EDITOR'S NOTE: This account of the Senate hearing is courtesy of the New England Fuel Institute.
Last year's San Bruno, Calif., disaster and other recent natural gas safety incidents received high-profile Congressional attention on October 18. "There are a lot of reasons to worry about this, and there are a lot of reasons to continue to do extraordinary due diligence on this issue" said Sen. Feinstein (D-CA) before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee. Her colleague, Sen. Boxer (D-CA) said that "most disturbing of all, this accident and this tragic loss of life were entirely preventable." The natural gas explosion killed eight of their constituents and injured 52 more. A total of 38 homes were destroyed and 70 damaged.
The committee also heard testimony from the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administrator Cynthia L. Quarterman, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman, PG&E Executive Vice President for Gas Operations Nick Stavropoulos, Pipeline Safety Trust Vice President Rick Kessler, Interstate Natural Gas Association President & CEO Donald Santa, Jr., and American Gas Association Vice President Christina Sames. Complete hearing information and archived video is available online.
The hearing highlighted just how common and costly natural gas disasters have become. According to the DOT there have been an average of 42 serious natural gas pipeline incidents per year over the last decade, resulting in an annual average of 14 deaths, 16 injuries and over $32 million in damage to property. According to Feinstein, 61 percent of all natural gas pipelines have been grandfathered - "meaning regulators and the industry assumed it was safe to continue operating the pipeline at pressures used in the past." She added that countless pipelines in urban areas "have inaccurate or incomplete records, have never been tested or inspected by smart pigs, and lack automatic or remote-controlled shutoff valves capable of limiting damage following a rupture."
During the hearing, regulators and gas industry representatives outlined steps they were taking to address pipeline safety concerns. New legislative measures were also considered. However potential remedies have come under fire due to their focus on new studies, technologies and procedures rather than identifying and replacing old pipelines and those in disrepair. Given the enormity of the problem there are serious doubts that new legislation and regulation and renewed attention from the gas industry will result in increased public safety.
To read an account of the hearing by San Bruno Patch, click here.