OIL’S WELL: If Santa Barbara were to caper about as a super hero, it would no doubt be as a retro-fied vestal virgin, selflessly sacrificing herself hither, thither, and yon so others might dwell on a more byoo-tee-full planet. Even by the most fainthearted feminist standards, this posture is humiliatingly retrograde. But in light of congressional reaction to the Refugio pipeline oil spill, the shoe might actually fit. In other words, Santa Barbara’s beaches may not have been sullied in vain by Plains All American Pipeline. Given the confluence of political trajectories, I’d wager your next paycheck that the federal agency most responsible for oil pipeline safety will be forced to take meaningful steps when it comes to imposing toothier pipeline safety requirements. These new standards will not merely apply to the oil and gas pipelines zigzagging through Santa Barbara County. They will apply to all two million miles of pipelines now snaking their way across the country. When that happens, those new regs will bear the stamp “Made in Santa Barbara.”
Maybe I’ve been smoking too much tailpipe exhaust. Maybe I’m getting up too early in the morning. But having watched this week’s congressional Energy and Commerce Committee hearings on pipeline safety, I came away convinced that they can’t just do nothing anymore. Nor do they want to. By way of perspective, Energy and Commerce packs serious political wallop. That the hearing happened at all signifies. That Republicans as well as Democrats were scrambling to out-do one another when it came to grandstanding over our oil spill signifies even more. The designated fall guy was Stacy Cummings, acting interim executive of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, (PHMSA), the federal agency whose job it is to make sure oil and natural-gas pipelines are operated safely and soundly.
Back in 2011, when funding for PHMSA was last authorized, Congress required the agency to enact 42 new operational safety “mandates” to address glaring, long-standing deficiencies in oversight. Four years later, 17 of those 42 mandates remain figments of a very frustrated congressional imagination. Among those 17 are new requirements for automatic- shutoff systems for new pipelines, minimum standards for leak-detection equipment, and actual deadlines for pipeline operators to report oil spills. As committee chair Fred Upton, a moderate Republican from Michigan repeatedly noted, such safeguards could have made a real — not just hypothetical — difference in terms of damage inflicted by the Refugio spill. Upton, it should be noted, experienced a major pipeline spill in his district several years ago. And Plains — as it was frequently noted — has experienced yet another spill since Santa Barbara’s, a 42,000-gallon gusher outside St. Louis that briefly threatened a local water reservoir.
On the witness stand, PHMSA’s Cummings dodged and danced like Fred Astaire wearing rusty leg irons. With all the professionalism of a career bureaucrat with a neon bull’s-eye on her back, she expressed nonstop enthusiasm for PHMSA’s safety mission, endlessly intoning the mantra “Integrity Management,” as if it meant something. But when it came to answering repeated questions about when PHMSA would actually enact the safety mandates Congress demanded five years ago, Cummings was a Mt. Vesuvius of non-answers so sublimely boring and opaque as to defy recollection. Even Congressmember Lois Capps found her patience strained and complained Cummings’s responses were “so obtuse.”
As reported before, the Plains pipeline that ruptured also happens to be the only pipeline in Santa Barbara County without an automatic-shutdown system. As far back as 2010, Congress was demanding PHMSA seriously explore such technology. Paul Tonko, an irascible Democrat from New York, repeatedly demanded to know when that would happen. When Cummings said such information could be found on the PHMSA website — if you want to get lost, try navigating it — Tonko went a little ballistic. “Don’t tell me to go find it myself on a website,” he incredulated. “When will it be finished?” Cummings dispensed more happy talk about stakeholder meetings and the Integrity Management program, prompting a desperate Tonko to wail, “Is your answer go find it myself?”
To the extent I was able to discern an actual response, it appears PHMSA submitted some language several years ago that no one in Congress has yet seen to the Office of Management and Budget — where it’s languished. If ever approved, pipeline companies will be required to ask themselves whether they think automatic-shutoff-system technology — enormously expensive — would be economically feasible.
That the meeting happened the way it did had everything to do with the intercessions of Capps, now finishing up her last term. Capps asked about the huge discrepancy between the level of corrosion actually found on the pipe as opposed to the level of corrosion indicated by a smart-pig test — the industry standard — conducted just two weeks before the rupture. Where the smart pig indicated the pipe was 45 percent corroded, the autopsy revealed corrosion levels closer to 82 percent. Capps wanted to know if such discrepancies were common, and if so, how anyone could sleep soundly at night based on positive smart-pig results. It was Cummings’s answer — something swirly about data, results, and expectations — that prompted Capps’s “so obtuse” outburst. I don’t know what will come from all this; something will. And that ain’t nothing.
The real Saint Barbara — namesake to both city and county — was for eons the divine presence to whom one prayed when confronting imminent doom. Since then, The Church has seen fit to evict Barbara from the pantheon of saints. But given the inevitability of future oil spills — and other catastrophes — it’s high time we brought her back. Only this time, give her a cape, sexy boots, and a utility belt.