WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Department office charged with overseeing the 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the United States is spending more time at oil and gas industry conferences than it is addressing spills and other incidents, a watchdog group contends in a new report.
Between 2007 and 2012, staff from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration spent 2,807 days at conferences, meetings and other events sponsored by the oil, gas and pipeline industries, according to the report from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). That's nearly three times as many as the 970 days the staffers spent responding to spills, explosions and other significant incidents on the pipelines they regulate. PEER drew the figures from agency records received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. (PEER's report calculates "days" as staff days, i.e., the total number of days per staffer spent at a conference or in the field. So if five staffers all attended one conference together, that is considered five staff days but only one calendar day.)
According to records that PEER provided to The Huffington Post, the pipeline agency spent $245,938 on travel to industry meetings and events sponsored by groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the American Gas Association in those six years. But it spent only $171,801 responding to significant spills, explosions and breakdowns on pipelines that transport oil, gas and other hazardous materials during the same period.
PEER also found that agency representatives attended 850 meetings and other events with industry in that period, but staffers were sent to investigate only 159 significant spills, explosions and breakdowns. A previous release from the watchdog group, also based on FOIA information received from the agency, found there have been more than 300 spills, explosions and other incidents since 2006 that the agency did not dispatch inspectors to investigate. PEER found that since 2006, the federal agency and its state partners had inspected less than one-fifth of the 2.6 million miles of pipeline.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration responded that PEER's figures "are incomplete" because they only include travel time for investigations. On more complex investigations, agency engineers and technical specialists "spend many weeks analyzing data and determining how company actions contributed to an incident," the agency said. It also said that the figures don't include time that staffers spend in the field doing other regulatory and oversight activities, nor do they include the time that state inspectors, whose work the agency funds, spend on investigations.
"Pipeline safety is our top priority," said Jeannie Shiffer, director of communications, congressional and international affairs at the agency, in an email to The Huffington Post. "In 2012, pipeline safety personnel spent 80 percent of their time conducting safety related activities including inspections and incident investigations on the ground, in the lab, and at the office, as well as enforcement and public outreach. Any study that purports otherwise is misunderstanding the data and the nature of these highly trained engineers’ jobs."
PEER argues that the latest records show that the pipeline regulators are not prioritizing their budget appropriately. "I think we all know that [the agency] is pretty much more catering toward the industry and is doing what they want as opposed to protecting humans' health and safety," said Kit Douglass, staff counsel at PEER. "I think that's fairly well-known -- maybe this just puts a finer point on that."
The agency's ability to effectively regulate the millions of miles of U.S. pipeline has been the subject of a good deal of attention in the past few years, particularly after the Mayflower, Ark., oil spill earlier this year, the explosion of the San Bruno gas pipeline in California in 2010, and the Enbridge spill in Kalamazoo, Mich., also in 2010. In January 2012, President Barack Obama signed a new law that gave the agency additional regulatory authority and doubled the amount of money it can fine pipeline operators for safety violations. The agency says it has 135 federal inspection and enforcement employees, the maximum allowed under the updated law.
Jeffrey Wiese, the agency's associate administrator for pipeline safety, said at a conference in July that regulators still have "very few tools to work with" when it comes to enforcing safety rules. According to a report from InsideClimate News, Wiese told the attendees that writing new rules is going to take several years and that in the meantime, the agency "is creating a YouTube channel to persuade the industry to voluntarily improve its safety operations."
As InsideClimate also noted, the Obama administration has asked for more money for pipeline and hazardous materials safety in its budget requests, although the ongoing spending debates in Washington have led instead to budget cuts for the agency's work. But PEER argues that the problem goes beyond questions of more funding. The group says its new report shows that the agency is not spending the money it does have on the kind of regulatory and enforcement work it should.
"They're doing investigations, just not as much as they're spending time hobnobbing with industry," said Douglass.
The agency notes that its track record has improved in recent years, pointing out that significant pipeline incidents have decreased 12.5 percent since 2008.
UPDATE: Oct. 23 -- In response to PEER's report, PHMSA provided additional data to HuffPost on how pipeline safety personnel spend their time.
The agency said that in 2012, it conducted 1,163 inspections, with safety personnel in the regional offices working a total of 16,043 days: 8,515 days in the office and 7,528 days out of the office. About 38 percent of their time is spent on inspection of pipeline units, 20 percent is spent on operator-level inspections and 17 percent on stakeholder outreach, the agency said.
This article has also been updated to include additional information about how the PEER report arrived at its figures.
Also on HuffPost:
A Bumpier Ride?
Researchers in Britain have found that <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22076055" target="_blank">climate change could cause increased turbulence</a> for transatlantic flights by between 10 and 40 percent by 2050. (ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/GettyImages)
Not A Drop To Drink
A 2012 study from the U.S. Forest Service found that without "major adaptation efforts," parts of the U.S. are likely to see "<a href="http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/42363" target="_blank">substantial future water shortages</a>." Climate change, especially for the Southwest U.S., can both <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/02/25/1638541/study-climate-change-dry-up-us-reservoirs-lake-powell-lake-mead" target="_blank">increase water demand and decrease water supply</a>.
An International Tragedy
Research by British government found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/somalia-famine-climate-change_n_2883088.html" target="_blank">climate change may have contributed to a famine in East Africa</a> that killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people in 2010 and 2011. At least 24 percent of the cause of a lack of major rains in 2011 can be attributed to man-made greenhouse gases, Met Office modeling showed. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Mighty Wind
The <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/25/frozen-spring-arctic-sea-ice-loss" target="_blank">dramatic and rapid loss of sea ice in recent years</a> has consequences beyond the Arctic. Scientists have found the melting shifts the position of the Jet Stream, bringing cold Arctic air further south and increasing the odds of intense snow storms and extreme spring weather.
An Itch You Can't Scratch
Research indicates that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide <a href="http://www.onearth.org/blog/poison-ivy-climate-change" target="_blank">result in larger poison ivy plants</a>. Even worse, climate change will mean that the plant's irritating oil will also get more potent.
The <a href="http://www.livescience.com/28320-climate-change-allergies.html" target="_blank">spring 2013 allergy season could be one of the worst ever</a>, thanks to climate change. Experts say that increased precipitation, along with an early spring, late-ending fall and higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide may bring more pollen from plants and increased mold and fungal growth.
Gators In The Yard
North American alligators require a certain temperature range for survival and reproduction, traditionally limiting them to the southern U.S. <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/animal_forecast/2013/02/alligators_in_virginia_climate_change_could_be_pushing_cold_blooded_species.single.html" target="_blank">But warming temperatures could open new turf</a> to gators with more sightings farther north.
Melting Blitz In South America
High in the Peruvian Andes, parts of the world's largest tropical ice sheet have melted at an unbelievable pace. Scientists found that significant <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/world/americas/1600-years-of-ice-in-perus-andes-melted-in-25-years-scientists-say.html" target="_blank">portions of the Quelccaya Ice Cap that took over 1,600 years to form have melted in only 25 years</a>. (Perito Moreno Glacier pictured)
Wine To Go?
Along with other agricultural impacts, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/climate-change-wine_n_3039673.html" target="_blank">climate change may have a dramatic effect on the world's most famous winemaking regions</a> in coming decades. Areas suitable for grape cultivation may shrink, and temperature changes may impact the signature taste of wines from certain regions.
Home Sweet Home
Thanks to climate change, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/blog/polar-arctic-greenland-ice-climate-change" target="_blank">low-lying island nations may have to evacuate</a>, and sooner than previously expected. Melting of the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets has been underestimated, scientists say, and populations in countries like the Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu and others may need to move within a decade.
Trouble On The Ice
Warmer winters in northern latitudes could mean <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2013/01/18/hamilton-climate-change-rinks.html" target="_blank">fewer days for outdoor hockey</a>. An online project called RinkWatch aims to collect data on the condition of outdoor winter ice rinks in Canada and the northern U.S. and educate people on the impacts of climate change.
A Damper On Your Raw Bar?
Experts speculate that <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/08/100806-oyster-herpes-global-warming-climate-change-science/" target="_blank">warming oceans may have played a part in a strain of herpes</a> that has killed Pacific oysters in Europe in recent years.
The Color-Changing Bears
As Arctic ice melts and polar bears see more of their habitat disappear, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/14/polar-bears-turn-brown-climate-change_n_2878684.html" target="_blank">animals could lose their famous white coats</a>. Researchers have already witnessed polar bears hybridizing with their brown cousins, but note that it would take thousands of years from them to adapt themselves out of existence.
Less Time On The Chair Lift
Climate change means warmer winters in northern latitudes and a shorter ski season. By 2039, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/us/climate-change-threatens-ski-industrys-livelihood.html" target="_blank">more than half of the Northeast's ski resorts</a> will not be able to maintain a 100-day season, according to the New York Times. Ski areas will be less likely to receive regular snowfall, and warmer daily low temperatures mean fewer opportunities for snowmaking.
Apples produced in one Himalayan state of India are already losing their taste and even turning sour, experts say. <a href="http://zeenews.india.com/news/eco-news/arunachal-apples-losing-taste-due-to-climate-chang_831169.html" target="_blank">Increased rainfall and erratic weather in the region mean less than ideal conditions</a> for famously-sweet Kashmiri apples.
A Tough Time For Mushers
With climate change already impacting northern latitudes, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/06/sports/warm-weather-forces-changes-ahead-of-iditarod-race.html" target="_blank">warmer winters in Alaska could mean less than ideal conditions</a> for the famous Iditarod sled dog race. “It definitely has us concerned,” a musher and Iditarod spokeswoman who's already breeding dogs with thinner coats told The New York Times.
A Cold Cup Of Coffee
<a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/11/121108-climate-change-coffee-coffea-arabica-botanical-garden-science/" target="_blank">Climate change may dramatically shrink the area suitable for coffee cultivation</a> by the end of the century and cause the extinction of Arabica coffee plants in the wild. Starbucks has already declared that "<a href="http://www.starbucks.com/responsibility/environment/climate-change" target="_blank">Addressing climate change is a priority</a>."
Also On HuffPost