Pat Roberts: Let Kansas inspect gas storage

Saying federal action is needed to prevent future accidents like the deadly Hutchinson natural gas explosions, Sen. Pat Roberts said he plans to introduce a bill in Congress this week to restore state authority to conduct inspections on underground gas storage facilities.

“I am normally, certainly, not in the position of calling for more regulations, just the opposite,” said Roberts, a conservative Republican from Dodge City. “But this is not about regulation, this is about public safety and the No. 1 priority here, whether it’s state or federal, is to protect citizens against harm.”

The bill he is drafting would restore the state’s authority over 11 underground storage sites with a capacity of more than 270 billion cubic feet of gas.

The storage fields, mostly in western, central and southeast Kansas, have gone uninspected for the past 19 months since Topeka U.S. District Judge Sam Crow struck down the state’s gas-safety law.

Crow ruled that state regulations infringed on federal authority over interstate commerce.

But the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees interstate pipeline safety, has declined to regulate underground storage.

“Here we have confusion and inaction on a critical matter of public safety, especially if you note the two lives lost in the 2001 explosions in Hutch, not to mention all the damaged property over there,” Roberts said.

Roberts credited news coverage by The Eagle for drawing his attention to the issue.

“We could have a real tragedy here if ignored,” Roberts said. “We’ve got a federal judge telling Kansans we can’t look after our own storage fields if the gas in those facilities is in interstate transportation. Unfortunately, the federal government hasn’t stepped up to the plate to take on the responsibility either.”

The lawsuit that overturned Kansas’ regulations was brought by Colorado Interstate Gas, a subsidiary of the El Paso Corp., the nation’s largest gas pipeline firm.

The company operates the Boehm storage field in Morton County, which, according to federal records, can hold 12.7 billion cubic feet of gas – about four times the capacity of the facility that menaced Hutchinson.

A spokesman for Colorado Interstate Gas said the company was unaware of Roberts’ effort and could not comment until officials see the actual bill.

The company has previously said it is “committed to the safe, reliable and efficient operation” of its facilities. Company officials said they disputed the constitutionality of Kansas’ gas storage laws, but had attempted to work out an “informal arrangement” with regulators before filing suit.

The state laws at issue were the Legislature’s response to the disaster in Hutchinson, where gas leaked from an underground storage field at Yaggy and migrated seven miles underground, then popped up through abandoned brine wells and ignited.

A series of eruptions over several days destroyed half a block of downtown businesses and killed an elderly couple in a blast that engulfed their mobile home.

“I remember all that went on in the 2001 explosions over in Hutch,” Roberts said. “My goodness, we didn’t know what was going to come next. It was really a very scary situation.”

Not all storage companies are opposed to state inspection.

Omaha-based Northern Natural Gas has said it would not have a problem with that and continues to comply voluntarily with the state regulations that were struck down.

Northern operates a mammoth 62 billion cubic-foot gas storage complex at Cunningham, the closest such facility to Wichita.

Early this year, both houses of the state Legislature unanimously voted for resolutions to ask the federal government to restore the state’s authority to regulate interstate gas storage.

But a breakdown in communication between the House and Senate resulted in only the House resolution being sent to Washington.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, headed a special joint legislative committee to study the situation.

“We’ve had situations in the past in this state,” she said. “I think we’d like to do anything we can to prevent situations in the future.”

Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, represents Yaggy and part of Hutchinson.

He served on the committee with McGinn and said that while he generally favors only limited regulation of business, natural gas is too dangerous to go uninspected for safety.

“There are some things we can ease up on and other things we can’t ease up on,” he said. “Safety of the public is one of those things we can’t back up on. We have to make sure we can fund that and inspect them the way they should be.”

Roberts said he thinks the authority to regulate the facilities should rest with the Kansas Corporation Commission, which performed the inspections until they were halted by the federal court.

“We need a regulatory body with strong oversight and I would prefer it to be the state” Roberts said. “The state of Kansas and Gov. Brownback and industry are behind this approach.

“They (the KCC) have done it before, I trust our folks there on the ground dealing with these companies on a regular basis.”

Commission spokesman Jesse Borjon was traveling and unavailable for comment, an agency secretary said.

Roberts said he has just started recruiting co-sponsors for his bill, which could be used by other states that are certified by the federal government to inspect pipelines.

He said he does not know whether or how much opposition he might face.

“We’ll explore that mine when we get there,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rep. Joe Seiwert's name.