* Regulator wants Congress to pass pipeline safety reforms
* Bill would fine companies up to $2.5 mln for violations
* Lawmakers agree aging U.S. pipeline system needs help
By Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON, Sept 23 (Reuters) - Following two major oil and natural gas pipeline accidents in recent months, the top U.S. pipeline regulator told Congress on Thursday she will take tough enforcement action against companies that violate safety rules.
Congress is looking at pipeline regulations after several leaks on the Enbridge (ENB.TO) pipeline spilled thousands of barrels of oil in Michigan and Illinois, and the explosion of a PG&E Corp (PCG.N) natural gas pipeline in a San Francisco suburb killed several people and destroyed homes.
Cynthia Quarterman, who heads the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told a congressional hearing her agency “through aggressive regulation and oversight, will use its full enforcement authority to ensure that operators meet pipeline safety standards.”
U.S. authorities are probing the causes of both accidents and the owners of the pipelines could face big fines.
Quarterman, testifying at the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said the pipeline failures show her agency needs stronger authority in its pipeline safety program.
The Obama administration has proposed legislation to more than double maximum fines for violations to $2.5 million and add more inspectors. But the legislation has little chance of passing this year.
The U.S. agency regulates more than 2.5 million miles of pipelines that transport oil, natural gas and other hazardous substances.
Representative Edward Markey, the Democratic chairman of the House subcommittee, agreed there was a need to boost safety rules for the nation’s aging pipeline system.
“Some of these pipes appear nearly as fossilized as the fuel they transport,” he said.
Representative Fred Upton, the top Republican on the House panel, said any regulations should be as efficient.
“Legislation must be sensible and actually improve safety, rather than impose arbitrary mandates that increase costs and only create the appearance of safety,” he said.
Reporting by Tom Doggett; Editing by David Gregorio