Regulators October 14 unanimously loosened state contractor rules to quickly hire technical and legal experts to assist a new independent panel charged with investigating the cause of the San Bruno accident in which a Pacific Gas & Electric gas line exploded. Although the weather has been warm, regulators fear in a cold snap natural gas supplies would be crimped to homes and businesses for heat because gas pressure has been reduced as a cautionary measure on three pipelines through the area following the September 9 explosion. The 5-0 vote allows the California Public Utilities Commission’s executive director to fast-track hiring to assist the panel in determining if it’s safe to allow the pipeline pressure to be increased by Thanksgiving. Paul Clanon, CPUC executive director, said he would strive to make sure the hiring of gas specialists is transparent. The approved resolution allows experts to be selected outside a competitive bidding process. Clanon said the selection process would be “competitive where possible” but that it may entail, for example, going directly to law firms with known expertise in the gas area. He said that the commission’s legal department will check for conflict of interests. The CPUC used expedited contracting outside state norms to hire The Structure Group, which was tasked with assessing the accuracy of PG&E’s “smart” meters and the utility’s handling of customer complaints. Creating the gas expert panel was approved by the commission September 28. The panel was tasked with assessing the CPUC’s natural gas policies and procedures. Concern also arose over who would authorize Pacific Gas & Electric, whose transmission pipeline is at the center of the investigation, and by what means, to allow it to increase pressure in the affected transmission. The pressure was cut back by 80 percent until the new panel of experts can review the safety of turning it back up to pre-accident levels. “We appreciate the commission’s quick action to name the review panel,” said PG&E spokesperson Joe Molica. He added PG&E looks forward to its findings, including how to improve its natural gas transmission operations. After getting a clearance from the panel, the CPUC is supposed to vote to allow restoring the gas pressure to normal levels. But how a decision would be reached was not clear. “We are not going to have [San Francisco’s] Sunset District without heat because we don’t have a meeting,” said CPUC president Mike Peevey. (That district is a notoriously cold and foggy area.) PG&E dedicated $500,000 of shareholder money to fund the expert panel. That is considered start-up funding. Clanon said PG&E would continue to pay the panel’s tab. Earlier, the resolution approved this week was switched to the consent calendar, where matters are approved with no discussion. However, at CPUC member Tim Simon’s request, it was put back on the regular agenda. “I wanted to make the public aware of the actions of this agency,” Simon said. He also wanted assurance that the gas expert panel would review the gas explosion at Rancho Cordova, which has not been investigated by the CPUC, he said. The Rancho Cordova gas line exploded in December 2009, killing one person and damaging a group of homes.