Susan Luebbe, a Nebraska rancher who has fought for five years to keep the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from crossing her cattle ranch, reacted with bemusement when Wiese’s comments were relayed to her by cellphone as she repaired a barbed-wire fence. She and other Keystone opponents have long been suspicious of assurances by TransCanada, the company building the line, that it will be safe because it will meet or exceed PHMSA regulations.
“It’s kind of sad in a way, when we push for laws to be enforced and they just throw up their hands, PHMSA and all them, and say they can’t deal with it,” Luebbe said.
Public confidence in pipeline safety has been tested by a spate of serious accidents. In 2010, a natural gas line explosion in San Bruno, Calif., set off a 95-minute inferno that killed eight people, destroyed 38 homes and damaged scores of others. That same year, a pipeline spilled more than 1 million gallons of Canadian tar sand crude into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. The ongoing cleanup of that one spill has already cost more than $1 billion. This year, a pipeline rupture deposited at least 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude in the streets of Mayflower, Ark.
Wiese, as head of PHMSA’s Office of Pipeline Safety, is the federal official most directly charged with preventing these types of accidents. But as his July 24 comments in New Orleans reflect, he is constrained by a pipeline safety budget that has remained flat at about $108 million for the past three years, despite the construction of thousands of miles of new pipeline. Most of that money comes from industry user fees and an oil spill liability trust fund. Taxpayers pay just $1 million a year toward the safety program.
The Obama administration has consistently asked for more money for pipeline safety, but those requests have fallen victim to Congress’ inability to pass anything more than stopgap budgets for the past three years. The administration asked for a 60 percent increase for this year, but the continuing budget standoff and effects of sequestration instead have tightened the budget.