Peters to lead panel overseeing pipeline safety, auto regulation

Washington — U.S. Sen. Gary Peters has been selected to chair the Senate subcommittee that oversees the federal agencies responsible for pipeline safety and for crafting guidance for self-driving vehicles and technology.

Peters of Bloomfield Township will be the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Maritime, Freight and Ports.

The senator's office noted the panel oversees several key areas for Michigan, including the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Peters has previously worked with the agency, known as PHMSA, in flagging concerns regarding Line 5.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, in October 2020.

Line 5 owner Enbridge Energy has been battling to reverse Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's plan to shut down the operation where it crosses the Straits of Mackinac.

Canada opposes closure, but President Joe Biden's Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg advocated for the opposite when running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Peters has also called for the removal of the aging Line 5, citing its structural integrity and Enbridge’s "failures and inability to be transparent with Michiganders."

“We already know how a pipeline spill in Michigan can have long-term and damaging consequences," Peters said in a statement.

"A pipeline spill in the Straits of Mackinac would be catastrophic for Michigan — we must do everything we can to protect the Great Lakes for future generations, and I look forward to continuing to work with PHMSA through my subcommittee chairmanship.”

Peters' subcommittee is also responsible for oversight of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees traffic safety and vehicle performance standards.

Peters has long pressed for a federal framework that would allow for greater deployment of autonomous vehicles. 

Federal safety guidelines still require most vehicles to be built to accommodate human drivers, featuring steering wheels and pedals. It's possible for automakers and tech companies that are developing AVs to seek small-scale exemptions to the rules, but there is no path for large-scale testing and development. 

That's a concern to Peters and others, who see the U.S. in a tight race with foreign competitors — particularly, China — to corner the AV market. 

Policymakers also highlight the potential safety benefits of widespread AV deployment; experts say the vehicles are capable of preventing tens of thousands of deaths annually because more than 90% of crashes are the result of human error. 

“We must position ourselves as the global leader in automotive innovation for the future, and that means ensuring we have up-to-date guidelines so that self-driving vehicles can be safely deployed, consumers can be protected and these life-saving technologies can be developed and built in the United States,” Peters said.

“I’ve been encouraged by my conversations with President Biden’s administration, and I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues on a framework that will strengthen the American auto industry and autoworkers while prioritizing safety and innovation.”

NHTSA also oversees fuel economy standards for the auto industry, which set standards for how many miles-per-gallon a vehicle must be able to drive. Biden has directed the agency to revisit the standards, which were rolled back under the Trump administration.