How Safe Is California’s Pipeline Infrastructure?

How Safe Is California’s Pipeline Infrastructure?

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The 30-inch natural gas transmission pipeline that recently exploded in San Bruno was built in 1956. It created a fire so intense that it devoured 15 acres of houses and killed four people. Was it an aberration or a sign of flaws in California’s pipeline infrastructure? Carl Weimer, Executive Director of the Pipeline trust, a national pipe safety advocacy group based in Bellingham, Washington shares his concerns about California’s pipeline infrastructure.

What are the key problems with California’s existing natural gas infrastructure?

In California, PG&E has roughly 6,400 miles of transmission lines -- which act like freeways to move natural gas -- and another 42,000 miles of smaller distribution lines funneling gas to customers. Only 7 percent of these lines are subjected to high pressure inspections, once in seven years. Unfortunately, this is the national benchmark set by the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act passed by Congress in 2002 after a string of pipeline failures.

So issues like corrosion, minor ruptures due to digging or earthquakes can go without being noticed for years.

PG&E tests the rest of the pipelines using a less effective technology using electronic mapping. This method involves running an electric current through a pipeline. Workers walk the pipeline route with devices that resemble ski poles and insert them in the ground.

If everything is fine with the pipe, the device will register an electronic signal. But corrosion in the metal can block that signal, so if the device detects a weaker response in one area, it points to something that could be wrong with the pipe.
This electronic mapping method is how the San Bruno pipe was tested in November 2009, and PG&E says it passed. According to PG&E's filings with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) late last year, the utility intends to inspect 72 percent of its urban lines by 2014 using this outmoded method. How effective would this be?

Can we only blame PG&E for pipeline safety problems?

According to a PG&E filing with the CPUC in Match 2010, the utility knew that this line was at greater risk of corrosion because compressor oil and other contaminants had turned up in sections of the pipe running from San Francisco to Milpitas. We don’t know what actions they took to remedy this situation yet.

But, we cannot just point fingers at PG&E for all the problems with pipeline safety. One of the important things that investigators need to find out is whether public planning officials have taken steps to protect the public when approving commercial or residential real estate projects running above pipelines. We are still unsure about why the pipeline ruptured. Land use planning is a messy issue, where most of the decisions are taken at a local level. But the rapid urban sprawl over hard pressure pipelines is increasing the probability of these incidents happening.

Is it the lack of funding that has led to these ineffective technologies being used for fault detection?

Yes, inadequate funding is a key part of the problem.

In a document PG&E filed with the CPUC in June, it was seeking funds from ratepayers in part to “reduce the risk in the gas distribution system.” In this filing, the company had pointed out that it needs to upgrade the equipment in several distribution lines for monitoring changes in pipeline pressure by replacing its older devices -- dubbed mechanical chart recorders -- with electronic devices.

The electronic devices provide real-time monitoring of gas lines. This isn't possible with the older mechanical chart readers that also contribute to outages, pipeline integrity issues, gas leaks and system safety concerns.

Many of the mechanical chart recorders are 40 to 50 years old leading to ongoing reliability and accuracy problems.

The company needed to replace 670 of the older mechanical readers across its system, which stretches from Bakersfield to Eureka. PG&E already has about 300 electronic recorders, which cost $6,500 apiece to buy and install; and 400 more advanced monitoring units, which cost $50,000 to $100,000 apiece. In older pipes, pressure is a particularly critical issue. All this needs money, which has to be allocated out of the state budget.

But with California’s growing deficit, the easiest places to cut corners are with infrastructure maintenance budgets, because no one will really feel it, until a big event like San Bruno happens.
The other big issue is loopholes in government oversight.

What are these loopholes in government oversight on maintenance and safety related issues?

I am surprised to see such a huge crater in San Bruno, that is almost 126 feet long. I keep looking at that crater. That looks like way too big a hole for a pipeline that was operating at 300 psi, the pressure at which PG&E said it was operating it.

Under federal law, pipeline operators must report to government regulators whenever they notice that a pipe’s pressure has exceeded the maximum pressure stipulated for the pipeline.

But there is a large loophole. If the pipeline operator fixes the problem promptly, it doesn't have to report such an incident. Now this could seriously hamper the San Bruno investigation. The feds would have no way to know if that pipeline had been overstressed out three times or 30 times in the last month.

You testified before Congress on June 24 on the reauthorization of federal pipeline safety laws. What do you see as the key priorities to improve pipeline safety?

We have provided a laundry list of suggestions for improvements to the U.S. House and Senate. The top three priorities that can be implemented immediately are for more miles of these pipelines to use high-tech inspection methods. State and federal regulators should allocate more resources to verify that the companies are doing it well.

The third is to improve public awareness about pipeline safety issues. Many people don’t even know that a pipeline runs through their neighborhood. This is really important, because in some areas the pipes are buried just barely three miles underground.

How can I as a resident find out about the pipes running though my neighborhood, their condition and whether they have any maintenance issues?

The first step for any concerned citizen is to look at the national pipeline mapping system that allows you to look for a map of pipelines in each county. This was a bit confusing earlier, but the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration just launched a more user-friendly tool recently.

You should then find out about any previous incidences in your area by calling the community assistance number for PG&E.

If you have any complaints, you can directly write to the Public Utilities Commission.