California utility touts new gas safety plan
SAN FRANCISCO— A California utility under fire for a deadly pipeline blast in a San Francisco suburb revealed an ambitious plan on Friday to boost safety on its gas lines it said would cost the average home less than $2 more per month.
The new $2.2 billion plan filed with the California Public Utilities Commission will make the company an industry leader for safety, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said.
“This plan represents a clear break with the way PG&E and other gas utilities once approached pipeline safety,” said Nick Stavropoulos, PG&E’s executive vice president of gas operations.
The commission in June required all state utilities to forecast how they would pressure-test or replace the untested segments of their transmission lines – such as the pipe that exploded last year in San Bruno.
The Sept. 9 accident killed eight people, injured dozens and sparked a fireball that torched 38 homes in a quiet neighborhood overlooking San Francisco Bay.
In the coming months, the commission will review the proposals from PG&E and other utilities before approving any costs or setting new safety requirements. They all must include plans for more patrols and leak surveys, pressure reductions, and prioritize pressure testing for pipelines coursing through highly populated areas.
Because PG&E’s transmission line in San Bruno lacked remotely operated or automatic shut-off valves, the gas kept flowing and fueled the fire for nearly an hour and a half after the pipe burst. PG&E’s new proposal includes plans to install automated valves in highly populated regions and in areas where pipelines cross active seismic faults so gas could be shut off in the event of a pipeline rupture.
Consumer advocates said the cost of PG&E’s shoddy record keeping had put people at risk in the past, and should not be passed on to consumers since the company’s profits continued to rise.
“PG&E has neglected safety and maintenance for way too long,” said Mark Toney, executive director The Utility Reform Network, based in San Francisco. “Now they have to play catch-up, and it should not be at customers’ expense.”
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat whose district includes San Bruno, gave cautious praise to PG&E’s plan.
“It likely exceeds what the federal government is going to be requiring,” Speier said. “But we have to make sure that ratepayer is paying their fair share and only their fair share.”