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Regulatory Fallout of San Bruno Blast Due This Summer

Late summer promises to be a busy time for major federal regulatory proceedings related to the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) natural gas pipeline rupture last September in San Bruno, CA, according to a California-based staff member for Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo).

"Between now and the end of August/early September there is going to be stuff happening left and right," Speier staffer Richard Steffen told NGI late Wednesday. "There are a number of investigations ongoing with all kinds of issues. We're going to start posting information on our website almost daily."

Steffen said Speier has been told the proposed rules from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) will be released in early August, and the results of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation are also expected by the end of August.

"Although the date of the NTSB's final hearing on the San Bruno pipeline explosion has not been officially confirmed, it is expected to occur around Aug. 30, 2011," Steffen said. "At a hearing planned for NTSB headquarters in Washington, DC, staff will present its investigative findings and recommendations for greater pipeline safety."

Eventually the NTSB members will vote on whether to adopt the findings. Speier has described the hearing as being of "significant national importance," given the nation's estimated 187,000 miles of aging pipeline, which, like the segment that failed in San Bruno, may have never been pressure tested.

Speier's office recently received four pages of internal PG&E memos dating back to late 1992 from a consultant/employee who left the utility a year later. The memos describe a gas operations department in the middle of a reorganization and a clear warning that many of the critical pipeline documentation functions that were being transferred to a newly organized distribution unit had not been "performed or kept current for some time now."

Specific examples of shortcomings by PG&E were cited as being historic records of pipeline strength test and pressure reports. These are the same issues that make up the heart of the post-San Bruno work and the center of controversy between PG&E and state/federal officials.

Speier introduced legislation (HR 22) to improve natural gas pipeline safety in the United States. On April 1 she also presented the California Public Utility Commission with 14 proposals that she said would vastly improve oversight of natural gas pipeline operators. They are now part of the state regulators' rulemaking proceedings. Eventually, the CPUC will issue final rules for pipeline operations later this year.

Steffen said this is an attempt to have certain reforms made in California, even if they don't make it through Congress as part of national pipeline safety upgrades.

Earlier in June CPUC Commissioner Michel Florio set the timetable for the rulemaking proceeding, calling for hearings to begin in November.

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