Cantwell Applauds Unanimous Senate Passage of Pipeline Safety, Whistleblower Protection Provisions

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, applauded this week’s unanimous passage of important pipeline safety provisions through the Senate. Language to limit the release of methane gases (the primary component of natural gas), which contribute to climate change and pose health and safety risks to nearby communities, was included in PIPES Act of 2020. The legislation also included provisions to protect pipeline safety whistleblowers.

When the PIPES Act was considered in the Commerce Committee in July 2019, Cantwell pledged to work with Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) to ensure his amendment to limit methane gas leaks was included in the final bill. After over a year of extensive negotiations with Republicans and stakeholders, the amendment was incorporated before the legislation passed the Senate.

“Leaky natural gas pipes pose a significant hazard, and are major contributors to global warming, so we should be requiring the use of the latest technology to detect and prevent methane leaks from these pipes,” Senator Cantwell said. “I am pleased the PIPES Act included Senator Udall’s methane amendment to do just that.”

“For the first time this Senate bill directs PHMSA to address and mitigate the serious environmental effects from pipelines that until now have been allowed to leak methane in their regular course of business,” said Carl Weimer, Executive Director of the Pipeline Safety Trust in Bellingham, Washington. “New gas leak detection technology is efficient and economical.  Increasing its use by gas pipeline operators will improve our understanding of how much methane has routinely been leaking from leaks large and small and will speed the process of getting those leaks repaired, increasing pipeline safety from explosive hazards and reducing the harmful effects on human health and the environment. We thank Senators Udall and Cantwell on their strong leadership on this issue.”

Natural gas accounts for 16.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state, and the Senate-passed bill will improve the safety of over 48,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in the state.

The PIPES Act of 2020, which was reported out of the Senate Commerce Committee in July 2019, would reauthorize pipeline safety programs at the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency charged with regulating pipelines for safety and environmental purposes.

The amendment secured by Udall and Cantwell to the PIPES Act tasks PHMSA to limit the release of methane gas into the environment by requiring:

  1. Companies to use advanced leak detection technologies to better identify and repair environmentally hazardous methane leaks;
  2. Operators to create a plan to minimize methane leaks as a part of their inspection and maintenance plans; and
  3. PHMSA to consider regulations that would require operators to take steps to reduce intentional natural gas releases that occur when pipes are vented or repaired.

While Congress, PHMSA, and the oil and gas pipeline industries have made progress on safety in recent years, major gaps in safety standards remain, and leaks of methane—a greenhouse gas super pollutant—contribute to and accelerate climate change. Oil and gas production and distribution releases 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually through intentional venting and unintentional leaks. Gathering, transmission, and distribution pipeline account for about 100 million metric tons of methane emissions annually through intentional venting and unintentional leaks.

At an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing last week, Senator Cantwell emphasized the need to do more to address methane leaks associated with natural gas drilling on federal lands and referred to reducing the leaking and flaring of methane a “low-hanging fruit” that we already have the ability to address.

Senator Cantwell has a long history of fighting to prevent methane waste and promoting bold actions to address climate change. Last week, Cantwell joined other lawmakers in requesting a comprehensive U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of current methane emissions from oil and gas development. In 2017, Cantwell led the fight that successfully blocked the repeal of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Methane and Waste Prevention Rule using the Congressional Review Act (CRA). Following this victory, Cantwell kept up the pressure on then-Department of Interior Secretary Zinke when he suspended parts of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Methane and Waste Prevention Rule, questioning the Secretary, leading a bicameral group of 81 lawmakers in urging Secretary Zinke not to suspend or unlawfully delay implementation of the rule, and slamming the decision as an “ill-advised scheme.” And last year, Senator Cantwell joined 50 bicameral lawmakers in an amicus brief challenging the Trump Interior Department’s decision to revise and effectively reverse the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) 2016 Methane and Waste Prevention Rule.

A one-page summary of the methane provisions of the PIPES Act can be found HERE.