PG&E to upgrade pipelines in wake of blast

PG&E will modernize natural-gas pipelines in heavily populated areas and invest in automatic or remote-operated shutoff valves across the state in response to the deadly San Bruno blast last month, the company announced Tuesday.

A 30-inch PG&E natural-gas line exploded in San Bruno’s Glenview neighborhood on Sept. 9. The blast and ensuing conflagration killed eight people, injured dozens and destroyed many homes.

The blast also shined a spotlight on the safety of the company’s aging gas transmission infrastructure, which crisscrosses under neighborhoods across the state. Prior to the blast, PG&E largely had free rein over its system and was not required by its regulators to report on the location or health of its system.

But in the month since the blast occurred, the utility began turning over information such as the approximate location of some of its lines, and a list of some of its highest-risk pipes.

The program announced Tuesday, called Pipeline 2020, proposes a significant investment in modernizing critical pipeline infrastructure, expanding the use of automatic or remotely operated shutoff valves, developing new technology, reviewing its current practices and working with public safety agencies, according to a statement.

“Pipeline 2020 will guide PG&E in fulfilling our pledge to customers and the public to ensure the safety and integrity of our gas transmission system,” PG&E President Chris Johns said in the release, adding that the move “represents a substantial and long-term commitment of people and resources to restore confidence and trust in PG&E’s gas transmission system.”

The costs are not completely clear, although PG&E will spend $10 million to launch an organization that will collaborate with other safety organizations. That $10 million will not come from ratepayer funds, according to the company.

But enhancements to the safety of pipelines and the installation of shutoff valves will most likely involve ratepayer funds. The Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer advocacy organization, was “not impressed” by the announcement, spokeswoman Mindy Spatt said.

“Basically, here’s PG&E in the aftermath of a horrific explosion that appears to be their fault making an announcement that they’re going to take care of everything on their own from here on out,” Spatt said. “These are things they should have been doing already.”

Questions about the effectiveness of regulators have also lingered in the blast’s aftermath. The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to announce the makeup of a blue-ribbon panel this Thursday, while federal investigators have yet to announce the cause of the deadly blast.

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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