In the midst of calls to “throw the book” at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) after the San Bruno natural gas transmission pipeline explosion (see Daily GPI, June 7), a California regulator on Thursday found reason to praise the often-criticized San Francisco-based combination utility.

California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) member Mike Florio, who has been butting heads with PG&E since his days as a utility consumer group attorney 30 years ago, lauded the utility for its latest announcement about a deal with Lingen, Germany-based 3P Services to develop a custom smart pig tool for inspecting gas transmission pipelines.

Florio called the equipment a “new, customized pipeline inspection device” added to the utility’s array of technology developed since the September 2010 transmission pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno.

“This customized smart pig is unique, and unlike standard inspection tools, this tool can navigate tight bends and turns in the pipelines ranging from 30 to 36 inches in diameter,” said Florio, noting that it is being designed especially for PG&E’s system.

“It can provide highly sophisticated data to PG&E on pipeline conditions,” said the CPUC member, who has the lead on natural gas matters at the state regulatory commission. It is designed to identify dents, corrosion and other defects on the inside of pipelines that could compromise their safe operation.

While expressing pleasant surprise at the positive feedback from the state regulatory commission at a time when it is considering a $2.25 billion penalty assessment against PG&E for the San Bruno tragedy, a PG&E spokesperson said Thursday that the 3P device works inside pipelines to provide “a highly efficient and accurate way” to determine the condition of the utility’s natural gas pipeline system.

Executive Vice President Nick Stavropoulos, the head of PG&E’s gas system, said the new device will “tremendously enhance” the utility’s ability to perform routine, but critical, inspections and maintenance work. The 3P device is more efficient and gives greater confidence, Stavropoulos said.

Florio told his fellow commissioners that he thinks this is a “really critical development” and while PG&E is “regularly flagged for its past sins” this development in conjunction with other field technology advancements “shows that we really are moving forward in California on pipeline safety.”

As the utility has also stressed in the last two years, the “real lesson of San Bruno,” according to Florio, is that “we have to do better, and I am pleased to see that on the technology front PG&E is definitely doing that.”

“The lesson we want to take from San Bruno is: ‘do it better, do it smarter, and don’t ever let it happen again,'” Florio said.

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