More pipeline regulation urged

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration called for tighter federal oversight of oil and gas pipelines Wednesday following a deadly California gas explosion that raised alarms about the safety of the nation's aging infrastructure.

In the meantime, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said the federal agency responsible for the regulation is too accepting of assurances from industry that its equipment and practices are safe.

Deborah Hersman's comments echoed what safety advocates have long called for — a pipeline agency that needs to be less cozy with industry and staffed with more inspectors to enforce stricter regulations.

They welcomed the Obama plan, but said it fell far short of addressing the problems facing the nation's millions of miles of pipeline.

"It's the low-hanging fruit," said Rick Kessler with the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Wash., advocacy group. "There's no increase in mileage of pipelines that must be inspected, there's no standards for technology for inspections or repairing pipelines."

"If this is a starting point, fine. If this is all the administration has to say, it is wholly inadequate," he said.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration is directly responsible for inspecting interstate pipelines, and has only 100 inspectors to do it. Oversight of intrastate lines is left to local regulators, who have in most cases left the inspections to utilities.

Hersman said the NTSB, which is investigating the California blast and two other pipeline accidents, is concerned that PHMSA relies too heavily on documents submitted by the companies it regulates, rather than its own on-site verification of practices and procedures.

Federal investigators said they were examining whether Pacific Gas & Electric workers followed proper emergency procedures after a gas transmission line exploded into an inferno that killed at least four people and destroyed nearly 40 homes in a San Francisco suburb.

The pipeline administration is the latest agency that lawmakers and safety advocates say have become so close to an industry it regulates that it has lost sight of the safety mission.