Former exec with major coal transporter nominated to head pipeline safety agency

Repost from ThinkProgress

Former exec with major coal transporter nominated to head pipeline safety agency

With no pipeline experience, big learning curve expected.

By Mark Hand, September 11, 2017, 4:59 PM
FILE – In this Sept. 11, 2010, file photo, a natural gas line lies broken on a San Bruno, Calif., road after a massive explosion. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pleaded not guilty Monday, April 21, 2014, to a dozen felony charges stemming from alleged safety violations in a deadly 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion that leveled a suburban neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area. As survivors of the blast looked on, attorneys for California’s largest utility entered the plea in federal court in San Francisco to 12 felony violations of federal pipeline safety laws. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

President Donald Trump intends to nominate a long-time executive with the freight rail industry to serve as administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a regulatory agency that oversees the nation’s extensive pipeline network.

For the past decade, Howard “Skip” Elliott held the title of group vice president of public safety, health, environment, and security for CSX Transportation, a Jacksonville, Florida-based subsidiary of CSX Corp. Altogether, Elliott has a 40-year history in the freight rail industry, although he does not have any government service experience. Elliott’s nomination to head PHMSA is subject to Senate confirmation.

One industry observer noted Elliott will have a big learning curve, coming from the railroad industry, since pipeline safety regulation and oversight is complicated with many diverse stakeholders and controversial issues, including the definition gathering lines and pipeline integrity management requirements.

Pipeline industry officials, though, praised Trump’s nomination of Elliott, citing his extensive experience and leadership in freight rail safety. “We urge the president to nominate, and the Senate to hold a hearing and quickly confirm this qualified nominee,” Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) President and CEO Don Santa said in a statement Monday. INGAA is the primary industry trade group for U.S. natural gas pipeline companies.

PHMSA, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, was created in 2004 and is composed of two offices: the Office of Pipeline Safety and the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety.

According to analysis by the Pipeline Safety Trust, a pipeline watchdog group, new natural gas pipelines are failing at a rate slightly above gas pipelines built before the 1940s. Natural gas transmission lines built in the 2010s had an annual average incident rate of 6.64 per 10,000 miles over the time frame considered. Those installed prior to 1940 or at unknown dates had an incident rate of 6.08 per 10,000 miles, SNL Energy reported.

CSX trains have been in numerous accidents in recent years. In early 2014, a tanker of crude oil and a boxcar of sand nearly toppled over a bridge in Philadelphia after a freight train owned by CSX derailed. Later that year, an oil train operated by CSX derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia. Less than 24 hours later, about 10 cars of a CSX coal train went off the tracks, though all of the cars remained.

Elliott is a recipient of an Association of American Railroads award for lifetime achievement in hazardous materials transportation safety. He is a “pioneer and leading advocate” in developing computer-based tools to assist emergency management officials, first responders, and homeland security personnel in responding to a railroad hazardous materials or security incidents, the White House said in a statement released Friday.

CSX is the largest coal transporter east of the Mississippi River and operates a railroad network that runs through the heart of the Appalachian coal fields. CSX also transports crude oil from the Midwest to refineries and terminals along the Hudson River, New York Harbor, Delaware River, and Virginia coast.

Drue Pearce, who is serving as acting administrator of PHMSA, will assume the title of deputy administrator if Elliott is confirmed. She previously served as federal coordinator for Alaskan Natural Gas Transportation Projects, a government position created to streamline the construction of a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48 states. The pipeline was never built.

In the Obama administration, Marie Therese Dominquez headed PHMSA from June 2015 through January 2017. Dominquez worked in government prior to joining PHMSA, serving as principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army Corps of Engineers and working at the National Transportation Safety Board. Cynthia Quarterman, who worked as a lawyer for pipeline companies, including Enbridge Inc., served as PHMSA administrator from 2009 to 2014. Earlier in her career, Quarterman served as director of the Minerals Management Service in the Clinton administration.

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