NY Times: Oil Companies Operating on 'Honor System' When It Comes to Pipeline Safety


Photo via: TarSandsAction Flickr CC.

Yesterday I posted about Randy Thompson, a Nebraska landowner who is fighting back against TransCanada and its plan to build the Keystone XL pipeline through his property and over the Ogallala aquifer. All along TransCanada and the pipeline's supporters have asked us to believe that because it has an incentive to prevent oil spills, TransCanada should be entrusted with the right to build the pipeline. After all, even if it slips up, the federal government's regulators will be watching, right?An explosive piece in today's New York Times has stripped away any last thoughts that the system is set up to protect the people. The article shows how the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the regulatory agency for pipeline operators, is understaffed and under assault from right leaning lawmakers who want to make it policy for the oil companies to be left to police themselves.

The Times' Dan Frosch and Janet Roberts lay out how the system really depends on the "honor system," since most of an oil pipeline is never inspected:

For example, the agency requires companies to focus their inspections on only the 44 percent of the nation's land-based liquid pipelines that could affect high consequence areas -- those near population centers or considered environmentally delicate -- which leaves thousands of miles of lines loosely regulated and operating essentially on the honor system. Meanwhile, budget limits and attrition have left the agency with 118 inspectors -- 17 shy of what federal law authorizes.

Pipeline operators, critics argue, have too much autonomy over their lines, and too much wiggle room when it comes to carrying out important safeguards, like whether to install costly but crucial automated shut-off valves.

"The system as it presently exists, I don't think it really protects the public," said Representative Corrine Brown of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the House transportation subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials. "Self-reporting doesn't work. We need additional rules and regulations to make sure we're doing what we're supposed to be doing to protect communities."

As Cherri Foytlin of the Gulf Coast told Tar Sands Action participants two weeks ago, if you think the oil companies have your interests at heart, just ask the people of Kalamazoo, Louisiana, Nigeria and Montana.

Tags: Oil Spill

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