Zirkin pipeline effort runs into PSC ambivalence

March 12, 2013|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin called on a Senate committee Tuesday to approve legislation expanding the state Public Service Commission's role in overseeing the state's interstate natural gas pipelines -- including one running alongside his Owing Mills home.

The PSC, however, expressed ambivalence about taking on the broad new role Zirkin envisions -- saying some of his proposals would run afoul of federal law.

Zirkin received a hearing on a package of seven bills he has introduced to increase state regulation of the natural gas pipeline industry. The legislation was introduced at least partly in response to plans by Columbia Gas Transmission to build a new pipeline alongside an existing one in a right of way near the Zirkin home.

That legislation, along with other bills aimed at the company, helped lead to a public squabble between the Baltimore County Democrat and the company. Company representatives said the senator tried to steer the pipeline away from his home and onto nearby streets, while Zirkin accused them of lying. Meanwhile, Zirkin has received strong support from constituents for his anti-pipeline efforts,

Before the Finance Committee, the two sides put aside personal attacks and focused on the legal and policy issues raised by the Zirkin bills.

Zirkin made a strong pitch for an increased state role, saying a series of leaks and explosions of natural gas pipelines across the country pointed to a need for tighter regulation. He said the proposed new line from Owings Mills to Fallston had raised his awareness on a serious threat to Marylanders.

"This has come to my district and literally to my neighborhood," he said.

Zirkin told committee members they would hear his bills would be pre-empted by federal law but said there were "mounds" of federal cases that say otherwise.

Indeed, Columbia Gas representatives opposed all the bills, contending that each of them conflict with federal statutes claiming interstate pipeline regulation as the domain of the U.S. government.

Perhaps more damaging, the PSC submitted written testimony that some parts of Zirkin's Pipeline Safety and Community Protection Act  run contrary to federal law while others duplicate regulations already in place.

One part of the package the PSC did not rule out was a proposal that the PSC seek "co-agent" status along with the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Commission in regulating interstate pipelines. Such a status would allow PSC inspectors to help federal authorities monitor pipelines in Maryland but would not allow the commission to write its own, stricter rules.

While the PSC made no recommendation on whether the legislature should require it to see such a status -- as about 10 other states have -- it displayed little enthusiasm. In its written testimony, the PSC said federal authorities would have to determine that they need help from Maryland to carry out their job. Chairman Kevin Hughes made it clear the PSC isn't volunteering for the extra work.

"We would want to see some evidence that we're needed," he said.

Under questioning, PSC officials said the could expect to recover only about 60 percent of the cost of the extra inspections.

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