Two Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) executives said Tuesday the San Francisco-based combination utility’s natural gas pipeline system is safer than it was two years ago in the aftermath of the rupture and explosion in San Bruno, CA, that killed eight people and injured scores.

PG&E has spent more than $1 billion in pipeline testing, upgrades and maintenance works since the tragedy in September 2010, said Jesus Soto, senior vice president for transmission operations.

“Everything we are doing, everyday is quantitatively reducing risk on the system,” said Soto, reiterating that PG&E is “laser-focused on enhancing the overall safety.”

PG&E Executive Vice President Nick Stavropoulos said there is “no doubt that we have much greater confidence in our ability to operate our pipelines safely. They have been inspected by what is call the ‘gold standard’ [by federal regulators] of pipeline testing — hydrostatic tests. That is what all pipeline operators are being asked to do, and we’re going back and doing that. All the pipe we’re replacing, we’re doing the same thing to.”

All of the work is aimed at preventing another San Bruno-like event, Stavropoulos said during a background briefing. PG&E, he said, has tested and replaced all of the transmission pipeline segments that were like the one that failed in San Bruno.

“And what we have gone after this year is all the pipe that was next in the pecking order [of risk]. So we feel absolutely confident that we have reduced the risk profile of our pipeline system, although you can never guarantee it 100% because there are so many potential risks that you’re guarding against.”

Soto added that when it comes to pipeline integrity and public safety, “you’re never done.”

Stavropoulos talked about PG&E’s pending four-year, $2.2 billion pipeline enhancement plan that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) could make a decision on Thursday. The proposed decision before the CPUC recommends PG&E be granted only $278 million of rate coverage collectively during the three-year period of 2012 through 2014. Over the same period, PG&E called for $768 million of rate coverage.

“On top of that, we have continued to invest in other improvements to try to make our operations more effective and reduce the risk of our system operations,” Stavropoulos said. “Our drive is to become the safest operating company in the country.”

In response to questions about the relative safety of the U.S. gas pipeline grid overall, both men were positive. In the past 20 years, Stavropoulos said the gas industry safety record has “improved significantly,” but any event “is one too many.” The recent event in Springfield, MA, was the result of a line being punctured by a responder to the incident and the cause of a more recent explosion in West Virginia is still under investigation (Daily GPI, Dec. 17; Nov. 27)

“We look forward to receiving the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] guidance on the West Virginia incident because we try to take a look at all incidents — not just on our system,” Stavropoulos said.

Soto said a lot of advancements have been made regarding inline inspection devices. “The maturity of those devices has evolved tremendously and there is a huge effort ongoing to enhance those tools,” he said, noting that the ability to detect cracks, weaknesses and corrosion has increased dramatically. The equipment can spot manufacturing and construction defects in line segments. If a pipeline segment is under undue stress, the inline devices can pick that up before a catastrophe hits, he added.

On a dozen recommendations the NTSB made in its final report on the San Bruno incident, Stavropoulos said PG&E has completed four. Of the rest, federal regulators said the utility response so far is “open and acceptable, meaning they are in agreement with our plans and the progress we are making on each recommendation.” He thinks all but one of the recommendations will be closed out next year; “one or two may go longer because they involve more hydrostatic testing of our pipelines.”

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