Jeffrey Wiese, the nation’s top oil and gas pipeline safety official, recently strode to a dais beneath crystal chandeliers at a New Orleans hotel to let his audience in on an open secret: the regulatory process he oversees is “kind of dying.”
Wiese told several hundred oil and gas pipeline compliance officers that his agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA), has “very few tools to work with” in enforcing safety rules even after Congress in 2011 allowed it to impose higher fines on companies that cause major accidents.
“Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty? No,” he said.
Because generating a new pipeline rule can take as long as three years, Wiese said PHMSA is creating a YouTube channel to persuade the industry to voluntarily improve its safety operations. “We’ll be trying to socialize these concepts long before we get to regulations.”
Wiese’s pessimism about the viability of the pipeline regulatory system is at odds with the Obama administration’s insistence that the nation’s pipeline infrastructure is safe and its regulatory regime robust. In a speech last year, President Barack Obama ordered regulatory agencies like PHMSA to help expedite the building of new pipelines “in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people.”
His remarks also conflict with industry’s view. Brian Straessle, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, which represents much of the oil and gas industry in Washington, D.C., said the industry “is highly regulated at the state and federal level, and there are strong standards in place to govern the pipeline infrastructure that helps fuel our economy.
“Pipeline operators have every incentive to protect the environment and their financial health by preventing incidents,” Straessle said.
But Wiese’s remarks ring true with people who’ve long been concerned about pipelines near their homes.