PG&E Pipeline Pressure Surges Are a Real Threat

Categories: Environment
Thumbnail image for San Bruno Fire Smi23le.jpg
That should be a hint
PG&E is starting to feel some unwanted pressure over its gas pipelines. The company is being asked to be much more transparent following a federal directive requiring all utilities to maintain and report instances of pressure surges along their gas pipelines.

That might be a tall order for PG&E, given the company's history of slipshod record-keeping.

As the Chronicle reported this weekend, PG&E has over-pressurized its pipelines more than 120 times since September 2010. When pressure increases beyond a pipeline's designated maximum capacity, so does the likelihood of disastrous incidents, like the 2010 San Bruno explosion.

By keeping more accurate records of pressure surges -- and reporting them -- companies can identify and remedy problematic pipeline segments before blasts happen. Last year, PG&E recorded 78 surges, and this year it could surpass that number; 43 surges have already been reported. Repeated pressure surges increase the risk of failure on "weak spots," decades-old sections of piping that have exceeded their intended lifespan and are below the quality standards of pipelines produced today.

As the Chronicle points out, PG&E's competitors, Southern California Gas Company and San Diego Gas and Electric, had a total of two major surges in pressure on transmission lines collectively between 2008 and 2010.

And while the feds are demanding these companies give us more transparency, the question remains: How accurate are PG&E's own records? Unfortunately, the company's history shows a less-than-stellar history of maintenance and owning up to its problematic pipelines. A letter to the company from the National Transportation Safety Board on Jan. 3 details PG&E'a shoddy record-keeping on conditions of its pipelines.

Meanwhile, the San Bruno explosion killed eight people, destroyed 37 homes, and damaged an additional 18. The segment of pipeline that ruptured in that incident had been installed in 1956.

After conducting its own investigation of the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board demanded that PG&E "use traceable, verifiable and complete records ... to ensure safe operations" 17 months ago.

Mounting numbers of pressure surges are warning signs indicating potential explosions. We should be listening to those warnings.

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