Criminal Investigation Launched In San Bruno Blast

By Published On: June 17, 2011

Pacific Gas & Electric’s natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno is the focus of a criminal investigation. The U.S. Department of Justice, California Attorney General, and San Mateo County District Attorney notified PG&E June 9 that a joint government task force was investigating last September’s blast. Eight were killed and more than three dozen homes destroyed. PG&E will “cooperate fully” with the investigating task force, said company spokesperson Brian Swanson. The finances of the utility and its parent holding corporation “could be materially and adversely affected if criminal fines or penalties are imposed,” PG&E Corp. noted in a June 13 Securities & Exchange Commission filing. The criminal investigation comes on the heels of a California Public Utilities Commission decision directing PG&E, SoCal Gas, and San Diego Gas & Electric to submit by the end of August testing and replacement plans for aging natural gas pipes in highly populated regions. The CPUC regulates gas pipes within the state. State regulators June 9 approved the development and submission of gas pipe safety plans in response to last January’s urgent recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board. The latter is in the midst of a civil investigation of the San Bruno disaster. The federal agency also directed the CPUC to ensure that all intrastate pipeline operators adhere to safety protocols (Current, Jan. 7, 2011). “Our actions today place California firmly on the road to ensuring that our natural gas pipeline infrastructure is fully capable of providing safe and reliable service for decades to come,” said CPUC commissioner Mike Florio, who authored the approved rulemaking. “Historical exemptions must come to an end with an orderly and cost conscience implementation plan,” the decision points out. It added that all pipelines serving Californians must comply with “modern standards for safety.” The gas utilities told Current they could not estimate the costs of pressure testing and replacing old pipelines, as required by the CPUC. “It is a bit early to provide a cost estimate” of the regulation requiring SDG&E to review 60 miles of pipelines--which could be expanded by an additional 80 miles--said Art Larson, Sempra utilities spokesperson. SoCal Gas and SDG&E expect to submit their implementation plans by the Aug. 26 deadline, but the “costs and implementation pertaining to that additional 80 miles will be limited,” he added. PG&E plans to submit its gas line testing and replacement plan to regulators by the Aug. 26 deadline and “all cost estimates” are to be included, said Brittany Chord, PG&E spokesperson. Immediately at issue for PG&E is 152 miles of gas transmission line--similar to the pipe that blew up in San Bruno. These lines lack records and/or haven’t been pressure tested. The utility told the commission it intends to either test all of the lines or replace sections by the end of this year. The crux is “safe maximum operating pressure.” That vital threshold is unknown if safety records for decades-old pipe, and/or recent test data, are missing. Earlier this year, the CPUC ordered PG&E to lower its maximum operating pressure after a NTSB investigation revealed that the utility incorrectly recorded that the pipe at the center of the blast was seamless, but in fact was constructed with structurally weaker seam-welded pipe. SoCal Gas and SDG&E are missing pipeline records too. They informed the CPUC in mid-April that they’re missing safety records for 447 miles of natural gas pipelines. The multi-year safety plans due to the CPUC from all the gas utilities are to include a ranking of gas pipelines set for testing or replacement based on risk and system reliability assessments. They also are to detail how the cost for testing and replacing old pipes is to be divided between ratepayers and shareholders and the estimated rate impacts. A series of CPUC workshops regarding the prioritization of requisite pipe replacements or testing is to be held before the gas safety plans are filed. The first one is set for June 26. Before the CPUC’s June 9 vote approving the gas safety rulemaking, regulators released a scathing report by an independent panel that investigated the San Bruno blast. It faulted both PG&E and the CPUC. It concluded that “the explosion of the pipeline at San Bruno was a consequence of multiple weaknesses in PG&E’s management and oversight of the safety of its gas transmission system” (Current, June 10, 2011).

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