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The Santa Barbara Oil Spill Caught a Small Federal Regulator at a Vulnerable Time

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has scarcely more staffers than the agency responsible for America's 59 war cemeteries.
Oil from the Santa Barbara spill. (Photo: Zackmann08/Wikimedia Commons)

Oil from the Santa Barbara spill. (Photo: Zackmann08/Wikimedia Commons)

The Santa Barbara pipeline leaked more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil last month. Overseeing the pipeline, it turns out, was a small, relatively unknown federal agency—which, at the time of the leak, had no permanent leader and fewer employees than seemingly less crucial regulators.

The oil spill in Santa Barbara is only the latest to draw attention to the discrepancies between the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's modest size, the low fines it has levied, and the large responsibility it holds. Besides the Santa Barbara pipeline, the administration is responsible for inspecting more than 2.6 million miles of United States pipes carrying crude oil, natural gas, and other hazardous substances.

PHMSA has 139 federal inspection and enforcement staff and "over 300" state partners. That's not much more than the American Battle Monuments Commission.

PHMSA has not had a permanent head since October, when Cynthia Quarterman left her post. President Barack Obama nominated Marie Therese Dominguez to the position just three days ago. The nomination came a week after 10 U.S. senators, in response to the recent spill, posted a letter asking that Obama to "act quickly ... so that the Senate can confirm an individual to this key position."

"It is important to states like ours that PHMSA have a permanent administrator, to ensure accountability, to develop long-term plans for pipeline transport and crude-by-rail safety, and to respond quickly when things unfortunately go wrong," wrote the 10 senators, including California's Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

But long before any of PHMSA's leadership troubles, independent investigations found the agency to be underpowered and understaffed. As the New York Times reported in 2011:

An examination of agency data and interviews with safety experts ... portray an agency that rarely levies fines and is not active enough in policing the aging labyrinth of pipelines, which has suffered thousands of significant hazardous liquid spills over the past two decades.

The week of the Santa Barbara oil spill, a Politico report on the agency found something similar:

The picture that emerges is of an agency that lacks the manpower to inspect the nation's 2.6 million miles of oil and gas lines, that grants the industry it regulates significant power to influence the rule-making process, and that has stubbornly failed to take a more aggressive regulatory role, even when ordered by Congress to do so.

Federal auditors have regularly dinged the agency for its ineffectiveness since the 1970s, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. And to be sure, major spills have occurred under the agency's watch over that period of time. (For reference, check out these visualizations of PHMSA's own data of significant pipeline accidents nationwide between 1986 and 2012.)

We found an additional, especially interesting illustration of the discrepancy between PHMSA's muscle and its responsibility: The agency has 139 federal inspection and enforcement staff and "over 300" state partners—barely more than the American Battle Monuments Commission, which is responsible for 59 war memorials and cemeteries, and had the equivalent of 395 full-time workers in 2014.

That's not to say staffing up would alone fix PHMSA's troubles. "Throwing more resources and money at the problem may not be the answer for the tiny agency, because there remain deeper concerns about how it works, especially its reluctance to mandate safety improvements or to level meaningful fines for wrongdoing," the New York Times reported. Still, it would be a start. For 2015, Congress authorized PHMSA to hire 98 more inspection and enforcement staffers, but it's unclear how many of those positions the agency has actually filled, the Santa Barbara Independent reports.