Lessons from San Bruno

San Bruno, California, panorama, looking towar...

Image via Wikipedia

Regulatory CYA over the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion is playing politics with the tragedy to insure that the public does not blame regulators for lax oversight.

Make no mistake about it, the explosion of the PG&E high pressure natural gas pipeline in San Bruno, California is a tragic loss of life and property.  It is a good and useful thing to have outside investigators like the NTSB reviewing what happened and disclosing the facts so that corrective action can be taken and preventive actions recommended for other pipeline segments of similar age or vintage.

If the NTSB finds negligence in maintenance or repair by PG&E then, by all means, it should document the failings and include it in its final report. But the recent speech by the Chair of the NTSB is NOT the agency’s final report and there is something unseemly about a regulatory agency jumping the gun and hanging the defendant before the jury returns the verdict.

Doing so is NOT good regulatory practice.  It is not fair to the parties involved.  It is politics!

Deborah Hersman, chair of the NTSB, told a Washington DC audience attending the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board conference of policymakers, researchers, industry officials and academics that Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s record-keeping prior to the San Bruno natural-gas explosion indicate the need for “a new perspective on safety culture” throughout the industry.  That is a sweeping indictment of the entire gas industry requiring a judgment that goes well beyond the evidentiary record likely to be found in the San Bruno case.

Don’t Play Politics with Tragedy

Remember, the NTSB has not yet issued its final report on its investigation of this explosion so her remarks seem to me, at least, to be premature at a minimum—and loaded for maximum political impact.  She accuses PG&E of not being able to find the records on the manufacture and installation of the San Bruno Pipe in 1956 and that under the current law utilities are required to have a complete record of every pipeline segment and use it to evaluate safety risks.

Ms Hersman repeated that PG&E believed the San Bruno pipeline was a seamless pipe when in fact it has numerous welds. “In the years since the pipe was put into service, decisions regarding inspections, operating pressures and risk management plans were all based on facts that were just plain wrong,” Hersman is quoted as saying in a San Francisco Chronicle story.

What she did not say is that the law she is trying to hang PG&E with was a 1970’s pipeline safety act adopted decades AFTER the San Bruno gas pipeline was built.  The new law was designed to improve record-keeping and safety investigation, but Congress in its wisdom, grandfathered existing pipelines at the time including this San Bruno line from compliance because many such records as now required by the law simply did not exist for old infrastructure.

She acknowledged that PG&E performed inspections of the San Bruno line in 2009 using an accepted regulatory standard inspection technique called direct assessment well-suited for detecting corrosion which is the primary cause of pipeline safety issues.  But since it believed the line was one seamless pipe it did not perform pressure tests on the San Bruno line in an effort to detect problem welds.

That natural gas pipeline explosions like the one in San Bruno are rare is no comfort for the families who lost loved ones and homes in this explosion.  And no amount of monetary damages PG&E can pay these families will be adequate for their loss, we understand that.

I am not defending PG&E’s pipeline safety records, testing or maintenance since I have no firsthand knowledge of those facts.  But as a former state public utility regulator for seven years (Minnesota and Illinois) with regulatory management responsibility for gas pipeline safety I can tell you that the best practice for assuring public safety is to focus on regularly reviewing the utility’s preventive maintenance, inspection and repair records and the results of corrosion testing as these two things prudently capture the largest share of risk exposures.

The absence of records on old infrastructure is a problem but was often mitigated by the hands-on experience of the field crews who routinely work these gas pipeline systems and maintained them for years coming to know it like the back of their hand.  But retirements and turnover affect every company not just utilities and in the absence of institutional memory in records it is tough to replace the experience of the work force leaving the system.  This is not a defense of PG&E it is simply the reality every utility faces.

The CPUC is waiting for the NTSB report on the explosion. It is scheduled to consider this spring whether to accept PG&E existing gas test records as sufficient to assure public safety or to order additional inspections and pressure testing.  Prudence, under these circumstances, argues for additional testing of older lines.  It won’t be cheap and will take time, but it is just one of the costs PG&E must bear to restore public confidence in its gas pipeline network.