Bipartisan support for Kansas gas safety plan

Despite whatever other policy differences they might have, Kansas Republicans and Democrats are joining hands in support of Sen. Pat Roberts in his effort to get Washington to restore state oversight of underground natural gas storage fields.

The Republican chairman of the House Utilities Committee said he plans to push for a resolution supporting Roberts’ effort when the Legislature returns to session two months from now.

The chairman of the Kansas Corporation Commission, also a Republican, said his agency is providing technical support and helped craft the senator’s bill.

The minority leader of the House and a democratic member of the Utilities Committee from Wichita say they’re also in favor of the Republican senator’s effort -- and strongly support a resolution to throw the Legislature’s weight behind it.

Within days, Roberts will be introducing a bill to give Kansas back the authority to conduct safety inspections of 11 underground storage operations that can hold more than 270 billion cubic feet of gas. The gas is held in Kansas for passage through pipelines to out-of-state markets.

The storage sites have gone uninspected for 19 months, after a federal judge ruled that Kansas safety laws, passed in the wake of the deadly Hutchinson gas explosions of 2001, violated the federal government’s authority to regulate interstate gas transport.

The Department of Transportation, the lead federal agency in interstate gas safety, has opted not to inspect underground storage fields.

The storage sites at issue are depleted oil and gas fields and reservoirs. Pipeline companies pump high-pressure gas into the underground caverns for storage until the gas is needed by utility customers.

In 2001, that process went very wrong in Hutchinson. Gas escaped from an underground salt formation, migrated seven miles underground, popped to the surface through abandoned water wells and blew up. Two people were killed when their mobile home exploded and half a block of downtown businesses was destroyed three miles away.

Rep. Carl Holmes, a Republican from Liberal and chairman of the House Utilities Committee, said Roberts’ bill could help prevent the same thing from happening somewhere else.

“What we have at the moment is, we’re in limbo (on gas storage safety) and nobody’s looking at it,” Holmes said.

In this year’s legislative session, both the state House and Senate unanimously voted for resolutions to ask the federal government to restore the state’s authority to inspect underground gas storage. Because of a communication breakdown, it didn’t get voted on as a joint resolution, and only the House version was actually sent to Washington.

Roberts’ actions will help sharpen the state’s focus, giving the Legislature an actual federal bill to support, Holmes said.

“I’ll bring it up in the committee,” he said. “We’ll get a bill number from Sen. Roberts and include that in the resolution.”

KCC Chairman Mark Sievers said the agency helped Roberts’ staff by providing information and recommendations as they were drafting the bill. He said he’s glad Roberts is taking a leadership role on the issue.

“We don’t lobby and that sort of thing,” Sievers said.

But the KCC does support reregulating underground storage and is ready to “provide him (Roberts) with whatever further information he might request.”

Sievers said that like Roberts, he’s generally opposed to expanding regulations. But “here we have a safety issue we have to deal with,” he said.

Sievers also said the Roberts bill will not expand KCC regulation beyond what the agency already had been doing until last year’s court case shut the inspections down.

As evidence of the effectiveness of KCC inspections, he said, “We didn’t have gas explosions.”

Key Democrats are also supporting Roberts’ effort.

Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said he thinks state law is the best way to provide for the safety of people living on and around the storage fields.

“It’s too bad we have to get the federal government’s permission,” he said. “If that’s what the courts say we have to do, then we have to go to Congress.”

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, who serves on the Utilities Committee with Holmes, said she’ll support a resolution to throw the Legislature’s support behind Roberts.

“I’m glad to see Pat Roberts is doing something about this,” Finney said. “You’d have thought this would have been done a long time ago.”