Chairman Rockefeller Remarks on Ensuring the Safety of Our Nation's Pipelines

June 24, 2010

JDR Head ShotWASHINGTON, D.C.—Over 2.5 million miles of pipeline transport natural gas, oil, and other materials across our country, supplying energy that helps power our factories, heat our homes, and fuel our cars, trucks, and planes. It is a relatively safe process, but we cannot ignore the fact that the materials are often flammable or toxic, and spills or releases can cause significant injury or even death—not to mention substantial environmental damage. Pipelines sometimes run close to populated communities and through fragile environments—with so much at stake we have a responsibility to make these systems as safe as we possibly can.

Over the past month we have seen natural gas pipeline explosions in Texas and oil pipeline spills in Alaska and Utah. These are not insignificant developments. In the northern panhandle of my state West Virginia, seven people were injured when a crew drilling a natural gas well in an abandoned coal mine struck and ignited a pocket of methane gas. This last accident did not involve a pipeline, they were drilling a well, but each incident underlines just how absolutely crucial it is to make safety a chief priority in industries that carry such inherent dangers—like those where natural gas and other hazardous liquids are involved.

It is enormously important that we continue to look for ways to further improve the safety of pipeline transportation. For example, at least two recent accidents were caused by third party excavation, still the leading cause of serious pipeline incidents that result in a death or injury requiring hospitalization.

The Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement, and Safety Act (PIPES Act) improved the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) authority to enforce one-call notification laws and created a grant program to support states’ damage prevention efforts. It is clear that we must do more to maximize the use of the one-call system and deter accidents caused by third-party excavation. This year, the Committee will begin work to reauthorize the PIPES Act. As we consider what changes to make in this reauthorization, we cannot lose sight that pipeline transportation safety is priority number one.

I firmly believe we must give PHMSA’s Office of Pipeline Safety the tools it needs to provide strong oversight, protect our communities and workers, and make pipeline transportation as safe as possible. I thank Senator Lautenberg for holding this hearing and look forward to hearing our witnesses’ thoughts on the state of pipeline safety.