Joseph Tanfaniand Craig R. McCoy, INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
Monday, December 12, 2011, 3:01 AM
Soon after horrific natural gas explosions killed five people in Allentown and a utility worker in Philadelphia, a Pennsylvania congressman called a hearing in March to talk about improving pipeline safety.
Right away, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster made one thing clear: He wasn't sure the solution was more federal inspectors, or even a more powerful U.S. pipeline safety agency with tougher regulations.
"I believe we can do more with less," he told reporters covering the hearing in King of Prussia.
Shuster's opinion counts. The Republican from south-central Pennsylvania is the new chairman of the House subcommittee on railroads, pipelines, and hazardous materials - making him one of the most powerful members in Congress on the issue of pipeline regulation.
The Marcellus shale drilling boom has tapped a bounty of natural gas worth billions, but Inquirer reporters Joseph Tanfani and Craig R. McCoy found that thousands of miles of high-pressure pipelines carrying the gas to market are being installed with no government safety checks – no construction standards, no inspections, and no monitoring. In fact, state and federal regulators don’t even know where many lines are located.
He says the rules should encourage natural gas development, not get in the way. That's particularly true in Pennsylvania, he says, where the Marcellus shale industry is transforming the state's economy.
And the best guarantee of pipeline safety, he says, is the expertise of the companies themselves.
"They want their pipelines to be safe," Shuster said during an interview with The Inquirer, pointing out that "they have spent billions of dollars on these things."
"Are there bad actors out there?" he asked rhetorically. "Sure, but I think they're few and far between."
Shuster is generally skeptical about handing over more authority or more jobs to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, the small agency that enforces U.S. pipeline rules.
"These regulatory agencies don't have the answer to everything," Shuster said. "They're not always right."
Shuster showed his new clout this year, as Congress took up a new pipeline-safety bill. The Senate and another House committee, both with widespread support, passed similar drafts that significantly toughened regulations.
Then Shuster proposed his own bill, scaling back many of those initiatives and scrapping others entirely.
Rick Kessler, who handles Washington lobbying for the Pipeline Safety Trust, said he was surprised Shuster's bill even gained traction, given recent gas explosions in San Bruno, Calif., and Allentown that together killed 13 people.
"It is amazing to me that is even up for discussion," Kessler said this fall.
After some tough negotiations, Shuster reached a deal with other leaders in the House and Senate on Thursday. As a result of his intervention, the maximum fine was rolled back from $2.5 million per violation to $2 million and the number of new PHMSA positions was cut back.
Carl Weimer, executive director of the safety trust, endorsed the bill but remained disappointed the stronger versions didn't pass.
Democrats on the committee praised the "bipartisan work" that went into the final version.
Shuster, 50, represents a heavily Republican, largely rural slice of the state bordering the Marcellus gas play that includes Altoona and Hollidaysburg.
His father was longtime U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster, who was famous for his ability to snare highway money and earmarks. When Bud Shuster stepped down 10 years ago, he helped steer the party's endorsement to his son, who had run the family's Chrysler dealership.
Bill Shuster soon established a reputation as a reliably conservative member of Congress, earning a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union last year.
Like his father, he took a seat on the Transportation Committee.
And when Republicans took the majority in 2010, he gained his influential subcommittee chairmanship, which includes oversight of PHMSA, part of the Department of Transportation.
Shuster's tough stance on regulations is very much in the mainstream of his party and the Transportation Committee, where 19 members are freshman Republicans.
His campaign-finance reports reflect his national profile. Since taking office in 2001, he has received more than $340,000 in campaign contributions from sources involved in energy and pipelines: oil and gas companies, utility firms, natural gas trade groups, and companies involved in pipeline construction, his reports show.
Shuster said he thought PHMSA was generally effective, but last year he accused the agency of undue delays in processing permits to ship hazardous materials, including Fourth of July fireworks.
He said the agency's time would be better spent on pipeline inspections: "I think sometimes they get bogged down in areas where they don't need to get bogged down. They're not staying focused."
Attacking Washington regulators has become a familiar theme for Shuster.
Early this year, he tackled aviation safety, proposing an amendment that would have made it more difficult for the Federal Aviation Administration to write any new rules on boosting pilot experience and managing pilot fatigue.
Shuster withdrew the measure after Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger - the pilot who famously landed a powerless airliner in the Hudson River with no casualties - attacked it as a "giant step backward for airline safety."
Shuster has frequently been critical of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is now studying the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract natural gas from shale rock using massive quantities of water mixed with sand and chemicals.
He says the agency is trying to "bigfoot" its way into Pennsylvania and interfere with the state's own regulators.
"It's like these people in EPA think we people in Pennsylvania either don't care about clean water for our citizens, or are too stupid to figure it out," he said. "And that's not the case."
Shuster says he wants to restrict the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which now issues permits for pipelines when they cross streams. Chesapeake Energy, a leading gas company in Pennsylvania, sent a letter over the summer to landowners complaining about delays caused by Corps reviews.
"They're reaching in and doing things they have no business doing," Shuster said, noting that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection also issues environmental permits for pipelines.
"I think somebody sitting in the Corps of Engineers bureaucracy said, 'This Marcellus Shale gas play is huge, it will be around for 50 years, and this gives us an ability to justify our existence.' "
A spokesman denied the Corps was causing significant delays.
With five other members of Congress, Shuster signed a letter in August urging federal approval of the Marc 1, a pipeline targeted by environmental groups because it will open up a new swath of northern Pennsylvania for gas development. The line was approved last month.
The EPA had also weighed in against that pipeline. "Yet another attempt to meddle," Shuster's spokesman said in a statement.
After the five deaths in the Feb. 11 Allentown explosion, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski said he attended a roundtable discussion in Shuster's district.
"There was a lot of talk about why we needed to improve safety, and yet what's coming out of [Shuster's] committee is less regulation," Pawlowski said.
"I don't know what that says, but it doesn't speak well that they don't get the urgency that exists," he said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, has been pushing for tougher pipeline regulations. He was reluctant to criticize Shuster directly, but said: "There are lots of places to save money, and safety oversight is not one of the places we should be slashing."
Shuster, though, said he believed his bill struck a good balance between improving safety and "providing the regulatory certainty needed for industry to make investments and create American jobs."
He says he's not expecting he will always please the most zealous safety advocates.
"Unless you guarantee them 100 percent there will be no accidents, no problems, they're not going to be happy," he said.