Pacific Gas & Electric announces new gas pipeline safety measures

Pacific Gas & Electric officials Tuesday announced a series of measures aimed at upgrading and improving the safety of the company’s gas transmission system and encouraging nationwide reforms in the wake of a gas line explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people.

“We feel it’s necessary to go beyond the existing regulatory requirements and move to a newer and higher level in terms of safety and reliability,” Chief Executive Peter Darbee told reporters Tuesday in unveiling the company’s Pipeline 2020 plan.

In addition to replacing vulnerable pipeline in high-density areas, the plan calls for installation of automated and remote-controlled gas shut-off valves. It took utility workers an hour and 46 minutes to shut a manual valve after the Sept. 9 explosion in San Bruno, when a massive transmission line failed, fueling a fireball that destroyed 37 homes.

PG&E officials said they would work with “an independent third party expert” as well as regulators to craft the pipeline modernization plan and identify “several hundred” valve locations. They expect to have a valve replacement proposal before the California Public Utilities Commission “in a couple of weeks,” said PG&E Co. President Chris Johns.


The company will also form a nonprofit, funded with $10 million from shareholders, dedicated to research and development of the “next generation of pipeline inspection and diagnostic tools.”

The company called on others in the industry to join PG&E as it reviews safety practices, including “state-of-the-art risk assessment.” Models of risk assessment widely embraced by the industry have been called into question since the disaster, a Times article last week revealed.

Lastly, the company pledged to provide more detailed gas transmission maps to communities and conduct tailored training for first responders accordingly.

“The greatest way we can honor those who suffered is to make sure that an accident like this never happens again, anywhere,” Johns said in announcing the details.


Implementation of much of the program depends on a green light from regulators, and some of the changes could be mandated by legislation now under consideration in Congress. Darbee says the company supports the legislation.

But with the announcement, Darbee and Johns signaled an effort to position PG&E as an active player in industry reforms rather than a passive target.

A Times investigation last month found that PG&E’s leak rate on gas lines in areas deemed highly populated or environmentally sensitive far exceeds the national average of other large operators of pipelines. And a San Francisco Chronicle investigation Sunday found that PG&E had more infractions on its pipelines between 2004 and 2009 than the rest of the state’s major pipeline operators combined, yet the California Public Utilities Commission did not levy a single fine on the utility during that period.