Still battered by financial, political and regulatory pressures tied to two years of unprecedented wildfires, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) was hit by yet another state regulatory investigation into possible "systemic violations" of natural gas utility pipeline safety rules.

Penalties will be considered as part of the new case, the latest of a series targeting PG&E by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The new case directs the combination utility to "take immediate corrective measures" and "attest under penalty of perjury" that its pipeline safety programs conform to all applicable laws.

PG&E reiterated that safety is its most important priority, while acknowledging that in this case "we didn't live up to that commitment. Once that became apparent we took and continue to take additional actions to meet the regulatory standards." spokesperson Matt Nauman said the utility is "aware of and cooperating with the CPUC investigation."

The latest investigation ordered by the five-member regulatory panel was triggered by the CPUC Safety and Enforcement Division's (SED) report alleging the utility falsified locate and mark records over a five-year period, from 2012 through 2017.

California law requires that utilities "timely locate and mark" gas pipelines to ensure that third-party construction excavation does not damage pipes or diminish safety in any way. The SED report alleges PG&E lacked sufficient staffing to locate and mark gas pipelines in compliance with the law.

The report outlined several other allegations against the utility, including:

  • Supervisors and locators were pressured to complete work, causing staff falsifications of data;
  • It was common knowledge among PG&E supervisors that staff had falsified data; and
  • Input was received from external parties indicating discrepancies in the late-filed locate/mark reporting.

"Utility falsification of safety related records is a serious violation of law and diminishes our trust in the utility's reports on its progress," said CPUC President Michael Picker. "These findings are another example of why we are investigating PG&E's safety culture."

Regulators characterized the new case as a "penalty consideration" proceeding that will assess PG&E's compliance with the law pertaining to the locating and marking of gas distribution pipelines and related requirements.

During the penalty phase, which the CPUC characterizes as similar to a court case, an administration law judge will hear testimony from the regulatory staff and from PG&E, with the burden of proof on the utility to "demonstrate why [regulators] should not certify the SED findings and impose penalties and/or other forms of relief" for any violations found.

The job of locating and marking utility infrastructure is considered critical for construction crews and private citizens on or near the location of PG&E infrastructure related to transporting natural gas on the utility system.