The California Public Utilities Commission Thursday announced a two-pronged approach to responding to last September's rupture of a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) natural gas transmission pipeline in San Bruno, CA. One will look at whether the utility's past handling of its pipeline systems warrants sanctions and fines.

The second action, made public two days earlier, launches a long-term statewide proceeding aimed at updating and strengthening the regulation and oversight of gas transmission pipelines throughout California (see Daily GPI, Feb. 24). The five-member commission, operating with only three commissioners, voted unanimously to initiate the new proceeding and in a private executive session later it established the investigation of PG&E behavior leading up to the explosion and fire that killed eight.

A PG&E spokesperson said the the San Francisco-based combination utility "welcomed" the statewide proceeding but had no comment on the second action to look at the utility's actions in the wake of a Jan. 3 interim report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that called PG&E's record keeping "inadequate" on the pipeline (Line 132) that failed in San Bruno. NTSB is conducting the definitive investigation into the root causes of the blast.

CPUC President Michael Peevey announced that one of the panel's newest members, former consumer advocate attorney Michael Florio, will be the lead commissioner on both the proceedings, although one of the two incumbent CPUC commissioners, Timothy Alan Simon, has been the CPUC's lead on natural gas matters and is chair of the gas committee for the National Association of Utility Regulatory Commissioners.

Florio called the CPUC's actions "two important steps" in response to the San Bruno tragedy, cautioning that regulators have "reached no conclusions at this stage." In the proceeding on PG&E the focus is totally on the time prior to the Sept. 9 rupture, while the other, broader one will look forward and take all of the utilities into consideration. Florio said the CPUC action follows up on the NTSB's assessment from early January that PG&E's record-keeping may have allegedly been "inadequate."

"This phase will attempt to determine if PG&E broke laws or rules by failing to maintain adequate useable records," Florio said. "PG&E will have the opportunity to refute the NTSB finding, so this is the opening of a proceeding, it is not the conclusion." If the regulators eventually find that PG&E did violate laws or rules, there will be a subsequent proceeding to determine if penalties are warranted, he said.

The CPUC said it began examining PG&E's record keeping immediately after the San Bruno explosion, and it pointed to the NTSB issuing its "safety recommendation" on Jan.3, once it determined that after the rupture PG&E had incorrectly identified the San Bruno pipe as seamless, when in fact the pipe was seamed and welded.

>The CPUC immediately directed PG&E to undertake the safety recommendations made by the NTSB and conduct a records search of pipeline documents in order to determine the valid maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) based on the weakest section of the pipeline or component to ensure safe operation of PG&E's pipelines.

Currently at the CPUC's direction, PG&E has three distribution feeder pipelines and six transmission lines, including the one that ruptured (Line 132) operating at 80% of their normal operating pressures. Even with colder-than-normal weather this winter, PG&E has not had to curtail any customers as a result of the lower operating pressures in the Bay Area south and east of San Francisco, a utility spokesperson told NGI Thursday.

©Copyright 2011 Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news report may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in any form, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.