DOT’s Federal Pipeline Safety Program: Background and Issues for Congress

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The U.S. energy pipeline network includes approximately 3.3 million miles of onshore pipeline transporting natural gas, crude oil, and other hazardous liquids. Over the past decade, major safety incidents in California, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and other states have drawn criticism from stakeholders and have raised concerns in Congress about pipeline safety regulation. The 2021 ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline has also drawn attention to federal pipeline security activities, including agency roles and the linkage between pipeline safety and security.

The federal safety program for onshore pipelines is administered by the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which relies heavily on state partnerships for inspection and enforcement. PHMSA’s pipeline safety program is authorized through FY2023 under the Protecting our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety Act of 2020 (PIPES Act, P.L. 116-260, Div. R). President Biden’s requested FY2024 budget for pipeline safety is $228.23 million, roughly 20% above the FY2023 budget authority. The FY2024 request includes $89.56 million for grants to fund state pipeline inspection and damage prevention programs, up from $68.06 million in FY2023. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA, P.L. 117-58) appropriated $200 million annually through FY2026 for PHMSA’s new Natural Gas Distribution Infrastructure Safety and Modernization Grant Program.

To promote regulatory compliance, PHMSA conducts programmatic inspections of management systems and procedures; inspects facilities and construction; investigates safety incidents; and maintains a dialogue with pipeline operators. The agency clarifies its expectations through orders, guidance manuals, and public meetings. It also administers a pipeline safety research and development (R&D) program to address emerging risks and new technologies. PHMSA works with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on pipeline security and incident response.

As oversight of PHMSA’s pipeline safety program continues, Congress may examine PHMSA staffing, which faces persistent shortfalls affecting the agency’s ability to inspect pipelines and revise its regulations. Other potential topics for congressional oversight could include:

  • the implementation of PHMSA’s new distribution modernization grant program;
  • the effects of the agency’s 2021 rule for natural gas gathering lines, bringing 425,000 miles of gathering lines under regulation;
  • PHMSA’s implementation of the PIPES Act mandate expanding PHMSA’s traditional safety mission to include climate considerations;
  • what role PHMSA might play in any future TSA pipeline security initiatives;
  • updates to outdated safety standards for liquefied natural gas facilities, and pipelines carrying carbon dioxide, hydrogen, or hydrogen-methane blends;
  • PHMSA’s issuance and oversight of standards exemptions via Special Permits; and
  • PHMSA’s implementation and coordination of pipeline safety R&D through its own grants, operator demonstrations, and programs at other federal agencies.

In addition to these issues, Congress may assess how the many elements of U.S. pipeline safety fit together in the nation’s overall approach to protecting the public and the environment. Pipeline safety necessarily involves various groups: federal and state agencies, tribal governments, pipeline associations, large and small pipeline operators, local communities, and other interest groups. Reviewing how these groups work together to achieve common goals or resolve conflicting approaches could be an overarching concern for Congress.

MnTAP webinar and report highlight P2 opportunities for metal finishers

The Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP) recently hosted the webinar MnTAP, Metals, and You, which offered strategies and best practices to help reduce wastes, improve processes, and cut costs in metal fabrication and finishing operations. 

The webinar is part of an EPA-funded project to identify pollution prevention priorities for the metal fabrication and metal finishing industries. These priorities were identified through informational interviews with practitioners, vendors, and other industry stakeholders. Their report Pollution Prevention Opportunities in Minnesota’s Precision Manufacturing Sector summarizes the results of these interviews and highlights opportunities for pollution prevention technical assistance.  

Learn more about the project.

Avian flu outbreaks in marine mammals mark new era for deadly virus

Read the full story at e360.

A highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza has killed thousands of wild birds and is now infecting seals and other marine mammals. Researchers know the virus can jump from birds to mammals, but they are on alert to see if it can be transmitted from mammal to mammal.

Fed rate hikes, recession fears and political backlash leave ESG investors at a crossroads

ESG investing looks for companies that do well on environmental, social and governance benchmarks. Zhengshun Tang/Moment via Getty Images

by Sehoon Kim, University of Florida

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates again on May 3, 2023, by a quarter point, making it the Fed’s 10th rate hike since March 2022 in an ongoing fight to tame inflation. These rate hikes have been reverberating through the economy, raising prospects of a recession amid heightened concerns about the fragile state of banks.

The rate hikes are also rattling sustainability-focused investing, better known as ESG investing.

The trend toward ESG investing, which puts pressure on companies to meet environmental, social and governance benchmarks, has almost redefined asset management over the past decade. ESG funds today are a multitrillion-dollar market.

However, the high uncertainty around interest rates today, along with the prospects of a looming recession and a political backlash, has put the future of ESG investors at a crossroads.

I specialize in sustainable finance, and my recent work has documented the impact that tough economic times can have on ESG investing demand. Investments into U.S. sustainable mutual funds have visibly slowed since 2022, suffering their worst net flows in five years. Here are how three critical factors can affect investors’ zeal for socially conscious investing going forward.

Interest rate uncertainty

One of the primary arguments that big institutional investors like BlackRock make for ESG investing is that it creates long-term value for shareholders. Companies that pay careful attention to environmental, social and governance issues are believed to be better prepared for distant future risks, including regulatory risks and physical risks from climate change.

However, heightened uncertainty about interest rates poses a challenge today. That’s because higher rates can disproportionately affect the present value that investors assign to long-term investment outcomes. Let me explain.

Within the past year, the Federal Reserve has raised its benchmark lending rate from almost zero to a target range of 5% to 5.25% to combat inflation. In financial markets, higher interest rates lead to higher discount rates. That means that future cash generated by long-term investments is considered to be worth considerably less at today’s higher interest rates.

The more distant an asset’s value lies in the future, the more heavily it will be discounted in value when rates are high. So, long-duration investments – like most ESG investments – are especially sensitive to changes in interest rates.

This economic mechanism was also part of the backdrop of the recent rout in tech stocks and the series of bank failures that started with the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.

Looming recession

Another factor that could affect ESG investing is the potential for an economic downturn.

As research shows, investors do not necessarily make ESG investments for greater long-term returns, but often for altruistic reasons or due to personal preferences to hold greener assets. For these ESG investors, a looming recession could change their perspective on these “luxuries.”

In an early warning about this possibility, a recent study I conducted with an economist at the Rotterdam School of Management found that retail investors showed signs of shying away from investing in sustainable mutual funds during the early months of the COVID-19 shock in 2020. This was a period when many households experienced layoffs and furloughs, which likely pushed them to set aside luxuries to prioritize protecting the values of their 401(k)s, IRAs and other investment portfolios.

In other words, investors may be all for ESG, except when times are tough.

Prominent economists, such as former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, have warned of a likely recession as inflation and the Fed’s battle against it persist. The International Monetary Fund also lowered its global economic growth outlook from 3.4% in 2022 to 2.8% in 2023.

Political backlash

Finally, recent political friction and anti-ESG policies across states have started to create headwinds for pension funds and large institutions that serve them.

For example, Florida and Kansas passed laws in recent weeks and several other states including Texas and Kentucky have taken actions to restrict the ability of state public pension funds to invest in companies based on their ESG performance, citing concerns about fraudulent greenwashing and potential fiduciary duty violations, referring to the obligation institutional investors have to seek the highest returns for the lowest risk possible.

These restrictions can severely limit the capacity for ESG investing by institutional investors, which have played a significant role in driving the growth of ESG investing.

Lark Fink, in business attire and glasses, sits in a news studio being interviewed.
Blackrock CEO Larry Fink, shown during an earlier interview, told Bloomberg in 2023: ‘For the first time in my professional career, attacks are now personal. They’re trying to demonize the issues.’ Taylor Hill/Getty Images

While concerns about greenwashing and high fees in ESG investing are not totally unwarranted, these political interventions can also have unintended consequences.

A recent study from economists at Wharton and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that a Texas law enacted in 2021 prohibiting municipalities from contracting with banks with ESG policies had a distorting side effect on those municipalities’ borrowing costs. The policy ended up raising the cost of public finance, meaning the law ultimately cost taxpayers.

Navigating the crossroads

As companies hold their 2023 annual meetings, the discussions among corporate officials, investors and stakeholders will serve as an important barometer for the current state and future of ESG investing.

Due to high interest rate uncertainty, prospects of a recession and political upheaval, ESG is under pressure. Perceived in recent years as a paradigm shift in how market mechanisms can address harms to society, stakeholders are now scrutinizing ESG investing with a critical lens regarding how strongly it can persist and how much impact it can have.

The next few years will be its most important stress test yet.

Sehoon Kim, Assistant Professor of Finance, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘It’s going back to our roots’: Why one family embraced human composting after a tragic death

Read the full story at Fast Company.

More Americans are turning to human composting—now legal in six states—to avoid the environmental pitfalls of mainstream deathcare.

Microsoft’s Remix Xbox Controller is partly made of recycled water jugs

Read the full story at Neowin.

Microsoft has announced a new Xbox Controller variant, but this one is a little bit more special than the custom colors it usually offers. Dubbed the Xbox Wireless Controller – Remix Special Edition, it features recovered plastics, with one-third coming from recycled controllers and reclaimed materials.

How the climate movement learned to win in Washington

Read the full story at Politico.

After a staggering defeat, environmentalists needed a plan they could sell. Thus began a decade-long climb propelled by mass protests, heavy campaign spending and intense lobbying. Then came a final assist from Mother Nature herself.

Plastics supply chain in Europe continues to push for greater legal certainty for recycled content

Read the full story at Packaging Europe.

Earlier this week, organisations from across the value chain called on the EU to adopt mass balance as a means of developing EU-harmonised calculating rules for recycled content in plastics applications in order to meet revised environmental targets.

In this article, Nigel Davis, Insight Editor at ICIS, discusses why tracking of recycled content is a major issue, especially with the industry pressing for the legal acknowledgement of a mass balance approach that excludes fuel use.

How Food Matters helps cities leverage their power to shift the food system

Read the full story at Waste360.

Cincinnati, Ohio set bold goals in its Climate Action Plan. Among them are reducing food waste by 20 percent by 2025 and hitting 50 percent by 2028 –at the same time the metropolis aims to triple urban food production. The idea is to get a better grasp on two big problems. One is food insecurity; it impacts 33 percent of Cincinnati families. The other is amassing organics in landfill, to the tune of about 12,592 tons of residential food waste in 2021; that figure nearly doubles when food manufacturers’ and food service providers’ waste is added to the equation.

The initial challenge is just making people aware these food system problems are real and of their consequences. Then come the tasks of developing infrastructure to capture and recover more would-be waste; figuring out how to scale solutions; securing funding; and changing behavior, says Robin Henderson, program manager, City of Cincinnati, Office of Environment & Sustainability.

Ohio’s third largest city, Cincinnati is busy carving out strategies and a work plan, but getting started was not easy, and there are still mountains to climb.

Coming up with a robust plan, then executing it can be daunting for any municipality. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Food Matters program launched several years ago to help, beginning with pilots in Nashville, Baltimore, and Denver. The initiative has since grown, with over 20 cities now involved.

The Food Matters team guides participants in developing programs and policies around preventing waste and capturing food’s value, meeting them where they are, whether at the very beginning of their journey or, like Cincinnati, well on their way.

Michigan updates list of at-risk birds, adds black tern, six others

Read the full story at Bridge Michigan.

Michigan officials recently took six birds off of the states’ endangered and threatened species list. But it added seven other species.

The last time the list was updated was in 2009. Among the species that newly receive threatened status are the Eastern whip-poor-will, evening grosbeak, golden-winged warbler, Northern goshawk, spruce grouse and upland sandpiper.