Eyes have been opened and ears perked throughout the West, if not most states, since the fatal San Bruno pipeline rupture a year ago and the serious flaws exposed in Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s (PG&E) natural gas operations. California stakeholders and regulators in other states have taken action or are contemplating new measures aimed at ensuring gas pipeline safety in their states.
The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) held a hearing Monday to allow PG&E to make its case for restoring the maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) in its supply line linked to Southwest basins (Line 300) at the Arizona-California border. Following the hearing, a PG&E spokesperson said a proposed decision in the case is expected by Friday.
A few days prior to Monday’s hearing, local news reports in the San Francisco Bay Area indicated that CPUC safety staff was critical of PG&E’s testing of a suction pipe on the intake side of its California border receipt point at Topock Compressor Station. However, a PG&E spokesperson in San Francisco told NGI staff was still recommending that eventually the combination utility be allowed to restore the MAOP.
PG&E has had the operating pressure lowered on Line 300 and nearly a dozen other pipelines since earlier this year when the CPUC ordered it to do so following investigations of the San Bruno explosion.
News reports talked about the CPUC Consumer Protection and Safety Division (CPSD) staff calling PG&E’s testing “substandard” in trying to support the restoration of the MAOP. PG&E’s spokesperson said the regulatory staff did not have any problem with the testing that was done; instead, it was concerned that the utility did not do another test that quickly raises the pressure in a pipe to see how it withstands the “spike ” (see Daily GPI, Sept. 19).
It is still unclear whether CPUC staff will recommend that the San Francisco-based combination utility perform the spike tests on parts of Line 300. “PG&E presented its case explaining why there were some discrepancies in its report as cited by the CPSD,” said a CPUC spokesperson. “No decisions were made.” Meanwhile, the utility maintains that its hydrotest standards are consistent with federal and state regulations that do not require a spike test, but it nevertheless agreed with CPUC staff to do a spike test if it doesn’t risk compromising the pipe’s structural integrity..
For its part, PG&E reiterated Monday that news coverage of the latest issue has been “grossly misleading,” asserting that the facts are that the utility has tested the Topock station where Line 300 gathers out-of-state supplies and the tests went “well above and beyond” federal and state requirements. “Federal and state codes required us to pressurize the facilities inside the compressor station to 990 psig; we tested the facility to 1,180 psig and 1,400 psig,” a PG&E spokesperson said.
Elsewhere, the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) held a public meeting Monday in Phoenix in its ongoing pipeline proceeding that began last July. No members of the general public appeared, so the meeting was short and confined to an appearance by a representative from Las Vegas, NV-based Southwest Gas Corp., which is the major gas distribution utility in the state.
At this point the ACC safety staff is proposing amendments to the state’s existing rules governing pipeline safety so Arizona’s approach is consistent with federal regulations, which may change if Congress acts on various pipeline safety bills now being considered (see Daily GPI, Sept. 13).
“Staff believes that the proposed amendments will be beneficial to the general public by maintaining the safe operation of pipeline facilities,” ACC staff said in a July 28 filing to the ACC.
Both gas and electric utilities are looking hard at what has come out from the National Transportation Safety Board’s San Bruno report Aug. 30, and from various state commissions. In California, where Sempra Energy and Southwest Gas, along with PG&E were mandated to file implementation plans last month, even major electric utility operators are following the proceedings closely.
As the major shipper and end-user of gas in the state, Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) is trying to determine its exact approach, but it plans to be an active part of the CPUC pipeline proceedings as the proposed cost of the implementation steps could fall heavily on Edison as a major transporter of gas through the Sempra and PG&E pipelines.
“SCE is taking an active interest in the CPUC’s pipeline safety [proceeding],” said an SCE spokesperson. “We are party to the proceeding and are currently reviewing the testimony filed by the four investor-owned utilities [including Sempra’s Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas and Electric Co.].” He outlined two primary concerns of SCE: public safety and customer costs, while noting that utility infrastructure costs, whether for gas or electric operations, are a “high priority.”
Southwest Gas is also looking at its much more extensive pipeline operations in Nevada and Arizona. And in the Pacific Northwest gas utilities are closely monitoring regulatory developments.
A NW Natural spokesperson in Portland, OR, said Oregon’s largest gas distributor and the sole gas provider for the greater Portland metropolitan area expects to have “additional requirements on operators and regulators” over the long term, noting that NW Natural has not had the same level of scrutiny as California pipeline operators.
“We do expect there will be implications to our operations over time; however, we are not in a position to speculate as to what those specific changes will be,” the spokesperson said.
Similarly, a spokesperson for Bellevue, WA-based Puget Sound Energy did not give any specific changes that are under way but did acknowledge that “all pipeline operators and regulators are learning from the San Bruno incident and investigation,” and that the learning includes examining their own pipeline integrity management programs.
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