Although it has been over three years since the 2010 PG&E gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Congresswoman Speier continues to play a lead role in insuring that future deliveries of natural gas are safe and that PG&E shareholders, not ratepayers, be held financially liable for safety upgrades that should have been performed prior to the tragic accident that killed eight of her constituents, completely destroyed 38 homes, and devastated a whole community in San Bruno, California.
The current issue is how much will the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) fine PG&E for its misdeeds. CPUC staff, following Speier’s recommendation (see her letter to the CPUC here), has proposed that PG&E shareholders pay for safety corrective work. The cost of this work/penalty is $2.25 billion. PG&E has countered that shareholders have already spent $900 million on safety projects for 2012 and that they will pay another $1.3 billion in 2013 and beyond. PG&E believes the penalty is excessive and does not recognize the extent of shareholder expenses either spent or incurred in the future. Ultimately, the CPUC commissioners will vote on the size of the penalty.
Speier and her staff have worked closely with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which investigated the cause of the explosion and subsequently issued 38 safety recommendations to state and federal pipeline regulators as well as to PG&E. The NTSB’s report couldn’t have been clearer—the pipeline industry’s lax approach to safety, and regulators’ blind trust in the companies that they were charged with overseeing directly contributed to the deaths and destruction in San Bruno.
According to NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight. For example, NTSB investigators found that PG&E did not know what kind of pipe it had installed beneath the city of San Bruno in 1956. Some of the pipe sections did not meet minimum material specifications and the welds were poorly constructed. In fact, the Board determined that the accident was clearly preventable, stating that PG&E's inadequate pipeline integrity management program failed to identify, detect, and remove the substandard pipe segments before they ruptured.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman (center) tours the explosion site with
Congresswoman Speier and San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane
The NTSB also chastised the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for lack of diligent oversight which fostered an environment where PG&E engaged in poor operational practices without federal sanctions.
After the San Bruno disaster Speier and her staff talked to experts, talked to regulators and talked to the public. Ultimately Congresswoman Speier offered 14 proposals for better pipeline safety to the CPUC. To PG&E’s credit, it adopted those polices and it paid to have those proposals implemented. Some of the actions included:
- Notifying all residents who lived within 2,000 feet of a gas transmission line
- Installation of automatic and remote shut-off valves
- Establishment of a testing or replacement plan for all pipelines that were never pressure tested in the field. All transmission pipelines in high density areas have now been tested
The most significant recommendation, one fully supported by Speier, calls for the end of the federal rules that have allowed pipelines installed prior to 1970 to be operated without testing documentation that would support the pipeline’s Maximum Allowable Operation Pressure (MAOP). California rules provided an exemption for pipelines installed prior to 1961. After the 2010 rupture the CPUC ordered PG&E to provide testing documentation for all its pipelines.
A key portion of the improvement involves the installation of remote shut-off valves on existing transmission lines. It took 95 minutes to turn off the gas after the transmission line blew in San Bruno. Damage would have been minimized if the shut-off valves could have been activated from PG&E headquarters.
We now have a vastly improved PG&E natural gas delivery system in Northern California—and it will continue to get better.
Speier also pursued an elimination of the “pipeline grandfather clause” and mandatory remote or automatic shut-off valves through legislation in Congress, and was disappointed to see Congress pass a pipeline safety bill in 2011 that only provides for installation of remote shut-off valves on new construction and even then, only when economically feasible. These shutoffs are needed on aging lines that run through heavily populated areas, particularly in areas that are prone to earthquake movement. All Americans deserve to know that the pipelines running through their communities are safe.