Lessons from San Bruno Gas Pipeline Explosion

The natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno California was as scary as it was tragic.  NTSB investigators are busy trying to figure out what happened to cause the explosion as the survivors try to make sense of it.  State regulators also initiated their own regulatory supervisory review. We need to let them do their work so we know the answers to our questions of how could this happen.

The outpouring of support and offers of assistance reported in our local media have been genuine and heartfelt.  The Red Cross finally asked people to quit bringing clothing, food and other goods to the area since there was no room to store it all—send money they pleaded.

PG&E’s public response has also been sensitive and solid handing out $1000 debit cards to those affected for ‘right now’ needs, setting aside $100 million to assist those affected, assigning an on-site claims team and promising to get to the bottom of what caused the explosion.  PG&E also made an SEC filing saying while it had insurance for such tragedies it was unclear whether it would be sufficient to cover the total damages to make things whole—so PG&E stock took a hit on that news.

How Often Does This Happen?

Thankfully, gas pipeline explosions are infrequent.  Because each is thoroughly investigated to assess the cause and try to prevent future explosions there is a good trail of analysis for state and federal investigators and regulators to rely upon.  You can find a quick overview of the gas pipeline explosions online.

As a former state public utility regulator for seven years, I learned that the two most risk prone duties we had as a state agency were gas pipeline safety and railroad crossing protection.  Bad things happened to good people on both fronts.  For railroad crossings, the question was whether to spend the money to install crossing protection knowing that every request denied in a budget constrained world that required the Commission to set priorities was asking for trouble if an accident occurred. On the pipeline safety side, the two most frequent causes of explosions tend to be a contractor digging and hitting an unmarked gas line and corrosion which could be mitigated but not prevented by adequate maintenance.

I confess that as a regulatory manager responsible for staff involved in rate cases and other proceedings, I maintained a list of risks which I instructed my staff to add to whenever they found one that presented real public safety or other risks.  In gallows humor terms, we called it our ‘bring me someone to hang’ list because the most egregious examples would typically result in an investigation order hauling the offending utility in front of the Commission to “show cause” why we shouldn’t hang you for this sin of poor maintenance, disregard for public safety or other transgression.  The mere threat of such a proceeding was often sufficient to get the utility to correct the problem and was, in itself, one of our most important and effective regulatory enforcement tools.

I am not, in any way, suggesting the need for such a disciplinary proceeding here in California in this instance—we need to know the facts first and then the CPUC can determine whether there is any reasonable cause for such action.

There is one more problem that often is under-reported and may be a factor in San Bruno.

Often these gas pipelines were installed years ago—many years ago.  When built they were in rural or undeveloped areas, but the cities grew and homes and businesses were built often near the pipeline rights of way.  Utilities are always the skunk at the lawn party in these cases pleading with local zoning and planning officials not to allow building too close to the pipeline.  In urban areas these pleas are seen as being responsible but too conservative—until something bad happens to good people.

Often the answer is that the new subdivision is built and the utility begins planning to reroute a gas pipeline that presents too much risk exposure—but that is expensive and time-consuming and often other locations present equal or greater risks.  You can find maps of gas pipelines near you on the Federal Office of Pipeline Safety website.

We will have to wait for the full investigation to reveal the facts of this case which likely will be a combination of factors.  For now, we have more important work to do.  To bury the dead, comfort the survivors and go home each day to hug the ones we love just a little longer as a reminder that only God knows when we will feel His warm embrace.