Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Gas pipeline queries mount

More transparency along with stronger safety testing regulations are needed when it comes to ensuring natural gas is transported safely, according to industry and elected officials who gathered in San Bruno last night.

The legislative forum hosted by Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, drew just over 100 people — many from the media — and was punctuated by outbursts with questions about the lack of review for utility companies. People were curious about the types of testing available, expert opinions on approaching regulation and why utility companies like Pacific Gas and Electric are granted money for infrastructure enhancements that no one double-checks to see if they are implemented. The three-hour conversation on natural gas infrastructure integrity and vulnerability was one of many conversations since the Sept. 9 natural gas explosion and fire that killed eight, injured many and destroyed numerous homes in San Bruno's Glenview neighborhood.

Mayor Jim Ruane was clear about what changes residents of San Bruno, and arguably those watching this investigation up to the federal level, are looking for: the highest level of protection; stringent inspections; easy-to-understand public information; strong regulatory oversight; and a detailed emergency plan shared with emergency response officials.

The meeting's tone was that of a hunger for more information but also frustration.

"We are here to find out what happened, not to point fingers. To make sure safety is the number one priority," said Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena. "And to make sure you as the ratepayer aren't held responsible for making these improvements."

Transparency was a big issue, particularly for Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco. Ma took particular issue with the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees utilities like PG&E but does not answer to state legislators and whose members are appointed by the governor.

"There has to be more accountability; transparency; some responsibility to answer these questions. I'm frustrated. I've been frustrated the last four years when we've asked these questions," she said.

Another issue was the relationship between the CPUC and utility companies. While a company like PG&E will come forward with a capital improvement plan and request access to funds, it is not required to complete the projects put forward in the request.

Hill pointed to a portion of line 132, the line which exploded, located in South San Francisco that was said to need $5 million in improvements in 2007, be fine in 2008, and in 2009 once again be too high of a risk.

"Did anyone know what they were doing with the funds? Why aren't those established criteria?" Hill asked.

CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon agreed it was a hole in the regulation, but that the money was used for other improvements.

"How?" many people from the audience asked out loud without getting any real answer.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, noted there was no real answer given.

"I've heard you worm out of the $5 million question multiple times. I'm distressed by the spin. I would advise you to re-examine what your answers will be. I know we're making you squirm," he said.
The fact that CPUC hasn't issued fines to utility agencies in years was also a concern. Clanon explained not issuing fines encourages organizations like PG&E to come forward when they spot a problem so the two agencies can work together.

"I don't understand. We don't [fine utility companies] because we want them to step forward? You have to have kids; you have to know there's more than discipline and oversight than we're not going to fine them so they step forward. That's Disneyworld. That's not the corporate world," Ammiano said.

A second panel of leading experts was given about an hour at the end of the evening to discuss testing methods and safety. Their points of view at times differed from information provided by Kirk Johnson, vice president of gas engineering and operations for PG&E, who had left by this portion of the evening.

Since the explosion and fire, Johnson listed safety precautions taken to check the rest of the line like leak surveys, reducing pressure, releasing information and reviewing emergency protocols.

Surveying has been done in a couple of ways, but mostly through visual observations like people walking the line or flying over and looking for dead vegetation, a sign of a possible leak.

Rick Kuprewicz, a 37-year energy industry expert who recently testified before Congress on gas infrastructure and safety, took issue with flyovers which were never intended to be used as an integrity assessment.

A number of questions couldn't be answered by PG&E due to the ongoing investigation on the incident by the National Transportation Safety Board, which people estimated could take up to 18 months after it began.

Kuprewicz called for preliminary results to be released soon.

"NTSB needs to release preliminary findings. I have a lot of respect for NTSB, but it's a pipe. It only fails in so many ways," he said.

All involved in the panels cautioned about making multi-million safety changes until it was clear why the gas line failed.