WASHINGTON (AP) - A senator who opposes federal regulation on
philosophical grounds is single-handedly blocking legislation that
would strengthen safety rules for oil and gas pipelines, a bill
that even the pipeline industry and companies in his own state
Republican Sen. Rand Paul's opposition to the bill hasn't
wavered even after a gas pipeline rupture last week shook people
awake in three counties in his home state of Kentucky.
Paul, a tea party ally who shares with his father, Rep. Ron Paul
of Texas, a desire to shrink the role of the federal government,
won't discuss his role in stymieing the bill. But industry
lobbyists, safety advocates and Senate aides said he is the only
senator who is refusing to agree to procedures that would permit
swift passage of the measure.
A deadly gas pipeline explosion near San Francisco last year -
along with other recent gas explosions and oil pipeline spills -
has created consensus in Congress, as well as in the industry, that
there are gaps in federal safety regulations.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee
approved the bill in May without opposition. It would authorize
more federal safety inspectors, and pipeline companies would have
to confirm that their records on how much pressure their pipelines
can tolerate are accurate.
Under the bill, federal regulators could order that automatic
shutoff valves be installed on new pipelines so leaks can be halted
sooner. And it directs regulators to determine whether mandatory
inspections of aging pipelines in densely populated areas should be
expanded to include lines in rural areas. It would be paid for by
The bill is supported by the industry's major trade associations
- the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, the American
Gas Association and the Association of Oil Pipelines - as well as
the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group.
The measure is "a balanced solution to the very important issue
of improving the safety of pipelines," said Martin Edwards, the
interstate gas association's top lobbyist.
The bill's main sponsors - Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the
committee's chairman, and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. - have been
trying to bring it to the Senate floor for passage by "unanimous
consent," essentially a voice vote. That requires Democratic and
Republican leaders to check with each of their party members for
No Democrat objected to the pipeline bill, but initially two
Republicans did. They were Paul and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma,
industry, safety and congressional officials told The Associated
Press. Coburn has since withdrawn his objection, but Paul has
resisted persuasion to drop his, they said.
Officials familiar with Paul's objections said he has told
lobbyists and company officials that he's not opposed to any
specific part of the bill, just to the notion of additional federal
"The rationale behind the hold is that he came to Congress as a
person that doesn't want to provide more regulatory authority to
the regulators. He wants to look at those (regulations) and pull
back where he can," said Kyle Rogers, a vice president at the
American Gas Association.
Support for the measure from Kentucky companies hasn't budged
"We thought (the bill) provided a reasonable framework and good
congressional guidance for the regulators to go ahead and proceed
down a path that would enhance pipeline safety over time," said
Jerry Morris, president and CEO of Southern Star Central Gas
Pipeline Inc. of Owensboro, Ky., who spoke to Paul about the issue
during a meeting in Owensboro in June.
Industry is eager for Congress to pass a bill this year partly
because the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety
Administration is already working on new safety rules. They'd
rather Congress provide direction to regulators as to what those
rules should look like than leave the matter entirely up to the
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch
McConnell, R-Ky., pointed out that Democrats could still bring the
bill to the floor for a vote if they have the 60 votes necessary to
clear the procedural hurdles a single lawmaker can erect under
Senate rules. McConnell hasn't objected to the use of expedited
procedures to pass the bill.
But as a practical matter, important but lesser measures like
pipeline safety regulations that can't be approved quickly wind up
"If you start down that road you don't have time for anything
else," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the
American Enterprise Institute. Paul's ability to hold up a bill
despite its wide, bipartisan support "is an indication of how
dysfunctional the Senate has become," Ornstein said.
An anti-tax activist and ophthalmologist, Paul was elected to
the Senate, his first public office, last year.
Meanwhile, two House committees have unanimously approved
separate pipeline safety bills that are similar to the Senate bill.
Differences between those measures are expected to be worked out in
the coming weeks, with a single bill brought to the House floor
before the end of the year.
Given that the Senate and House bills were approved by
committees without a single no vote, it's clear lawmakers believe
"there is enough information and enough tragedies of late that
something needs to change," said Carl Weimer, executive director
of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group. "In the
face of a bunch of significant incidents in the last 15 months,
this bill addresses some of the root causes of those accidents."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)