Investigation Spotlights CPUC Gas Pipe Safety Deficiencies

By Published On: June 9, 2011

As thousands of miles of high-pressure natural gas transmission pipelines in California age, the chief state agency that’s supposed to oversee their safety has become decrepit, from lack of staff, money, tools, training, and knowledge needed to effectively protect the public. That’s the assessment of an independent review panel appointed by the California Public Utilities Commission--the agency in charge of gas pipeline safety--to investigate the explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric gas line. The accident occurred in San Bruno last year, killing eight, leveling 38 homes, and damaging 70 other houses. The panel also concluded much the same about the utility in its June 9 report. PG&E, it found, suffered “multiple weaknesses” in its “management and oversight of the safety of its gas transmission system,” including managers in charge of safety operations with no background in pipeline operations. The company, according to the report, suffers from a culture that values other objectives over public safety, due in some measure to a top management that emphasizes “financial performance,” but is not “engaged in operational safety and performance.” The report characterized PG&E’s Pipeline 2020 Plan--a document the company introduced as its roadmap to improved safety--as “grossly underdeveloped,” suggesting it was quickly released after the San Bruno accident largely as a media relations effort. Upon hearing the panel’s conclusions CPUC commissioner Mike Florio responded that it’s evident “a systemic fix” is needed to improve the safety outlook for the state’s pipeline system. Commission president Mike Peevey pledged the CPUC would “do its damndest” to implement the report’s many recommendations to redress deficiencies. PG&E interim chair Lee Cox stated the company would quickly review the findings and act to improve the safety of its gas system. At the heart of the findings, Paula Rosput Reynolds told the CPUC, is that both PG&E and the CPUC largely have focused on compliance with prescriptive rules instead of on developing comprehensive programs to maintain the integrity of the aging pipeline system. “This is a lifetime management problem,” she said. Other panel members explained that there is no single solution to maintaining the integrity of aging pipelines--such as pressure testing or pipe replacement. Instead, said panel member and engineer Karl Pister, those who are in charge of safely operating gas pipelines must understand the system as a whole. For instance, he noted that pressure testing alone does not tell enough about the condition of a pipeline, but must be examined in conjunction with historical records and metallurgical tests. In addition, the panel’s report noted that vibrations from construction near pipelines can cause stresses that result in eventual accidents, with the implication it’s also important to track activities near pipelines. Panel member Jan Schori said the CPUC has insufficient resources dedicated to pipeline safety. Only 18 people work on pipeline safety, she said, noting that 43 percent of field audit efforts are expended on propane distribution systems within the state’s 3,200 mobile home parks. Schori said the agency does not have a single staff member who’s certified to administer federal rules adopted in 2004 that aim to assure the safety of pipelines under holistic integrity management programs. Moreover, she said, state policies prevent CPUC staff from even travelling to attend training seminars and courses. “This is not an area where you can do more with less,” she said. She further faulted the commission for making pipeline safety a low visibility task. Enhancing the commission’s capacity to regulate pipeline safety may require higher fees on utilities, Schori said. She added that the staff should have the ability to assess monetary penalties when there are violations of standards. Until the deficiencies can be addressed, the panel recommended that the CPUC hire consultants who are qualified to make sure PG&E and other gas utilities in the state develop and implement effective pipeline integrity management systems. The report came the day after the National Transportation Safety Board found that fire departments in California and across the nation often do not have information they need to effectively respond to natural gas pipeline leaks or ruptures. In a June 8 report, the board stated that the San Bruno Fire Department knew about one gas line traversing the city, but not about the larger transmission line that exploded. Consequently, the board is recommending that the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration require pipeline operators to share more critical information with first responders. The CPUC’s independent investigation panel report also came as PG&E again asked for more time to produce documents related to the safety of its natural gas pipelines in highly populated areas. Regulators first set an April 18 deadline after the San Bruno incident and then agreed to extend it to June 18. Now the utility said in a June 8 filing to the CPUC it can’t meet the deadline and needs until Sept. 30.

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