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State utility regulators get tough, tell PG&E to turn over records of troubled gas pipelines [Updated]

September 17, 2010 |  5:03 pm

California utility regulators are taking an increasingly tough stance toward Pacific Gas & Electric Co. one week after a gas pipeline explosion and fire killed at least four people and destroyed or damaged dozens of homes in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno.

Late Friday, the executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission wrote PG&E President Christopher Johns  asking for specific detailed information about potential weak links in its 5,700-mile natural gas transmission network.

Foremost on the PUC’s list of seven demands is a request for PG&E’s list of its top 100 high-priority pipeline projects. The San Francisco-based, for-profit company repeatedly refers to the list in documents filed with the PUC but has not provided the agency or journalists with the actual document.

PUC Executive Director Paul Clanon asked for all versions of the list compiled since 2007 along with the status of individual replacement projects, maps showing pipe segment locations and detailed descriptions of PG&E’s criteria for ranking the riskiness of various pipeline segments.

In addition to asking for a breakdown of replacement priorities on the PG&E system, the PUC also is ordering the company “to describe and provide justification for how long it will take” to develop a list of locations where manual shut-off valves might be replaced with automatic or remotely controlled shut-off valves. Such devices can be closed in less than 10 minutes, experts say. It took PG&E workers more than two hours to close the manual valves on either side of the San Pedro rupture, leaving gas in the line that fed an out-of-control fire.
PG&E critics  praised what they said was the PUC’s new attitude toward PG&E.

“In some ways, it looks like closing the barn door after the horses are out,” said Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, a ratepayers’ advocacy group. “But, on the other hand, if this contributes to something like San Bruno not happening again, it’s a good first step.”

The PUC’s increased oversight “is something we think is long overdue,” Toney said.

The PUC, which is investigating the San Bruno incident jointly with the National Transportation Safety Board, plans to convene an independent panel of experts to look into every aspect of PG&E’s management of its pipelines and the PUC’s regulation of the company.

“Let the chips fall where they may,” said PUC President Michael Peevey. “We want transparency.”

[Updated at 5:45 p.m.: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who toured the San Bruno disaster scene Wednesday, praised the PUC for ordering PG&E to make more information publicly available.

“This is about getting to the bottom of what happened and providing important information to our state’s first responders, elected officials and especially any homeowners who may be at risk,” Schwarzenegger said early Friday evening in a statement. “No information should be held back.”

Specifically, the governor said that the PUC has committed to working with PG&E to release on Monday  the company’s top 100 priority pipeline project list and its relation, if any, to the San Bruno line that exploded.]

-- Marc Lifsher in Sacramento