Advance Notice: Briefs

TSA has too few pipeline security officials, Upton and Dingell say

By: - May 1, 2019 2:43 pm
Enbridge's Line 5.

Line 5 | National Wildlife Federation

U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) say there are not enough federal officials within the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) assigned to help protect the nation’s 2.7 million miles of pipelines carrying oil, gas and other hazardous liquids.

Upton, ranking member of the Energy Subcommittee on the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, indicated his concern with the small handful of TSA officials dedicated to pipeline security during a congressional pipeline safety hearing on Wednesday. The agency employs about 50,000 people.

Pipelines are at risk of both physical and cyber attacks, which have the potential to wreak substantial damage to the U.S. economy, the TSA has warned.

Dingell, who sits on the Health Subcommittee within the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, expressed similar concerns to the Michigan Advance in a statement sent by her office.

“Today’s hearing highlighted the disturbing fact that the TSA only has 4 people overseeing their pipeline safety program. That is unacceptable and must change,” Dingell wrote. “As Congress considers reauthorizing pipeline safety legislation this year, we need to ensure that our regulators are doing the critical jobs that Congress has assigned them to, and that they are implementing programs that put safety first in our pipeline system.”

Dingell said U.S. officials “must do a better job of addressing pipelines in sensitive areas, as we are facing in Michigan with Line 5,” adding that she plans to work on these issues with House colleagues.

Michigan hosts a complex network of oil and gas pipelines, and has weathered the nation’s worst inland oil spill when Enbridge Energy spilled almost 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River after a 2010 pipeline rupture.

The Canadian energy company has since replaced the burst pipeline, Line 6b, and continues to operate it and Line 5, which flows through the Straits of Mackinac.

The 66-year-old Line 5 carries roughly 23 million gallons of oil and a small amount of natural gas liquids through the Great Lakes each day.

During the Wednesday hearing, Upton questioned Howard Elliott, administrator of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and other officials on what the TSA has done to prevent cyber attacks, knowing that “there are public incidents of collusion, let me put it that way.”

Upton referenced the fact that the equivalent of about four full-time TSA employees deal with pipeline security and added that he “was most disappointed to hear that while TSA was invited to today’s hearing, they declined to appear.

Workers survey the Kalamazoo River following the Enbridge spill | USFWS photo

“Like the Alamo, we’re going to remember that,” he said.

In a copy of Upton’s prepared remarks, the GOP congressman said that he “cares deeply” about “strengthening cybersecurity for pipelines” and urged congressional action on his House Resolution 370.

He said his resolution “would help address some of the vulnerabilities outlined” in a 92-page December report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which “found weaknesses in how the TSA manages its pipeline security efforts,” according to a GAO summary.

That includes a lack of clear guidelines in place for when the TSA should indicate to pipeline operators that they should do more to address security threats.

The report also said that the number of TSA Pipeline Security Branch officials has varied in recent years, from 14 full-time workers in 2012 and 2013 to only one in 2014.

Upton and Dingell said there are now four employees.

“TSA cannot ensure that its guidelines reflect the latest known standards and best practices for physical security and cybersecurity, or address the dynamic security threat environment that pipelines face,” the report said. “Further, GAO found that the guidelines lack clear definitions to ensure that pipeline operators identify their critical facilities.”

The report found that at least 34 of the country’s highest risk pipeline system operators hadn’t identified any pipelines as “critical facilities” in need of protection.

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.