California regulators on Thursday waived normal hiring processes to form a review panel to address concerns about Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s (PG&E) ability to meet peak demand in the event of a severe cold snap in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The action was taken in the wake of the Sept. 9 San Bruno pipeline explosion and fire, which killed eight people and destroyed 37 homes and devastated a swatch of a residential neighborhood about 10 miles south of San Francisco.

As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) pushed on with its continuing investigation, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) created the independent review panel to be selected in the next month by CPUC President Michael Peevey and confirmed by the full five-member commission. It is empowered to gather facts and make recommendations "based on the facts to the CPUC as to whether there is a need for the general improvement of the safety of PG&E's gas transmission pipeline system" (see Daily GPI, Sept. 24).

The CPUC selected:

In the aftermath of the pipeline failure, the CPUC ordered PG&E to lower the pressure in the affected 30-inch diameter transmission pipeline (Line 132) by 20%, but with winter approaching the regulators want the expert panel's judgment as to when to order the operating pressures to be raised to their normal levels (about 370 pounds per square inch).

CPUC Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon asked whether PG&E -- while operating below normal pressure -- would have adequate capacity in the event of a cold snap. Executive Director Paul Clanon said that is a "highly technical" question for which there are multiple answers.

Peevey expressed concerns about the CPUC having to meet and vote before the pipeline pressure can be increased and asked commission staff to come up with a process for how an emergency situation can be handled. "We just can't have a situation where we have to wait for a commission meeting," Peevey said. "We need a process where authority can be delegated. It is necessary for the utility and necessary for the public to be protected."

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