians to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from crossing beneath the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
The U.S. Department of Transportation proposal covers roughly 200,000 miles of lines that crisscross the country and carry crude, gasoline and other hazardous liquids.
Environmental and safety advocates have criticized the agency’s commitment to tightening oversight of that network after a key safety feature — automatic valves that quickly shut down ruptured lines — was omitted from a draft rule published in 2015.
Further revisions sought by the petroleum industry could make the rule largely ineffective, said Carl Weimer with the Pipeline Safety Trust. But keeping the proposal intact would expose it to a legal challenge or reversal by a Republican-controlled Congress and Trump, an enthusiastic advocate for fossil fuels whose administration would enforce the new safety provisions, Weimer added.
“We already viewed it as an incremental step. If they water it down at all or extend the timelines, it’s going to be an even smaller step,” he said.
Regulators began crafting the new rule after a 2010 Michigan pipeline break released almost 1 million gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River. It’s languished amid industry criticisms, interventions from Congress and the bureaucratic inertia of the federal regulatory process.
A recent boom in domestic drilling saw accident rates for pipelines increase by roughly a third. The number of hazardous liquid pipeline accidents in the U.S. increased from 350 in 2010 to 462 in 2015.
The Transportation Department proposal calls for tougher inspection and repair criteria, leak detection systems on more lines and other measures to cut risk. Companies also would be required to inspect lines after flooding or other extreme events, a provision adopted after a 2011 ExxonMobil pipeline break spilled 63,000 gallons of crude into Montana’s Yellowstone River.
It’s currently under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.