Congressman Pete Olson

Representing the 22nd District of Texas

Improving hiring of inspectors is key to pipeline safety

November 18, 2015
Op-Ed


Improving hiring of inspectors is key to pipeline safety
By Reps. Pete Olson (R-Texas) and Gene Green (D-Texas) 11/17/2015

Pipelines are among the safest and most efficient ways to transport energy. But as we have recently seen, accidents happen. We believe an indispensable prerequisite to maintaining pipeline safety and efficiency is a robust inspection regime. Inspectors are the "cops on the beat" and the better we train our inspectors, the better we can mitigate risks associated with pipeline transportation. As members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee we've introduced, alongside Brian Babin and Janice Hahn on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, a bill to get more inspectors on the job.

Texans know our state is crisscrossed with hundreds of thousands of miles of pipelines. Oil and gas lines reach every major city and connect the refineries and petrochemical sites that dot our state, safely passing under neighborhoods and riverways in the process.

The cornerstone of our success is a careful balance between the state Railroad Commission and the federal Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT's Office of Pipeline Safety is responsible for setting pipeline standards and laying the ground rules for inspections and upgrades.

In recent years, flaws in the system have been exposed. In 2010, the horrific pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., prompted Congress to pass the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011. This important bill created needed safety measures and put in place penalties for bad actors. In Washington, we know there are many stakeholders playing important roles, but the federal government is in charge of setting the rules of the system. That's why Congress' 2011 bill created pipeline safety rules and set a deadline for DOT to improve safety standards. Unfortunately, their response has been slow and uncertain. Congress created 42 regulatory requirements for DOT to implement; regrettably, more than a dozen critical items have slipped past their deadline for action.

At the same time, DOT remains woefully short of pipeline safety inspectors - inspectors tasked with enforcing the rules the agency does update. Congress has allocated new funds to bulk up the number of inspectors, but only half of the new positions have been filled.

As a result, Congress now has an opportunity to step in to keep our communities safe, and keep the economy moving.

In the short term, we need more inspectors in the field. One reason why DOT has had such a hard time hiring new pipeline inspectors is the lengthy hiring process for the federal government to fill vacant positions. DOT is required to rank, test and measure candidates throughout the process. These metrics have a deterrent effect on applicants who may easily find other positions in the private sector.

That's why a bipartisan group of members from both the Energy and Commerce and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees have written a bill designed to cut the red tape for hiring inspectors. By giving DOT the ability to expedite the hiring process, we can spur on a "surge" of inspectors to enforce the new rules. The process will be structured to encourage the hiring of women, veterans and minorities, many of whom are underrepresented and possess unique skills in this field.

In the long term, we intend to keep pressure on DOT to fully implement critical rules. The Energy and Commerce Committee held an important oversight hearing earlier this year on regulatory delays. We also questioned pipeline operators and trade associations to hold them accountable. We must also reauthorize pipeline safety rules, and this presents us with an excellent opportunity for more oversight.

As we continue to work toward making our infrastructure more reliable, this legislation will provide a critical boost to ensure Texas and our nation's energy economy operate at a safer level, reducing the risk of accidents. No single rule will make our pipeline network completely secure. Accidents have happened before but working together, through a multipronged approach, we can keep making our infrastructure safer and our economy stronger.

Olson, a Republican, represents the 22nd Texas Congressional District in the House and is vice chairman of the House Energy and Power Subcommittee. Green, a Democrat, represents the 29th Texas Congressional District in the House and is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.