Public Utilities Commission Gets Tough on PG&E and Other Natural Gas Companies

A crater filled with water marks the site of the San Bruno pipeline explosion in September 2010. (Max Whittaker/Getty Images)
A crater filled with water marks the site of the San Bruno pipeline explosion in September 2010. (Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

The state Public Utilities Commission, under fire for failing to enforce pipeline safety laws three years after the San Bruno disaster, has finalized guidelines for citations against natural gas companies. The companies could be fined as much as $50,000 a day for each safety violation.

In addition to spelling out fines, the guidelines establish a whistle-blower program to allow utility employees to report problems anonymously and without fear of retaliation.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the commission has a backlog of more than 600 natural gas safety violations, including some acknowledged by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. after the 2010 gas pipeline blast in San Bruno. The blast killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

The commission says it will soon start issuing citations for these and other previously identified violations.

The Chronicle story detailed the criticism of the PUC, and specifically its relationship with PG&E:

In the aftermath of the rupture, the commission was sharply criticized by the National Transportation Safety Board for lax oversight of the state’s utility firms. The state’s approach — known as voluntary compliance — had allowed companies to escape fines for any gas safety violations they acknowledged to regulators.

The safety board found that the commission’s culture “serves as an impediment to effective regulation,” and that PG&E “exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight.” But in recent months, the state and PG&E seem to have settled into a holding pattern that is similar to the enforcement stance adopted before the blast.

The commission has not issued a fine against a utility since early 2012, records show, when it fined PG&E $16.8 million for failing to check more than 14 miles of East Bay natural gas lines for leaks for decades. The utility appealed, citing its voluntary disclosure of the problem as a mitigating factor, and lost.

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), whose legislation calling for better enforcement and monitoring of violations is on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, said the new fine schedule comes as state regulation is in “chaos.”

“The PUC has been going in circles, with no direction and no focus with how to deal with violations,” Hill told The Chronicle.

Under the new guidelines, the commission said, fines will be based on the risk posed to the public and the conduct of the gas company.

See KQED’s extensive coverage of the San Bruno blast, investigation and aftermath.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor