Report Confirms PG&E and CPUC Failures

PG&E and state regulators were more focused on “checking boxes” than on actually analyzing the safety of their system and learning from problems and mistakes, according to an independent review panel.

PG&E and state regulators were more focused on “checking boxes” than on actually analyzing the safety of their system and learning from problems and mistakes, according to a strongly worded report released by an independent review panel Thursday.

The panel, created by the California Public Utilities Commission, assessed the factors that contributed to the explosion of a PG&E gas pipeline in San Bruno in September, which killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes. Panel members outlined their final report before the CPUC Thursday.

The report leveled a bevy of criticisms at PG&E and highlighted major problems at the CPUC, which it said does not have the staff to oversee California’s 11,000 miles of transmission pipelines. Furthermore, the staff it does have is not trained well enough to do the regulatory work with which the agency is trusted.

The deadly disaster in San Bruno prompted a new focus on safety, but with mixed results, the report said.

For example, the panel panned “Pipeline 2020,” a program aimed at enhancing the safety of the gas pipeline system that was rolled out just a few weeks after the Sept. 9 explosion, saying it was not “well-reasoned or based on a thoughtful examination of alternatives.”

The CPUC, in turn has made high-profile demands of PG&E in recent months without thinking them through, said panelist Paula Rosput Reynolds. The CPUC has required the company to conduct costly and time-intensive tests on a huge number of pipelines when there may be ways to learn from a smaller number of tests, and required PG&E to turn over millions of documents when it doesn’t have the staff to read through them all, Reynolds said.

Not everyone found the report compelling.

“The conclusions that it reached were a regurgitation of what’s been in the press already,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network.

However, Board President Michael Peevey said it shone a light on the “culture of complacency” at the CPUC, and was “damning of PG&E across the board.”

“Just about everything you recommended to this commission we will do our damnedest to implement just as quickly as possible,” Peevey said.

PG&E issued a statement calling the report “thoughtful” and said the company is moving quickly to adopt its recommendations.

“We are deeply sorry for the tragic accident in San Bruno. And we are committed to earning our customers’ trust and confidence by continuing to do whatever is necessary to bring our performance up to industry-leading standards and see that an accident like the one in San Bruno never happens again,” the statement read.

External cause called possible</>

Federal investigators have not yet come to a conclusion about the root cause of the explosion in San Bruno, but the independent review panel offers a new alternative: That perhaps there was an external force that triggered the explosion.

The panel postulates in its report that “the force that most likely put the increased stress on the longitudinal seam was the force from a 2008 sewer replacement project” in San Bruno.

It asked to have the evidence supporting their theory submitted to federal investigators. How seriously those investigators will take that evidence is yet to be seen.