Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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California's natural gas disaster may affect the nation

February 26, 2011
Op-Eds

California's natural gas disaster may affect the nation
Mercury News
By Jackie Speier

See the original piece here.

Four months after a natural gas pipeline ruptured in my district, I stood in a secured federal laboratory in Washington, holding part of the pipeline that burst and ignited 100-foot high flames in the center of a San Bruno neighborhood. I am a member of Congress, not a welder, but I could see what metallurgists were telling me: The thickness of the pipe was not uniform -- the telltale sign of a faulty weld.

During the first three days of March, the National Transportation Board, better known for investigating airplane accidents, will hold a rare full-board hearing on the Sept. 9 explosion that killed eight people. Pipeline experts, PG&E and regulators will give testimony to help investigators understand why a pipe laid under three feet of earth in 1956 failed 54 years later. The final answer, when it comes, will be costly, not only for PG&E, but possibly for the country as a whole.

This pipeline disaster is rooted in the risks posed when operators don't fully know the condition of a pipeline. In the San Bruno case, PG&E told the NTSB that the ruptured pipe had no seams. Two months after the rupture, the NTSB revealed that the pipe had seams, and PG&E admitted its records were flawed.

A month after that the NTSB reported that the pipe had 150 faulty welds and a crack along the welded longitudinal seam. Investigators now have to identify what caused the cracking.

I have met frequently with PG&E since the blast.

The utility has always assured me that it has operated within the law -- that's part of the problem. A 1970 federal rule (California had a similar mandate in 1962) required all new pipelines to be tested for leaks after installation by filling the pipeline with water at a high pressure. This law grandfathered in pipes already in the ground, stipulating that operating pressure was not to exceed the highest operating pressure during the prior five years.

This provision meant the pressure established in 1970 would be carried on year after year for these old pipelines, provided there were no accidents, or significant pressure spikes.

Since PG&E misidentified the pipe installed in San Bruno in 1956 as "seamless," it didn't test the welds along the seam, although it did do periodic checks for corrosion and leaks.

Ironically, the utility intentionally raised the natural gas pressure briefly on the ruptured line in 2003 and 2008, ostensibly to save money and to remain, in PG&E's own words, "operationally flexible." Experts now say the pressure spikes probably worsened the crack in the longitudinal seam.

It gets worse. PG&E says it can't find testing documentation for 30 percent of its 1,200 miles of pipeline in the Bay Area. This raises the specter that there may be untested pipelines with welds similar to the San Bruno pipe. The California regulator has given PG&E until March 15 to produce testing documents for all its pipelines.

Meanwhile, a federal regulator has issued a national directive that reminds operators of the obvious: Keep accurate records and conduct appropriate tests. The Interstate Natural Gas Association estimates that 27,000 miles of gas transmission lines have never been water-tested. At a cost of up to $500,000 per mile, the natural gas industry isn't eager to test, and that's why operators in other states are watching the drama unfold in California.

Pipeline regulation largely depends on self-compliance by operators. Unfortunately, it has taken deaths to trigger a national conversation about reform. There is a dark parallel between pipeline regulation and federal agencies that regulate mines and oil drilling -- both the source of catastrophes last year. Regulators stood by while operators cut corners on safety to save money, and people paid the price with their lives.


JACKIE SPEIER Represents California's 12th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. She wrote this article for this newspaper.