California regulators on Thursday remained focused on utility infrastructure safety for natural gas and electric transmission systems to lower the risks of pipeline tragedies in recent years.

During a day-long workshop Wednesday the executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Paul Clanon said the state’s regulators, staff and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) all failed in regard to the Sept. 9, 2010 San Bruno natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion. Clanon made the comments during a hearing in San Francisco, along with two of the five-member CPUC as part of an initiative to improve and enhance the handling of utility safety programs in future rate proceedings.

The CPUC traditionally concentrates on the costs of various proposed programs and operations, ignoring more qualitative issues, such as impacts on the safety of various energy utility operations covering both natural gas and electricity (see Daily GPI, Jan. 6). The CPUC has developed a straw proposal aimed at getting stakeholder input during the workshop.

“We collectively failed,” said Clanon, noting that in order to find future success when it comes to safety the CPUC needs to acknowledge its shortcomings .”Success is the word I very much want to use a year from now, or two or three years from now. We need to set the standard for natural gas safety in this nation.”

Clanon said it is the CPUC’s overall role to “guarantee safety” in all of the industries it regulates, and in that regard every staff member and regulator play a role. “California is far ahead of the rest of the nation in the regulation of natural gas pipelines. Now comes the hard work…the work of institutionalizing safety.”

In his opening remarks at the hearing CPUC President Michael Peevey questioned whether the regulatory commission over the years has concentrated too much on quantitative issues to the detriment of more qualitative safety considerations. Commissioner Mike Florio said current safety efforts are part of a larger framework in which the CPUC and its staff are doing a variety of things to “sort out the ramifications of San Bruno and reacting to that event.” Now the commission is “embarking on a different and equally important task finding new ways to institutionalize safety going forward.”

PG&E said it would not ask retail utility customers to “pay for its past mistakes,” but it wants to strike a balance in the multi-billion-dollar, three-year Pipeline Safety Enhancement Plan it submitted to regulators in August (see Daily GPI, Aug. 22, 2011). The combination utility last year spent nearly $400 million to improve gas system operations that were not paid for in utility rates. It plans to spend another $400 million this year and in 2013 on general operations and customer service.

“A sizable but still-undetermined portion will be invested in additional upgrades to the gas operations practice,” a PG&E spokesperson said. “All told, the investments will be more than $1 billion to improve the safe operations of PG&E’s gas and electric systems, not a penny of which is coming from customers.”

At its regular business meeting on Thursday the CPUC established rules to reduce the hazards of fires from overhead power lines, particularly during severe wind storms, and the five-member panel also authorized staff to provide more input to federal regulators on natural gas pipeline safety management programs being implemented under a new federal law.

CPUC safety division staff were authorized to provide comments to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, urging that federal pipeline standards be strengthened so they are “easier to follow and enforce,” and to eliminate past grandfathering of pre-1970 vintage lines so all pipes are subjected to pressure tests on their maximum allowable operating pressures. California is also making recommendations for requirements for automatic and remote shutoff valves.

Regarding the fire hazards for the state’s major transmission power lines, the CPUC established rules that include designating high fire-threat areas throughout the state and requiring energy and telecommunications utilities to provide various inspections and safeguards for their infrastructure in those specific areas. Simon said that the regulators’ latest action “will reduce fire hazard risk associated with overhead power lines,” and it will also “strike a balance between fire safety and the critical infrastructure needed to advance California’s energy and communication economies, including their convergence through smart technologies.”

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