NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
Battling for Pipeline Safety
BY STEPHANIE HAMILTON
For the last several months, NSPE has regularly updated members about a piece of legislation called the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act (H.R. 2139, S. 1097). It was written by the Massachusetts congressional delegation, in the wake of the gas pipeline explosion in the Merrimack Valley area. The bill takes recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board and makes them federal guidelines for gas pipeline operators throughout the country. The bill would eliminate a significant industrial exemption from PE licensure requirements, a long-established NSPE goal.
The main provision that NSPE has been focused on would require a professional engineer to approve “covered tasks” as defined by Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which includes any activity that
- Is performed on a pipeline facility;
- Is an operations or maintenance task;
- Is performed as a requirement of this part; and
- Affects the operation or integrity of the pipeline.
Worth the Fight
I’ve had conversations about this provision with staff from several congressional offices. The response and level of support have varied. Some see the benefit, and understand that it creates important protections for the public. Others are concerned about the effect it will have on businesses. NSPE knew from the beginning that this bill faced an uphill battle but also knows it’s a battle worth fighting. So, we’ve continued talking with congressional staff, and we regularly reached out to NSPE members, asking them to contact their elected officials and voice their support.
The week of July 29, the Senate version of the Pipeline Safety Act was added, as an amendment, to a larger pipeline safety bill, S. 2299 (called the PIPES Act of 2019). Unfortunately, the amended language fully restored the industrial exemption. Instead of requiring a professional engineer to approve covered tasks, the language now simply says approval can be given by a “relevant qualified personnel, such as an engineer with a professional engineer licensure, subject matter expert, or other employee who possesses the necessary knowledge, experience, and skills.…”
Needless to say, this change is problematic. As written, this language doesn’t require any real change for gas pipeline operators. It allows them to continue using the same personnel to approve covered tasks, removing a layer of accountability.
This is the kind of change we were most concerned about, and it’s one of the reasons NSPE reached out several times to its members, asking them to contact their elected officials to urge their support of the bill. Decision-makers need to hear from their constituents. They need to hear, not just what their constituents want, but how they’ll be impacted by legislation like this. Absent that voice, Congress mostly hears from industry, which doesn’t want this requirement, and works hard at making a compelling argument for why it isn’t necessary.
Now, more than ever, your senators need to hear from you about how your state’s residents will be affected if this change is passed into law. Many need to be educated about professional licensure—how the process works, what makes a PE different from an unlicensed engineer, and how PEs are uniquely positioned, indeed specifically accountable, for putting the health, safety, and welfare of the public first.
While changes in S. 1097/S. 2299 are disappointing it’s not the end of the story. It’s not too late. This setback presents NSPE and its members with an opportunity to speak up and educate lawmakers on the value of the engineering license and of the licensed engineer. It’s a chance to let elected officials know that we’re paying attention, and that when decisions like this are made that fail to adequately protect the public, they’re going to hear from us.
The week of August 5, in conjunction with PE Day, nearly 100 NSPE members did just that (see article). All across the country, they met with lawmakers and their staff at in-district meetings, to talk about this bill and about the importance of having PEs in responsible charge of covered tasks. The result was encouraging! Several of our members reported having positive conversations with staffers who wanted to know more about PEs and how to amend the language in S. 2299 so as to better protect public health, safety, and welfare. It opens the door to the possibility that we can improve this bill before it’s voted on. And it, again, displays the value, importance, and need for grassroots advocacy.
To those who participated in our PE Day advocacy efforts: Thank you so much! You’ve helped raise the profile of PEs and related issues. To those who weren’t able to participate this time, we need you. The profession needs all the advocates we can gather. You are the most qualified to defend and promote professional licensing, because you have first-hand examples of the many ways that professional engineers protect the public health, safety, and welfare. I said at the beginning of this article that we knew this bill faced an uphill battle. But we’re far more likely to get to the top of that hill if we’re all battling together. When 28,000 people are working together, a “heavy lift” like the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act gets a lot lighter.
Stephanie Hamilton is NSPE’s manager of government relations and advocacy.