TURN Won’t Let SDG&E Double Dip on Pipeline Safety

SDG&E proposes $600 million pipeline safety upgrade

SDG&E has proposed a $600 million upgrade of natural gas transmission lines in response to safety concerns in the aftermath of last year’s deadly explosion at another utility’s pipeline in San Bruno, according to a Friday filing with state regulators.

If approved, the cost of the 10-year project would be passed on to San Diego County consumers starting as soon as next year. The two-phase proposal by San Diego Gas & Electric recommends installing 48 miles of pipeline to replace 1950s-era transmission lines that loop through populated areas including La Jolla, El Cajon, North Park, Mission Bay and National City.

A second phase would replace 54 miles of pipeline stretching from Kearny Mesa north to Rainbow. In all, SDG&E will be upgrading 102 miles of its 250-mile system.

As part of a sweeping safety review by state and federal regulators, theCalifornia Public Utilities Commission ordered all four investor-owned gas utilities to file plans to test or replace pipelines that have no record of pressure tests.

Large, high-pressure lines that are properly manufactured, installed and maintained can last well over 100 years. But utilities including SDG&E are grappling with how to evaluate the safety of pipes from before pressure testing became standard practice around 1970.

SDG&E has been unable to fulfill requests by regulators to locate records verifying that 30 percent of its transmission lines in populated areas, operate at safe pressures. It has lowered pressure on those lines as a precaution.

Consumer advocates will comb over the pipeline plans in coming months to suggest revisions.

"The concern is that for years the customers have seen their rates go up ostensibly for safety and reliability," said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network.

"Now we want to make sure we’re not going to have to pay through the nose for work that should have been done all along."

Meanwhile, federal investigators still have not released full findings on what may have caused or contributed to the San Bruno explosion on aPacific Gas and Electric natural gas transmission line.

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board will hear a final draft report on the root causes of the explosion that killed eight people in a residential neighborhood on Sept. 9. A rupture in a 30-inch diameter underground line triggered the blast, fueled by blowing natural gas, that destroyed 38 homes.

Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline consultant in Washington state, said preliminary findings at San Bruno suggest a broader review of pipeline safety is warranted.

"There’s enough information out there in the public domain that this clearly is not a single-event failure," he said.

Southern California Gas, the nation’s largest natural gas distributor, proposed $2.5 billion in improvements to its lines over a 10-year period. SoCalGas and SDG&E are subsidiaries of San Diego-based Sempra Energy.

SoCalGas, which serves more than 20 million consumers from Temecula to Visalia, would pressure test 360 miles of transmission lines, replace another 440 miles worth and install 490 remote or automatic valves that can quickly shut off gas in an emergency.

In crafting its plan, Sempra Energy’s two utilities weighed the costs and benefits of pressure testing alone, which can disrupt service for weeks to hundreds of customers, against those of replacing pipelines outright.

"You take customers out (of service) or you build bypasses that cost money in order for you to test that segment of pipeline," explained Sempra Energy CEO Debra Reed, who oversees both SDG&E and SoCalGas, days ahead of the filing. "You’re probably better off doing some replacement work."

Where new lines are added, some of SDG&E’s existing pipelines would be pressure tested and restored to service as a backup.

SDG&E also would upgrade 74 manually controlled valves to remote control, allowing quicker shutdown times in an emergency.

Fiber-optic and gas leak sensors would also be added to help monitor any disruption to new SDG&E lines, as a precaution against everything from construction backhoes to corrosion and seismic activity.

SDG&E has suggested high-tech alternatives to pressure testing that could reduce line replacements and bring down the price tag on its plan.