While there were multiple messages in the exhaustive report issued last week by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) about last year’s San Bruno, CA, natural gas pipeline rupture and explosion, one thing rang out loudest from the five-member panel: tougher natural gas pipeline regulation is needed at both the state and federal levels (see related story).
In the NTSB’s 28 findings regarding Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s (PG&E) actions before, during and after the Sept. 9, 2010 San Bruno tragedy and in its subsequent 29 recommendations, more than half were aimed at the regulatory environment. The first 15 recommendations target action by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
DOT is urged to audit PHMSA generally within a set number of areas and specifically for the state pipeline safety certification program it conducts, as well as a separate look at PHMSA’s enforcement policies. DOT also is asked to ensure than PHMSA “amends” its certification accordingly to be responsive to other recommendations.
For PHMSA directly, the NTSB report listed 13 items, such as requiring gas transmission and distribution and hazardous materials pipe operators to provide information on their pipes to local emergency response agencies; requiring pipeline system control operators to alert 911 emergency call centers whenever a possible major incident arises; requiring these same control room personnel to have at their fingertips a greater ability to pinpoint leaks on the system; and amending various objectionable federal regulations that have made it possible for pre-1970 pipelines to avoid any integrity maintenance requirements. Another recommendation directs that agency to revise the protocols and process for integrity management inspection generally. PHMSA also was urged to work more closely on pipeline safety with state regulatory agencies.
While NTSB outlined eight separate recommendations for PG&E, it also asked California Gov. Jerry Brown to “expeditiously evaluate” the authority and competence of the pipeline safety division at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in enforcing state regulations. It also recommended that the safety division be granted the authority to assess fines and penalties against state-regulated pipeline operators. (Subsequently, the CPUC announced plans to grant such authority by the end of this year.
PG&E was given a highly prescriptive set of recommendations, involving relatively minute details of its ongoing gas system operations, such as work clearance procedures, emergency response for large-scale transmission pipeline mishaps, equipping supervisory control and data systems, expediting the installation of automatic and remote-control shut-off valves, drug/alcohol testing of employees on a timely basis following major accidents, and assessing “every aspect” of the utility’s integrity management program.
There are also mandates to do threat assessments with revised risk assessment tools and the launching of public awareness programs with emergency responders in all of the communities through which the utility’s pipelines traverse. Some of these steps are already under way at the utility, and have been for a number of months. Subsequently, PG&E said all of these recommendations would be covered in the plan it filed late last month (see NGI, Aug. 29).
There appeared to be a level of frustration expressed by Chairperson Deborah Hersman and Robert Sumwalt regarding reports from industry associations about research on stepped-up safety measures and new technology, but they said they have not seen any results. They added recommendations to ask for reports on these industry efforts in the next six months from the American Gas Association and the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.
“We’d like to hear when some of this new technology is actually going to be put in service,” Hersman said. “We recognize there are some limitations with proceeding with some of these inline [pipeline safety] inspection tools, but we would like to understand that better. We have more and more pipeline actions that this board will be considering.”
Hersman emphasized that “in the pipeline industry there must be effective oversight and strong enforcement.” In past events leading up to San Bruno, “the regulators didn’t really know what was going on,” she said, noting that NTSB investigators did not learn about a 1988 failure that occurred on PG&E’s Line 132 until eight months after the San Bruno tragedy.
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