Regulators increase pressure on PG&E over pipelines


California utility regulators toughened their stance toward Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on Friday, 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.

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

Foremost among the PUC’s 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 commission 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 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 Bruno 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.

“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 disaster 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 commission’s regulation of the company.

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

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who toured the disaster scene Wednesday, praised the PUC for ordering that information be made 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 Friday evening in a statement released by his office.

Specifically, the governor said 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.

At least one lawsuit has been filed against PG&E. On Friday, Steve Dare, a San Bruno resident who was not allowed to return to his home for several days after the Sept. 9 explosion, sued the utility in San Mateo County Superior Court. Among the proposed class-action lawsuit’s demands are that the $100 million PG&E has pledged to help rebuild be placed in a court-supervised escrow account.

“The real issue is we’re just going to focus on getting that $100 million turned over to a court in San Mateo,” said William M. Audet, the lawyer who filed the suit. “At first it sounded like PG&E was doing the right thing. Now, I hear they’re nickel-and-diming people.”

Audet said Dare, who could not be reached Friday, did not have significant losses. His house, which was not damaged, is on the other side of a forested canyon from the explosion site. But Audet said Dare lost several days of work, and he noted that housing prices in the area could be depressed for some time.