Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran have filed a bill in Congress to restore state authority to oversee the safety of facilities that store natural gas in underground caverns, in an effort to prevent potentially deadly explosions like the ones that rocked Hutchinson 10 years ago.
Federal agencies have declined to regulate underground storage, leaving Kansas facilities — as much as 270 billion cubic feet of gas — uninspected for the past 19 months.
Roberts’ and Moran’s bill, the Underground Gas Storage Facility Safety Act of 2011, would allow Kansas to restart its program of safety inspections of interstate gas storage facilities. State regulations would be subject to review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Those inspections were halted 19 months ago after a Topeka federal judge ruled that the Kansas Legislature exceeded its authority when it passed storage-safety laws in the wake of the Hutchinson disaster.
In that accident, gas leaked from an underground storage facility at Yaggy, migrated seven miles underground, popped up through abandoned brine wells and exploded, destroying a half block of downtown businesses and killing an elderly couple in their east Hutchinson mobile home.
“We have already lost two lives in Hutchinson in a 2001 explosion,” Roberts said in a statement issued jointly with Moran announcing introduction of the bill. “The threat is real. Our first priority is to protect citizens from harm. We need strong oversight and in this case, I want it to be the state. I trust our folks there on the ground to protect their fellow Kansans from what could be a real tragedy if ignored.”
Pipeline companies store gas underground by pumping it under high pressure into depeleted oil and gas fields and reservoirs. The gas is held there until it is needed by utility customers across the country.
Interstate fields in Kansas can hold as much as 272 billion cubic feet of gas, nearly 2,000 times as much as the 143 million cubic feet that caused months of havoc in Hutchinson.
Topeka federal district court Judge Samuel Crow ruled that regulation of gas stored for interstate commerce is the responsibility of the federal government.
However, the Department of Transportation, the agency tasked with interstate pipeline safety, has decided not to regulate underground storage.
“The federal government has failed to accept responsibility for monitoring the safety of natural gas storage sites in Kansas, after a federal court judge prevented the Kansas Corporation Commission from carrying out those duties,” Moran said. “This legislation would simply give the KCC the ability to ensure the safety of Kansas citizens when the federal government fails to act.”
“I’m happy, glad to see they did that,” said KCC Chairman Mark Sievers. “It’s helpful because it bridges a gap … that’s really kind of a problem.”
Both houses of the Legislature unanimously voted earlier this year for resolutions urging the federal goverment to restore inspection authority to the state. Due to procedural issues, only the House resolution was actually sent to Washington.
Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said he was pleased when he saw Roberts take the lead on restoring inspections of the underground storage.
“It’s important for us and very needed,” O’Neal said.
He also said he thinks it’s wise to have the inspections done by the KCC because its inspectors have more experience and localized knowledge to draw on.
“We can handle this ourselves,” he said. “We don’t often look to Washington.”
State Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, also said she appreciated the U.S. senators’ efforts to restore gas storage inspection.
She headed up a special House/Senate committee that considered the issue between last year’s legislative session and this year’s and that Kansas has seen the results when natural gas escapes from containment.
Roberts said he agrees that the state should have the lead role.
“There is simply a gap in jurisdictions and oversight,” Roberts said. “We ought to close that gap before an accident happens that takes another life or damages property. In the absence of clear federal action, it is the commonsense thing to do to allow states to step in.”
Roberts had announced plans to introduce the bill earlier this month and credited Wichita Eagle coverage for bringing the issue to his attention.