PG&E’s Pipeline System: From Hell And Back

By Richard Nemec, Contributing Editor | April 2013, Vol. 240 No. 4

Just one of the 37 completed valve automations along the Millbrae Pipeline.

In less than three years, the San Francisco-based combination utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) has had to reconstitute its vast natural gas transmission and distribution system on a scale that is unprecedented for the U.S. pipeline sector.

With PG&E as the focal point, the U.S. industry has been touched by the fallout from the September 2010 failure of the company’s high-pressure, 30-inch transmission line in San Bruno, CA. From the charred ruins and loss of life resulting from that pipeline rupture and explosion, PG&E not only had to rebuild its physical gas components, it had to rebuild its work force, its spirit as a multibillion-dollar energy-providing organization and its trustworthiness among regulators, elected officials, customers and the general public.

Less than a year into San Bruno’s aftermath, the California utility giant reached out nationally to snag gas industry veteran Nick Stavropoulos, then with National Grid, to run its natural gas system, consisting of 5,800 miles of transmission pipelines, 42,000 miles of distribution mains and numerous underground storage facilities, all spread over 70,000 miles of service territory. A salient fact for the rebuilding effort is that 2,088 miles of its transmission pipelines traverse high consequence areas (HCA) that include some of America’s most seismically active and diverse topography.

At the midway point, Stavropoulos and PG&E seem to be up to the challenge in a four-year full-court press to complete a $4 billion pipeline upgrade plan and revamping of the company’s pipeline integrity management program. Along the way, there also has been an attempt to change PG&E’s culture and the previous negative perceptions of many of its stakeholders.

When asked to give himself a grade, Stavropoulos declined to do so, but allowed that what the company has accomplished so far is precedent-setting. He added, when it comes to operating a safe, reliable pipeline system, “You’re never finished. The job is never done.”

Stavropoulos has brought in other experienced pipeline industry veterans, such as Jesus Soto, senior vice president for gas transmission operations, who has more than 20 years of senior executive experience at El Paso Natural Gas – some of that during the company’s recovery following the Carlsbad, NM rupture of a 30-inch interstate transmission pipeline that killed a dozen people in 2000. Internal corrosion was eventually cited as the cause and Soto has never forgotten it.

PG&E also recruited Mel Christopher as senior director of gas systems operations to lead its completely revamped gas control center operations. Christopher, who has been on board about 18 months, came with 30 years of industry experience, 27 of which were with the PNM Resources utility operations in Albuquerque, NM. Both Soto and Christopher bring strong philosophies with them.

Both underscore the extraordinary nature of PG&E’s challenge so far, dissecting vast amounts of high-pressure transmission pipeline segments in Class 3, 4 and HCA areas. “The concentration for this effort is unprecedented,” said Soto, while reciting what he calls the “intricacies” of working in limited spaces, while dealing with issues of noise, traffic control, limited work hours and operating heavy equipment in populated areas. “That’s very different than doing hydrostatic testing in rural areas,” he said.