In separate actions Thursday to provide utility bill discounts for victims of the San Bruno, CA, gas pipeline explosion and prepare for winter natural gas delivery operations in the event of a severe cold snap, the head of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) said regulators would make sure the pipeline is rerouted.

"The ruptured segment of the transmission pipeline [Line 132] will remain out of service indefinitely," said CPUC President Michael Peevey. He urged his colleagues to give him emergency power to raise the pressure on existing pipelines this winter if needed to avoid curtailments. "Under no circumstances should this commission allow PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric Co.] to rebuild that pipeline through the neighborhood in San Bruno where this terrible tragedy occurred," Peevey said.

"And I think that [the utility executives] after some back-and-forth have made that clear publicly. They will have to find a different route for the pipeline, and I want to be clear on that point."

In response to an inquiry from the mayor of San Bruno, PG&E committed last week to reroute the repaired 30-inch diameter transmission pipeline that failed Sept. 9 killing eight people, destroying 37 homes and badly damaging18 other homes. (see Daily GPI, Oct. 26).

Peevey and three of his colleagues on the five-member commission (Commissioner Dian Grueneich was absent) separately approved resolutions to grant Peevey authority to order the pipeline pressure raised in the peninsula region south of San Francisco this winter when the health and safety of the public would be threatened by curtailments of large institutional and industrial operations, including hospitals and public safety operations, and authorized PG&E to provide shareholder-supported rate relief for 374 customers directly impacted by the pipeline failure.

The action gives the CPUC head "backstop authority," which he said he hopes not to ever use. This is an offshoot of PG&E's submittal of a contingency plan to the CPUC for dealing with the operation of the transmission lines at lower-than-normal pressure.

"My expectation is that PG&E will be able to meet its obligations this winter without any increase in pressure," Peevey said. "What we're talking about here at most is a slight increase in pressure in Line 132. We would not allow a move back to full 100% of its historical pressure levels. And we would have to be absolutely convinced that even a slight increase in pressure is absolutely necessary to meet gas demands by the public in San Francisco and on the peninsula."

San Bruno residents and the local state Assembly representative Jerry Hill appeared before the CPUC urging regulators not to allow the utility to change the pipeline pressures, which were lowered by 20% in the wake of the pipeline failure. But the lower pressures come with the risks to the overall transmission pipeline backbone system's reliability this winter in the peninsula and San Francisco areas in particular, and the CPUC wanted to be able to avoid critical gas service curtailments to hospitals and others.

The so-called noncore customers are viewed as being at greater risk than usual this winter. "According to the data I have, virtually every hospital in San Francisco and on the peninsula would be at risk of shutoff of their gas service this winter," said Peevey.

"In two or three months we could very well face that [extreme] situation, but it is unlikely," Peevey said. "It is our responsibility at the CPUC to take appropriate steps to protect the public safety as it relates to the reliability of natural gas service in the cold winter months. Safety comes first, and in no circumstance can we allow PG&E to operate its gas system in any manner that is unsafe.

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