News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

PG&E Fined $14 Million for Pipeline Ethics Violations

PG&E's faulty pipeline in San Bruno | Photo: A Name Like Shields Can Make You Defensive/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The company that admitted its lax record keeping and faulty gas pipelines caused a deadly explosion in 2010 in San Bruno just got hit with a big fine for failing to keep state regulators informed about a similar pipeline a few miles south. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted Thursday to fine Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) $14.35 million over a delay in filing updated information on its natural gas pipeline 147 in the San Mateo County city of San Carlos.

The CPUC agreed unanimously that the delay, which gave the agency the impression that the pipeline had stronger welds than was actually the case, and an apparent attempt to slide a correction past regulators, together constituted an ethical lapse on the part of Northern California's largest utility worthy of the maximum legal fine.

"This penalty is designed to serve as a deterrent to similar behavior in the future," said CPUC Commissioner Mark Ferron in a press statement. "There should be no question that the CPUC expects nothing less than forthright and timely disclosure in all matters of public safety.... delay and obfuscation will not be tolerated."

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According to the CPUC, PG&E improperly gave the agency the impression from November 2012 until July 2013 that its Line 147 was built using either seamless or double submerged arc welding. In actuality, the line was assembled in a single submerged arc welding process, which meant a significantly greater chance of weld failure and subsequent leaks.

Seamless or double-submerged welds in a pipeline the size of Line 147 would have allowed operating pressures of up 365 pounds per square inch; a single-submerged weld means the pipeline is unsafe at pressures above 330 psi.

When PG&E did eventually update its paperwork on the gas line in July, according to the CPUC, it presented that amendment as a non-substantive update generally used to correct typographical or minor mathematical errors.

The CPUC fined PG&E the maximum $50,000 per day for the period between November 16, 2012, and July 3, 2013, totaling $11.45 million, and the same per day fine for each day in July and August as a penalty for the allegedly misleading filing.

The agency also gave PG&E the go-ahead to restore pressure on Line 147 to no more than 330 psi.

On September 9, 2010, an improperly maintained 30 inch pipeline owned by PG&E exploded after extended gas leakage from an improperly welded section of pipe. The disaster took eight lives, injured 58 others, destroyed 38 homes and caused damage to at least 70 more houses. In July, the CPUC staff recommended the utility pay $2.25 billion in penalties for its role in the disaster. As yet there's no final ruling on that fine.


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Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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