Record keeping and the basis for operating pressures in large natural gas transmission pipelines in some instances are inadequate and more attention is needed nationally; that is one of the lessons that California energy regulatory officials cited Thursday from the fatal September pipeline rupture in San Bruno, CA.
This observation came to light as the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved a resolution directing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), the operator of the failed San Bruno pipeline, to take additional remedial steps to assure its transmission pipeline records and operations are as safe as they can be.
Earlier this month the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) scheduled fact-finding hearings, and the federal pipeline investigators issued "urgent" recommendations regarding record-keeping problems that it has encountered with PG&E, prompting the CPUC to increase its level of scrutiny on the San Francisco-based combination utility (see Daily GPI, Jan. 5).
CPUC action Thursday reiterated recent communications from the commission's Executive Director Paul Clanon, which directed PG&E to lower the pressure on a number of pipelines in its system that run through the peninsula region south of San Francisco. It also directs PG&E and California's other major utilities with pipelines to search extensively to identify any parts of their pipeline systems that are operating without the benefit of a pressure test to validate the operating pressures currently being used.
The utilities now are directed to conduct pressure tests on any pipeline segments for which there are not accurate records of previous tests being completed.
"What we do know at this point is that the [PG&E] records are incomplete," CPUC General Counsel Frank Lindh said in response to a question from Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon. "How incomplete they are is what we will learn from this resolution by the commission. This directive will help us find all of this out."
Simon tried to get at what level of knowledge the CPUC staff might have had of the record-keeping flaws in PG&E's transmission pipeline operations. Lindh said the state regulatory staff was unaware of this issue until it received the NTSB interim report earlier in January.
"San Bruno taught us all something we didn't know before -- that the setting of maximum allowable operating pressures [MAOP] based on 1950s and 60s practices is really not adequate to protect the public safety," Lindh said. "It is a game-changer for the industry in California and throughout the country. That is really the bottom line."
Lindh said that he doesn't think the CPUC or other regulatory agencies had the knowledge they needed to ascertain the danger that we now know of as a result of San Bruno.
The regulators' resolution adopted a deadline of March 15 for the utility to produce all of its pipeline records.
In giving teeth to the two earlier letters from Clanon to PG&E, the regulators' resolution pointed out that in a letter from the utility last Friday, PG&E said it cannot meet Clanon's imposed deadline of Feb. 1 to produce all of the pipeline records, and will be not be able to do so until March 15. The resolution, thus, adopts the latter as the deadline for the utilities.
Commissioner Nancy Ryan raised the issue of whether PG&E's allegedly "inadequate and incomplete" pipeline records regarding the San Bruno pipeline (Line 132) is indicative of a much broader problem. "The answer to that should come when we receive the information that we are now ordering the utilities to provide [PG&E, along with Southern California Gas Co., San Diego Gas and Electric Co., and Southwest Gas Corp.]," Lindh said.
Simon, who chairs the natural gas committee for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said regulators throughout the country, along with Congress and state legislatures, are now taking the issue of pipeline safety "very, very seriously."
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