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A single senator plugs up pipeline safety bill

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Prompted by last year’s deadly gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., lawmakers in Washington moved uncharacteristically quickly.

The Senate Finance Committee in May unanimously passed the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011 to toughen regulations. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, support for the legislation was so broad that Senate Democrats initiated steps to get it passed by unanimous consent.

And then the bill ran into Sen. Rand Paul, a first-term Republican from Kentucky. He is using his prerogative as a senator to place a hold on the legislation based on his philosophic objections to adding regulations and expanding the federal government. “Sen. Paul doesn’t think new regulations and the creation of dozens of bureaucratic positions should be swept through without sufficient debate and vote,” said his spokeswoman, Moira Bagley.

That maneuver has riled lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat whose district includes San Bruno, where eight people were killed in the September, 2010 explosion of a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline. She said Paul is “putting his personal ideology above life and limb. I just find it deplorable.”

Theoretically, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could bring the legislation forward despite Paul’s hold but, as a practical matter, it would be an uphill struggle.

Speier’s frustration comes even though she thinks the bill would be insufficient. It would require installation of automatic or remote-control shut-off valves on new and replaced pipelines. She and California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, want such equipment on older pipelines, too, because those have the highest risk of failure.

Paul has stood in the way of the Senate bill despite a gas pipeline explosion in his home state last week that jolted residents of three counties. And he has maintained his position even though, as The Associated Press reports, the bill is supported by the industry’s major trade associations.

The push to tighten federal pipeline oversight, however, isn’t dead. The Obama administration could impose safety rules on its own. A unit of the Department of Transportation, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, issued a notice of proposed rule-making last month that could lead to new requirements for gas pipelines.

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