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PG&E Making Progress on Safety; More Work to Do, Says Exec

The top gas executive for San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) told NGI Tuesday the combination utility is less than half way toward becoming a "top quartile" gas distribution and transmission pipeline operation but it still needs to fulfill a dozen recommendations from federal regulators following the September 2010 rupture and explosion of the transmission pipeline in San Bruno, CA, he said.

While citing progress, but admitting that at times change may have been forced too fast at times, Executive Vice President Nick Stavropoulos said PG&E has only fully addressed one of 12 recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation of the explosion that killed eight people and destroyed a suburban neighborhood south of San Francisco.

State and federal regulators, as well as citizen stakeholders, have been unsparing in their criticism of PG&E's gas system operations in the past five to 10 years, as well as in the utility's self-reported violations (see Daily GPI, Jan. 19) that PG&E divulged to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) this year. Many of those violations, Stavropoulos pointed out, broke with PG&E internal standards and not necessarily state and federal regulations.

"I think we will know that we have 'arrived' when we have closed out all of the 12 NTSB specific recommendations," Stavropoulos said. "We have one closed out, and it gives me comfort that we have demonstrated to the nation's No. 1 independent authority on pipeline safety that we have done the things that they felt were important enough for us to do. Right now we have one recommendation closed and 11 that the NTSB calls 'open, but acceptable.'

"This is saying that the item is still open, but we have demonstrated that we have made sufficient progress against those recommendations and also articulated a measurable plan for us to continue to make progress. The feedback we get from the NTSB is going to be another measure of success in determining whether or not we have arrived."

Nationally, major pipeline incidents per mile of transmission and distribution pipelines are going down, he said. "We're starting from a point where the U.S. gas pipeline system on balance is an extremely safe form of transportation. That said, I think the industry is making it clear that it wants to continue to do better."

NTSB, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the CPUC are holding the entire industry accountable to higher standards, Stavropoulos said. The new standards call for "verifiable, traceable and complete" records on maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) tests in stepped-up pipeline integrity management programs.

After a year on the job heading PG&E's gas system, which now operates separately within the combined utility, Stavropoulos said if nothing else, the utility has "kept its commitments" involving hydrostatic testing, installation of more automatic shutoff valves and a complete overhaul of its previously woeful record-keeping of pipeline maintenance and safety programs.

A top priority, which he admits may take years to fulfill, involves "embedding a safety-first culture into this organization...When I talk to other companies [inside and outside the gas industry], the No. 1 thing that every employee needs to understand is that 'safety first' is the top priority. In a short period of time, I think the employees are all seeing that we are a different company."

Even with that success, Stavropoulos said he probably instituted too many improvement programs (120 in all) for the organization to absorb in a year's time. Ultimately, he chalks that up to an improvement mindset that has grown since San Bruno and its continuing fallout.

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