By Kate Sheppard
WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Department office charged with overseeing the 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the United States is spending more time at oil and gas industry conferences than it is addressing spills and other incidents, a watchdog group contends in a new report.
Between 2007 and 2012, staff from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration spent 2,807 days at conferences, meetings and other events sponsored by the oil, gas and pipeline industries, according to the report from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). That's nearly three times as many as the 970 days the staffers spent responding to spills, explosions and other significant incidents on the pipelines they regulate. PEER drew the figures from agency records received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. (PEER's report calculates "days" as staff days, i.e., the total number of days per staffer spent at a conference or in the field. So if five staffers all attended one conference together, that is considered five staff days but only one calendar day.)
According to records that PEER provided to The Huffington Post, the pipeline agency spent $245,938 on travel to industry meetings and events sponsored by groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the American Gas Association in those six years. But it spent only $171,801 responding to significant spills, explosions and breakdowns on pipelines that transport oil, gas and other hazardous materials during the same period.
PEER also found that agency representatives attended 850 meetings and other events with industry in that period, but staffers were sent to investigate only 159 significant spills, explosions and breakdowns. A previous release from the watchdog group, also based on FOIA information received from the agency, found there have been more than 300 spills, explosions and other incidents since 2006 that the agency did not dispatch inspectors to investigate. PEER found that since 2006, the federal agency and its state partners had inspected less than one-fifth of the 2.6 million miles of pipeline.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration responded that PEER's figures "are incomplete" because they only include travel time for investigations. On more complex investigations, agency engineers and technical specialists "spend many weeks analyzing data and determining how company actions contributed to an incident," the agency said. It also said that the figures don't include time that staffers spend in the field doing other regulatory and oversight activities, nor do they include the time that state inspectors, whose work the agency funds, spend on investigations.
"Pipeline safety is our top priority," said Jeannie Shiffer, director of communications, congressional and international affairs at the agency, in an email to The Huffington Post. "In 2012, pipeline safety personnel spent 80 percent of their time conducting safety related activities including inspections and incident investigations on the ground, in the lab, and at the office, as well as enforcement and public outreach. Any study that purports otherwise is misunderstanding the data and the nature of these highly trained engineers' jobs."
PEER argues that the latest records show that the pipeline regulators are not prioritizing their budget appropriately. "I think we all know that [the agency] is pretty much more catering toward the industry and is doing what they want as opposed to protecting humans' health and safety," said Kit Douglass, staff counsel at PEER. "I think that's fairly well-known -- maybe this just puts a finer point on that."
The agency's ability to effectively regulate the millions of miles of U.S. pipeline has been the subject of a good deal of attention in the past few years, particularly after the Mayflower, Ark., oil spill earlier this year, the explosion of the San Bruno gas pipeline in California in 2010, and the Enbridge spill in Kalamazoo, Mich., also in 2010. In January 2012, President Barack Obama signed a new law that gave the agency additional regulatory authority and doubled the amount of money it can fine pipeline operators for safety violations. The agency says it has 135 federal inspection and enforcement employees, the maximum allowed under the updated law.
Jeffrey Wiese, the agency's associate administrator for pipeline safety, said at a conference in July that regulators still have "very few tools to work with" when it comes to enforcing safety rules. According to a report from InsideClimate News, Wiese told the attendees that writing new rules is going to take several years and that in the meantime, the agency "is creating a YouTube channel to persuade the industry to voluntarily improve its safety operations."
As InsideClimate also noted, the Obama administration has asked for more money for pipeline and hazardous materials safety in its budget requests, although the ongoing spending debates in Washington have led instead to budget cuts for the agency's work. But PEER argues that the problem goes beyond questions of more funding. The group says its new report shows that the agency is not spending the money it does have on the kind of regulatory and enforcement work it should.
"They're doing investigations, just not as much as they're spending time hobnobbing with industry," said Douglass.
The agency notes that its track record has improved in recent years, pointing out that significant pipeline incidents have decreased 12.5 percent since 2008.
UPDATE: Oct. 23 -- In response to PEER's report, PHMSA provided additional data to HuffPost on how pipeline safety personnel spend their time.
The agency said that in 2012, it conducted 1,163 inspections, with safety personnel in the regional offices working a total of 16,043 days: 8,515 days in the office and 7,528 days out of the office. About 38 percent of their time is spent on inspection of pipeline units, 20 percent is spent on operator-level inspections and 17 percent on stakeholder outreach, the agency said.
This article has also been updated to include additional information about how the PEER report arrived at its figures.