How Well Can a Former Fox Guard the Henhouse?
At yesterday’s Congressional hearing on pipeline safety, Cynthia Quarterman, the head of the federal agency that regulates oil and gas pipelines, said that her agency will more strongly regulate pipelines.
“I assure you that PHMSA, through aggressive regulation and oversight, will use its full enforcement authority to ensure that operators meet pipeline safety standards,” she said. (Quotation is from this Reuters article.) PHMSA is shorthand for Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a federal agency.
This is interesting because Quarterman used to provide legal representation for Enbridge, the pipeline company that has had disastrous oil spills in recent weeks. But now she heads the U.S. government’s efforts to regulate pipelines. The appearance of conflict is obvious enough that she did not testify during an earlier Congressional hearing on the Enbridge spills, instead sending someone else.
And now she says her agency will crack down on the industry she represented.
Plains Justice has concerns about Quarterman and PHMSA. In addition to Quarterman’s pipeline industry ties, her agency recently relaxed a pipeline safety standard, which could result in substandard pipeline steel being left in the ground rather than being replaced, saving the pipeline industry money. In addition, the public has been woefully underinformed about the risks of natural gas pipelines that run through communities all over the U.S.
We need new laws that mandate aggressive action no matter who is in charge, not regulators who promise to act only after major disasters that kill people, destroy homes, and damage our natural environment. Otherwise, once the media stops paying attention, the most likely outcome is that PHMSA will quietly go on as before.