Tag Archives: California Public Utilities Commission

Pipeline regulators propose broader public access

The California Public Utilities Commission on Monday proposed opening up public access to most records under the agency’s purview, a dramatic shift that would allow Californians to view documents detailing the safety records of natural-gas pipelines running under their neighborhoods.

The move comes 18 months after the explosion of a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline in San Bruno that killed eight people, and four months after a Chronicle investigation revealed that the vast majority of documents at the commission are barred from public access, including investigation reports on natural-gas pipeline accidents and safety audits of utilities such as PG&E.

The practice of shielding documents from public view spawned criticism by victims of the explosion and others, and prompted Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, to write a bill requiring such disclosure.

On Monday, Yee called the utilities commission’s proposal a “good first step.”

Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the proposed change would improve public access to records. “The public should have the widest possible access to information we possess,” she said.

In a written statement, the commission added that its public access regulations are “outdated and cumbersome, and often delay rather than facilitate access to records requested.”

A 60-page draft resolution, which the five members of the utilities commission will vote on in May, would change the agency’s rules to make documents publicly available unless a utility can show why the records should be hidden from view.

Currently, regulations require a vote of the commission before any unreleased paperwork may be made public – a vote that comes after the panel consults with utilities.

The proposal calls for automatically disclosing the outcomes of safety-related investigations and creating an online index of the commission’s available records and an online “safety portal” that houses all safety-related records.

California law now exempts the utilities commission from the state’s public records law, a contrast to other states, where such documents are routinely available.

Yee said the commission’s announcement is a good starting place but that his proposal, SB1000, should still move forward.

That legislation would repeal a 1951 state law exempting the agency from the state’s Public Records Act unless the commissioners vote to allow public access to specific documents.

“The fact that CPUC is willing to do much more than they are doing right now to be open and transparent – I think that’s a good thing,” Yee said. “But the best step is to support my bill and to pass it.”

To view the proposed regulations, go to: http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/WORD_PDF/COMMENT_RESOLUTION/162152.pdf 

SOURCE: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/03/26/BARU1NQEH0.DTL

Calif. may lower fines for utility in fatal blast

A state administrative judge is proposing to fine a utility under fire for the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion only $3 million, rather than going with a prior plan to charge Pacific Gas & Electric Co. $1 million each day for shoddy record-keeping.

A California Public Utilities Commission judge issued the proposal Wednesday, but it still needs approval by the commission before taking effect.

After a settlement was reached last year, the judge’s proposal would significantly lower the company’s penalties from the original proposal made by the commission’s executive director.

That plan would have fined PG&E $1 million a day for failing to hand over key safety records about its transmission lines, including for sections of the gas line that ruptured in San Bruno.

SOURCE: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2012/02/22/state/n170015S44.DTL#ixzz1nExMbh6d

City of San Francisco sues to force feds to improve pipeline safety

The city of San Francisco took the unusual step Tuesday of asking a judge to force federal natural-gas safety regulators to step up efforts in California, saying the government “abjectly failed” to enforce pipeline laws before and after the 2010 explosion that devastated a San Bruno neighborhood.

At issue in City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, is the performance of the little-known U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Although it is charged with enforcing federal safety law, the agency relies on states to do much of its oversight.

Herrera’s suit says federal officials never set standards and let California’s enforcement dwindle in the years leading up to the September 2010 explosion of a PG&E pipeline in San Bruno.

‘Blind trust in operators’

In its investigative report on the blast, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the pipeline agency tighten regulations on operators. The board’s chairwoman, Deborah Hersman, said PG&E had “exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight, and regulatory agencies that placed a blind trust in operators to the detriment of public safety.”

Herrera’s lawsuit echoes those findings, saying the pipeline agency stood by for more than a decade while the California Public Utilities Commission failed to detect PG&E’s safety problems, questionable pipeline-management practices and shoddy record keeping.

The state agency allowed utilities to police and report their own safety violations in lieu of being fined. The agency has changed its approach since the San Bruno disaster and recently proposed a $16.8 million penalty against PG&E for failing to conduct leak inspections on several miles of gas distribution pipelines in the East Bay.

“In the absence of any meaningful oversight by PHMSA, the CPUC has, for decades, forsaken its duty to enforce federal pipeline safety standards,” the city said in its suit. Under those circumstances, the suit said, “it is not a question of if another pipeline will explode, but a question of when.”

The pipeline safety agency issued a statement Tuesday declining to comment on the lawsuit but stressing its “core” commitment to safety.

“That’s why we devoted hundreds of hours of staff support and technical expertise to the NTSB and the California Public Utilities Commission to understand the San Bruno tragedy,” the agency said.

Failure to monitor

The suit said the federal government’s failures were putting San Franciscans at risk. It is the first time a local government has sought stricter regulation from the pipeline safety agency, said Rick Kessler, a lobbyist for the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on safety improvements.

“If this brings better oversight and enforcement,” he said, “I applaud it.”

The suit seeks a court order to compel federal pipeline safety officials to set performance standards for state regulators who oversee gas transmission lines.

According to the complaint, the U.S. pipeline agency gave California $1.3 million in 2010 to oversee pipeline safety, yet “never meaningfully evaluated” how the money was spent or measured the effectiveness of the state’s program.

Federal officials knew California’s enforcement efforts had been understaffed since 1998, the suit said, resulting in a small proportion of federal funding being allocated to the state. Inspections became so infrequent by 2006 that the pipeline agency warned the Public Utilities Commission that California was jeopardizing public safety.

The explosion of a gas distribution pipeline in Cupertino in August, in which a condominium was destroyed, is evidence that the federal government hasn’t done enough to strengthen its regulatory efforts since the San Bruno disaster, the suit said.

That explosion happened because of a leak in a notoriously brittle type of 1970s-era plastic pipe, which the government recommended in 1998 that pipeline operators replace. Regulators have never ordered companies to do so, though.

Giving up authority

The federal agency, “for all practical purposes, has allowed gas pipeline operators like PG&E to regulate themselves and, in doing so, has improperly delegated its authority to enforce federal pipeline safety standards to those operators,” the suit said.

Although Herrera earlier threatened to sue the Public Utilities Commission as well, he said Tuesday that the state agency has improved its oversight of PG&E since 2010.

“We are participating in the administrative process to make sure the CPUC follows through on its pledge,” Herrera said in an interview.

PG&E had no comment on the suit except to emphasize actions it has taken since the San Bruno explosion to try to make its gas system safer.

SOURCE: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/02/14/MNKU1N7J3D.DTL#ixzz1mZJosbrD

NTSB prepares final report on PG&E explosion

Nearly one year after the fatal explosion of a PG&E Corp. natural gas pipeline in San Bruno, Calif., the National Transportation Safety Board plans to approve a final report on what caused the accident and issue pipeline safety recommendations in an effort to avoid repeating the tragedy, the agency’s chairman said Monday.

“It’s been a difficult investigation,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman wrote in a posting on the agency’s website. She added that “getting accurate information on the [pipe]line has been a challenge.”

On Sept. 9, a PG&E pipeline in San Bruno, south of San Francisco, exploded, igniting a fireball that killed eight people, injured 58, destroyed 38 homes and damaged 70 others.

Hersman said the board plans to approve its final report on the incident at a public meeting Tuesday, and make key recommendations for safer operation of natural gas pipeline systems “with the hope that the lessons of San Bruno are well-learned and are never repeated.”

The NTSB has made several pipeline safety recommendations over the last several months as a result of its investigation into the San Bruno pipeline explosion. Among them, the agency suggested that the nation’s gas pipeline operators should ensure that they have accurate documentation for all their pipelines, particularly aging pipes like the 55-year-old Line 132 that exploded in San Bruno.

The NTSB has suggested in interim reports that poor record-keeping and a lack of safety tests by PG&E likely masked manufacturing defects in the San Bruno pipeline. The agency also found that the company didn’t provide the local fire department and other emergency responders with information they needed to react properly to the pipeline explosion.

The U.S. Department of Justice has been leading a criminal investigation into the explosion, and several lawsuits have been filed against the utility.

On Friday, PG&E’s utility proposed spending $769 million over three years to test its natural gas pipelines, using high-pressure water techniques, as part of a $2.2 billion pipeline-safety program. The utility also proposed expanding the use of automated pipeline shut-off valves.

In June, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered PG&E and the state’s other natural gas utilities to make plans to test or replace their gas transmission pipelines that haven’t been pressure-tested. The plans are part of the CPUC’s effort to beef up the state’s pipeline safety regulations and improve its own oversight over the state’s thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines.

PG&E has said damage claims from the accident could total as much as $400 million, and that other costs associated with the accident could total $1.1 billion through 2012.

SOURCE: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/ntsb-prepares-final-report-on-pge-explosion-2011-08-29

PG&E Proposes Spending $769M To Test Gas Pipelines, $2.2B Overall

PG&E Corp. (PCG) on Friday proposed spending $769 million over three years to test its natural gas pipelines as part of a $2.2 billion pipeline safety program, following a deadly pipeline explosion last year.

PG&E said it will pressure-test all of its untested pipe segments and expand use of automated pipeline shut-off valves. The utility has proposed passing on the cost of the project to its customers, with a $250 million rate increase in 2012 and subsequent increases of $30 million and $80 million in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Overall, the utility said it plans to spend $2.2 billion through 2014 on pipeline safety costs.

In June, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered PG&E and the state’s other natural gas utilities, owned by Sempra Energy (SRE), to file by Friday plans to test or replace their gas transmission pipelines that haven’t been tested with high-pressure water techniques.

The plans are part of the CPUC’s effort to beef up the state’s pipeline safety regulations and improve its own oversight over the state’s thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines.

On Sept. 9, a PG&E pipeline in San Bruno, Calif., exploded, igniting a fireball that killed eight people, injured several others and destroyed 38 homes.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has been investigating the cause of the explosion, is scheduled to issue a final report on its findings Aug. 30.

The NTSB has suggested in interim reports that poor record-keeping and a lack of safety tests by PG&E likely masked manufacturing defects in the 55-year-old San Bruno pipeline. The agency also found that the company didn’t provide the local fire department and other emergency responders with information they needed to react properly to the pipeline explosion.

The U.S. Department of Justice has been leading a criminal investigation into the explosion, and several lawsuits have been filed against the utility.

In June, an independent panel of experts concluded that PG&E had a “dysfunctional culture” that gave little heed to public safety or the high level of technical expertise needed to safely operate a gas pipeline system.

The CPUC has launched a separate probe to determine whether PG&E’s poor record-keeping violated any rules or laws that might warrant penalties. The CPUC also is considering new pipeline-safety rules for PG&E and other pipeline operators in the state and has promised to beef up its oversight of PG&E and the state’s pipelines.

Earlier this month, PG&E announced it hired a new chief executive, Anthony Earley, to replace former CEO Peter Darbee, who left the company in the wake of the disaster.

The company has said damage claims from the accident could total as much as $400 million, and that other costs associated with the accident could total $1.1 billion through 2012.

In July, credit rating company Fitch Ratings lowered its outlook on the company, saying continued fallout from the accident has added uncertainty to its credit status.

The utility said Friday it will enhance electronic monitoring of its gas system to quickly identify ruptures and replace segments in need of new piping. It also plans to transition to electronic records from paper documents to streamline the testing and repair process.

“This plan represents a clear break with the way PG&E and other gas utilities once approached pipeline safety,” Nick Stavropoulos, PG&E’s new executive vice president of gas operations, said in a statement.

SOURCE: http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20110826-714596.html