It’s a small agency with a long name and big responsibility — ensuring the safety of more than 1 million shipments of hazardous materials a day, including a nonstop flow of oil and gas through 2.6 million miles of energy pipeline and along 140,000 miles of rail. For Americans living in the path of this energy torrent, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is their main defense against fiery derailments, gas line explosions and pipeline leaks, like the May 29 rupture that contaminated ocean waters off Santa Barbara, California.
As domestic oil and gas production hurtled toward record levels in recent years, the agency has become a pincushion for criticism from Congress, environmentalists, safety advocates and even industry for its inability to produce timely regulations. They complain the agency, known by its acronym, PHMSA, is stagnant, unproductive and opaque.
Against this backdrop, Barack Obama’s administration has selected a new PHMSA administrator, Marie Therese Dominguez, who has little or no direct experience with hazardous materials, pipelines or railroads and who was unknown to the various groups that have been battling over the shape of new regulations.
“Ms. Dominguez’s appointment kind of surprised us,” said Carl Weimer, the executive director of nonprofit group the Pipeline Safety Trust. “I chatted even with some folks in the industry, and it surprised them too, because everybody thought they knew what names were in the hat for selection and that was a name that kind of surprised everybody.”
Dominguez on Monday began serving as PHMSA’s deputy administrator, pending her confirmation by the Senate as its administrator.
A 49-year-old lawyer, she served as a political appointee in Bill Clinton’s and Obama’s administrations, including stints at the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. Between Democratic administrations, she worked as a private consultant on government contracts.
“She has proven herself to be a bold leader throughout her career,” said Suzanne Emmerling, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, which has authority over PHMSA. “She has managed successful organizational change in the public sector, and she will bring innovative skills and experience to PHMSA.”
Safety advocates are hoping Dominguez also brings White House clout, because many see the White House as a regulatory bottleneck. The White House Office of Management and Budget is the final arbiter of oil train and energy pipeline regulations and a place where negotiations with industry groups often get bogged down. One reason is that the White House is frequently required to do a cost-benefit analysis that inevitably leads to contentious, protracted negotiations with industry stakeholders and a watering down of regulations.
The May 29 announcement of Dominguez’s selection drew a mostly neutral response from lawmakers on Capitol Hill who had been agitating for Obama to appoint someone to fill the post, which has been vacant since the previous administrator, Cynthia Quarterman, resigned in September.
When Obama tapped Quarterman to head PHMSA in 2009, she was representing energy companies in their dealings with the agency. She had plenty of expertise, but some insiders saw her as disengaged and ineffective. She did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Since 2013, Dominguez has been serving as the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army, providing budgetary and managerial advice to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works program.
From 2007 to 2013, she held a senior position at the U.S. Postal Service. Earlier in her career, she served as a special assistant to then-President Clinton and his associate director of presidential personnel.
Dominguez has served “in big organizations undergoing dramatic change at times of crisis,” said Elgie Holstein, a senior strategist at the Environmental Defense Fund who has worked with her both in and out of government.
Sean Dixon, a staff attorney for Riverkeeper who doesn’t know Dominguez, was heartened by her work with the Army Corps of Engineers. Riverkeeper is a New York group concerned about the threat oil trains pose to New York’s water supply.
“She seems to have a lot of experience with infrastructure, with systems where you have water concerns, transportation concerns, engineering concerns and implementation concerns,” Dixon said. “So it seems like figuring out the best solution for a lot of parties is something she has a lot of experience with.”
Emmerling said that Dominguez’s background is relevant to the PHMSA post, nonetheless adding that many political appointees have had success even if they came from backgrounds largely unrelated to their posting.
She cited Sarah Feinberg, whose selection to serve as the head of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was announced the same day as Dominguez’s. The two will need to work closely on oil train safety.
Feinberg has been the acting FRA administrator since January. Before that, she was Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s chief of staff. Before that, she was best known for her strategic communications activities on behalf of Democratic campaigns, including then–Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.
The selection of Dominguez and Feinberg appears to be a bet that political, managerial and communications skills will trump subject-matter expertise for these new agency leaders. Feinberg has drawn praise from industry and Capitol Hill alike for her quick mastery of policy details and her accessibility.
Testifying before a congressional oversight hearing in April, Feinberg contended with complaints from lawmakers about how long it was taking the administration to produce oil-train regulations, despite 10 fiery derailments in the United States and Canada in the past two years.
“We have to function in the regulatory process that exists, and it’s not built for speed,” she said. “The reality is if we want to be truly efficient, we would end up regulating by emergency order, or the Congress would direct us in certain ways.”
One of the lawmakers deriding PHMSA that day was Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. A gas pipeline exploded in her San Bruno district in 2010, killing eight people, injuring 58 others and destroying 38 homes. The fire was fed for more than an hour by a continuing flow of gas through the ruptured pipeline, which hadn’t been inspected since 1956. Since then, Speier has crusaded in vain for tighter pipeline inspection requirements and automatic shutoff valves.
At the hearing, she mocked PHMSA as “not only a toothless tiger but one that has overdosed on Quaaludes and is passed out on the job.”
In 2010 and 2011, with the domestic energy boom underway, PHMSA began considering ways to update regulations for liquid and gas pipelines, but no rules have emerged or appear imminent. The agency has sent draft rules to the White House, but little else is known about their fate.
Lois Epstein, an engineer and Arctic program director for the nonprofit environmental protection group the Wilderness Society who had been thought in the running for the PHMSA post, expressed frustration with the opaqueness of the regulatory process.
“We don’t even know what the administration is thinking,” she said. “It’s just been an incredible black hole from a regulatory standpoint.”
A common theme among those interviewed for this article was that whoever leads PHMSA will need White House support.
Of Dominguez, the Pipeline Safety Trust’s Weimer said, “It will be interesting to see if she’s taken this job with a nod so that she can let some of those rules out and get something done.”