Wichita Republican and Democratic legislators in Kansas are joining ranks to support an effort to restore the state's oversight of natural gas storage.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, plans to introduce a measure in the U.S. Senate to return control over the inspection of storage facilities within Kansas to the state. Federal courts have ruled that states don't have the authority to inspect the storage sites, but the federal government has declined to accept the responsibility.
The storage sites have not been inspected for 19 months.
The Wichita Eagle reports Monday that state officials will push for a legislative resolution in early 2012 supporting Roberts' efforts.
Roberts wants to give Kansas the authority to conduct safety inspections on 11 underground storage facilities that can hold more than 270 billion cubic feet of gas. Kansas companies hold the natural gas for passed through pipelines to out-of-state markets. The federal Department of Transportation, the lead agency in interstate gas safety, has opted not to inspect the sites
The natural gas is housed in depleted oil and gas fields in Kansas. Companies pump the gas into huge caverns for storage until it is needed by utility companies.
Safety is a concern following the 2001 incidents in Hutchinson that left two people dead.
Natural gas escaped from an underground salt formation, migrated seven miles, rose to the surface through abandoned water wells and exploded. The two deaths occurred when a mobile home exploded. Half a city block of businesses were also destroyed.
Rep. Carl Holmes, a Liberal Republican and chairman of the House Utilities Committee, said the Roberts' bill could prevent future mishaps.
"What we have at the moment is, we're in limbo (on gas storage safety) and nobody's looking at it," Holmes said.
In 2011, Kansas legislators did discuss the issue, with the House and Senate each voting on resolutions asking for the federal government to restore state authority for inspections. However, because of a technical issue only the House version was sent to Washington.
Holmes said legislators would make sure not to repeat the mistake.
Kansas Corporation Commission Chairman Mark Sievers said the state agency assisted Roberts' staff in drafting his bill. While the KCC doesn't lobby for legislation, Sievers said the agency supports restoring regulation and will "provide him (Roberts) with whatever further information he might request."
"Here we have a safety issue we have to deal with," he said.
Sievers also said the Roberts bill will not expand KCC regulation beyond what the agency already had been doing until last year's court case shut the inspections down, which appeared to be effective.
"We didn't have gas explosions," Sievers said.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said the change in federal law was the best way to protect people living near the storage sites.
"It's too bad we have to get the federal government's permission," he said. "If that's what the courts say we have to do, then we have to go to Congress."