SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - Pacific Gas and Electric Co. led a successful lobbying campaign to persuade federal regulators writing natural-gas safety rules seven
years ago to endorse a pipe inspection method many experts see as deficient - the technique used on the pipeline that later failed catastrophically in San Bruno.
A PG&E executive was one of the main industry proponents of the then-new testing regimen, interviews with people who were involved in the rule-writing process and a San Francisco Chronicle review of documents show.
The federal government's decision to allow the method - despite knowing it was seriously deficient in detecting problems - saved PG&E (and other pipeline companies) millions of dollars because the utility didn't have to upgrade its system to accommodate more effective inspection technology such as the use of smart tools.
The method PG&E used in San Bruno is called direct assessment, which involves records research, surface-level electronic testing and digging holes to spot-check small portions of buried pipelines. When the utility used it on the San Bruno transmission line in November 2009, it found no problems.
Ten months later, the line ruptured, causing an explosion and fire that killed eight people and destroyed 37 homes. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the blast and has not arrived at a cause, but said that it was looking into whether a weld on a lateral seam of the pipe had failed. (Source: Eric Nalder and Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 23, 2010)