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California Pipeline Legislation Still a Mixed Bag

Gas pipeline safety laws continue to swirl around in the current session of the California state legislature, with several bills still active, although at least a couple of proposals were declared dead in committee earlier in May. A new bill (AB 478) in the lower house Assembly was introduced Tuesday to redirect fines paid by natural gas utilities to help pay for pipeline upgrades mandated in the wake of the San Bruno, CA, pipeline rupture and explosion nearly two years ago.

A critic of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) since the pipeline rupture, Assemblyman Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), whose district includes San Bruno, introduced AB 478 to get any fine monies paid by PG&E or other utilities to be directed toward paying for the state's mandated upgrade of its natural gas distribution and transmission pipelines. A similar bill in the state Senate (SB 1350) was held in Appropriations Committee last week, presumably because the law would erode the state's general fund at a time when California is in the midst of a deficit crisis.

Hill held a press conference in San Francisco Tuesday to introduce his proposal, even though the language for the bill was still not in print.

Hill's other two San Bruno-inspired bills (AB 578 and AB 1456) are moving along, according to a veteran energy industry observer in Sacramento. AB 578 would require the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to consider implementation of any gas safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). A PG&E advocate in the state capital said the combination utility has no concerns about the bill.

AB 1456, which would require the CPUC to consider a gas utility's safety performance in determining its future rates, is expected to be voted on in the full Assembly by the end of this week. PG&E has removed its previous opposition to the bill after it was amended in the Utilities and Commerce Committee. The San Francisco-based utility doesn't oppose the bill but has come to think of it as unnecessary, given the ongoing discussion regarding pipeline safety enhancement plans.

The CPUC, thus, is viewed as already moving in a direction that would be required under the proposed law, according to the capital energy observer.

A separate bill (AB 1694) related to the state's monitoring of gas systems in mobile home parks -- primarily propane -- is in the Senate Energy Committee and is of little or no concern to PG&E, whose Sacramento representative indicated it had worked with the CPUC on revised language in the bill.

Two other pipeline-related bills appear to be stymied by inaction in committee. AB 1514 is an attempt to strengthen the state's requirement for contractors to use the one-call alert system for identifying underground utility infrastructure. Damage by contractors remains the leading cause of gas pipeline incidents, according to regulators. AB 1514 was held without discussion in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, essentially killing the bill's chances.

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