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PG&E Reduces Pipes for Testing; New Gas Unit Formed

San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) has reduced the number of previously designated natural gas transmission pipeline segments requiring hydrostatic testing and put in place a separate gas operations group in its combination utility, according to a PG&E spokesperson.

After a state regulatory-designated independent review panel criticized the utility for its role before, during and after last September's pipeline explosion and fire in San Bruno, CA (see Daily GPI, June 10), NGI asked PG&E to provide more detail of its response to the review panel's allegations. The utility has maintained for months that it is "moving aggressively" to turn around its performance in its natural gas operating unit.

One area that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and federal regulators have focused on is PG&E's verification of the safety of its maximum allowable operating pressures (MAOP) in the more than 1,000 miles of transmission pipelines traversing heavily populated and high-consequence areas (HCA). The utility has now hydrostatically pressure tested 11 segments and all were completed successfully, the spokesperson told NGI, adding that it has also reduced the total number of segments still needing to be tested.

Through its ongoing data search and verification process, PG&E "has been able to reduce the total number of segments in the plan by 18 [from 95 to 77] on the results of its continuing records validation effort, and as our efforts continue, we may be able to further reduce the number of segments to be hydro tested this year," the spokesperson said.

In addition, PG&E has now reduced operating pressures by 20% in a dozen of its transmission pipelines -- mostly in and around the greater San Francisco Bay Area -- and reduced the pressure by about 7% in a 13th pipeline after its MAOP validation process could not confirm the basis for the line's operating level. "PG&E has and will continue to make other pressure reductions as warranted by the results of its ongoing analyses and validation efforts," the spokesperson said.

PG&E is accomplishing all of this with a newly created stand-alone gas operations unit headed by Nick Stavropoulos, who is in the newly created executive vice president's spot at PG&E after more than 30 years in the industry, most recently as the COO of National Grid's U.S. gas distribution system.

"We have also hired additional personnel in key leadership positions and will continue to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of our organizational structure on an ongoing basis," the spokesperson said. And the utility's gas pipeline standards are now more rigorous.

"We now internally report and record any occurrence where gas pressure exceeds allowable limits -- even by as little as 0.10%," according to the spokesperson. Whenever a pipeline's pressure exceeds its authorized limits, an internal response is automatically triggered for "immediate action and investigation."

While the utility claims it now has the ability to have "greater visibility" into its gas pipeline operating conditions, the spokesperson acknowledged that there could be additional changes made to its standards as the result of the CPUC proceeding.

The spokesperson said PG&E has upgraded its training on gas pipeline installation, maintenance and pipeline documentation for all gas operating unit employees. So far, 260 gas personnel have completed one or both courses on document validation and electronic recording of the information.

To supplement its own in-company expertise, PG&E also is reaching out to companies and organizations throughout the U.S. gas industry to help it identify and establish industry verified best practices for its pipeline operations.

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