The pipeline that ruptured on May 19, spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean, runs right through Santa Barbara County on its way to refineries in the Central Valley. Yet the county has no regulatory authority over it.
“Our county actually had very strict regulations, but then they lost their jurisdiction over this pipeline,” explained Environmental Defense Center chief counsel Linda Krop during a seaside news conference shortly after the spill. “They were robbed of the ability to monitor this pipeline the last 20 years. The federal regulations are much weaker.”
The company that used to operate the pipeline sued Santa Barbara County in the late 1980s. The oil firm claimed the county didn’t have the authority to impose regulations because the pipeline — now operated by Plains All American Pipeline — crosses county and federal territory.
For example, Santa Barbara County requires major oil pipelines to be outfitted with automatic shutoff valves. Federal regulators do not require them, so the Plains pipeline didn’t have one.
But the feds do require pipeline operators to undergo regular inspections. Those can include everything from looking for surface erosion on pipes to drug testing of workers. A company may also have its own internal inspection schedule.
The Plains All American pipeline is on a five-year federal inspection cycle. That’s about standard, says John Stoody, from the Association of Oil Pipelines, an industry trade group based in Washington, D.C.
“A minimum of every five years the operator must evaluate that pipeline, consider the different threats, conduct inspections,” says Stoody. “And then based on the risks, go out and perform maintenance on those pipelines before they become a problem.”
The inspection process is kind of like getting a smog check for your car. A pipeline operator hires a private inspection firm that specializes in that kind of thing. Technicians then runs the pipeline through a battery of tests and submits the results to the pipeline boss, who then hands over the data to government regulators.
“On top of that, you will have regulators, whether it’s the federal government or a state agency that comes out and inspects an operator, inspects the pipeline, their paperwork for the integrity, the safe operation,” Stoody says
The state of California has a pipeline inspection team, too. It’s a branch of the state fire agency Cal Fire. But the team is small, just a handful of inspectors and engineers.
“Yeah, we’ve been working with minimum staff for a number of years,” says California’s director of pipeline safety, Bob Gorham. “We have three full-time engineers and a couple part-time inspectors.”
They share oversight duties with federal inspectors on some 5,000 miles of pipelines across California.
Gorham says that because his staff is so small, inspections are prioritized based on each pipeline operator’s overall track record.
“And we work very closely with the federal government on the pipeline to try and determine what type of inspections and who to inspect,” he says.
Until a couple years ago, Gorham’s crew also had primary oversight of the Plains pipeline that ruptured and sullied the Santa Barbara County coastline.
But because of that staffing shortage, inspection duties on that and hundreds of miles of other pipelines were turned over to federal regulators a couple of years ago.
“And that is a problem nationwide,” says Samya Lutz, of the oil industry watchdog group the Pipeline Safety Trust. “Often the federal government or states will train pipeline inspectors. And once they’re trained up, they might just stay for a year or two before they’re picked off by the industry. Because the industry can typically afford to pay a lot more for those types of jobs.”
But starting salaries for state pipeline inspectors and engineers are set to increase this summer, says Gorham. His department, with field offices in Bakersfield and in the Long Beach area, aims to add about half a dozen additional engineers and inspectors in the coming months.
And California could reclaim pipeline oversight duties that it was forced to hand over over to federal regulators.
The state is investigating a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. safety program — a probe initiated after a member of Congress flagged a potential “safety threat that could lead to explosions,” KQED has learned.
The probe by the California Public Utilities Commission concerns “cross bores,” which occur when an underground natural gas line pierces another utility line — usually a sewer line — below the soil surface. Cross bores can result when work crews use an installation technique that doesn’t involve digging a trench, which means they can’t see whether pipeline damage has occurred.
These unintended pipe intersections might go undetected for years without causing a problem. But some Bay Area cities have recently partnered with utility companies to launch repair efforts out of concern that they are dangerous.
“There’s always the risk for gas explosions,” said Tyrone Jue, a spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, when asked about the safety hazard. “The [sewer] laterals would act like a vent, such that if there was a gas leak on that line, the gas could go up that lateral,” potentially traveling into a home or office space.
This could happen if a line was damaged, triggering a gas leak.
There have been 18 accidents resulting from cross-boring in the United States since 2002, according to the Gas Technology Institute. Mike Bruce, president of the Cross Bore Safety Association, said that’s likely “an understated number.”
But it’s impossible to know, because the Department of Transportation’sPipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration does not specifically track cross-bore accidents.
“You should be concerned, but not irrationally concerned because this is a fixable problem,” said Bruce. “It’s going to take many years to get this done, because we’ve spent decades putting them in.”
Congresswoman Flags Safety Issue
In July 2014, Rep. Jackie Speier contacted the CPUC, flagging potential “deficiencies” in a PG&E program created to identify and repair cross bores. An email reference to her letter was buried among more than 65,000 emails included in some 123,000 documents PG&E was forced to release due to a lawsuit after the fatal 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno.
Performed by utility contractors, PG&E’s cross-bore safety program entailed reaching out to individual property owners and running cameras through underground pipes, to be followed by any needed repairs.
Speier (D-San Mateo) confirmed to KQED that she had contacted the CPUC Safety and Enforcement Division.
“Allegations were brought to my attention that testing was sometimes done by unqualified personnel, that test results from some addresses may have been falsified or addresses slated for testing were eliminated without supporting evidence,” Speier explained in an email to KQED. “These allegations suggested that deficiencies in the program were potentially a safety threat that could lead to explosions.”
Emails in July 2014 between a CPUC Safety and Enforcement Division official and PG&E — in response to Speier’s concerns –indicated that a CPUC investigator would be initiating contact with the utility. But the findings of this probe have yet to be disclosed.
Speier’s letter to the CPUC contained an excerpt from a June 17, 2013, email between apparent contractors that had been shared with her office.
“There are a large number of addresses with potential cross bores [that were] never inspected,” says the excerpted email cited in Speier’s letter.
The unnamed author requests PG&E involvement, noting, “I just don’t want to be asked the question of why an assigned address wasn’t inspected AFTER a cross bore in an uninspected address blows up. This is a very real and dangerous potential; in my humble perspective as an inspector in this program.”
The “large number of addresses” referenced in the June 2013 email provided by the whistleblower were slated for inspection in 2012.
CPUC spokeswoman Constance Gordon told KQED that the state investigation began in July 2014. “Whistleblower complaints are always screened for immediate safety concerns and then assigned to an investigator, in this case in our Safety and Enforcement Division,” she said. “The investigation includes fact-gathering, code compliance and sufficient corrective actions as warranted by the specific case.”
She added: “We cannot comment further until the investigation is completed.”
PG&E responded to calls with a written statement saying that: “As part of our commitment to the safety of our customers and the communities we serve, PG&E has deployed a comprehensive program to prevent, identify and repair cross bores throughout our natural gas system. We hold our employees and contractors to high standards and maintain a rigorous quality control process for this work. We are committed to cooperating fully with any reviews by our regulators.”
PG&E is facing criminal negligence charges for violating pipeline safety laws and obstructing justice in the case of the San Bruno transmission pipeline explosion, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in September 2010. And two related investigations, one federal and state, focus on alleged improper communications with utility executives.
Cross-Bore Explosions Can Be Deadly
On Aug. 29, 1976, an explosion and fire destroyed a house in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing Cletus Weston, 60, and his son, David, 26. Four other people were injured and two adjacent houses were also damaged.
Earlier that morning the Weston family had called a sewer cleaning company to remove a blockage. The cleaner inserted an auger into a 6-inch sewer lateral. But the auger struck and ruptured a 2-inch plastic gas main, even though the home was not served by natural gas. Quickly, gas flowed into the house through the sewer system and an explosion occurred.
Later, the National Transportation Safety Board disclosed that the gas main had been installed by boring through the sewer lateral — a cross bore. The explosion prompted the NTSB to issue a series of recommendations, including that “inspections [should be made] …. where gas mains and sewer laterals may be in proximity.”
But it took decades, and more explosions, for many municipalities and utilities to begin searching for cross bores.
Cross Bores Discovered In Bay Area
According to documents from PG&E, there have been five “near hits” in San Francisco and the Peninsula since 2012 in which cross bores were damaged and gas was released. But they were fixed before any property damage occurred.
Workers found 24 cross bores within four city blocks in Palo Alto, according to a document cited by PG&E and presented at the Northeast Gas Association. The City Council approved $3.8 million in 2011 to inspect sewer laterals and make repairs.
In San Francisco, Tyrone Jue noted that the SFPUC, the agency tasked with maintaining city sewer lines, was largely unaware of cross bores until its street crews uncovered them during routine maintenance.
“[PG&E] had been doing the trenchless pipeline installation for a while, prior to us finding out about it,” he said.
PG&E later provided data suggesting that there were about 1,000 locations in the city where cross bores had occurred.
But a complaint filed against PG&E by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera suggests that there could be even more. “PG&E has identified thousands of additional locations where PG&E’s cross-bores might have caused damage to city sewer laterals,” Herrera’s June 6, 2013, complaint noted.
Both Jue and Deputy City Attorney Theresa Mueller assured KQED that the problem was in the process of being addressed, both through a formal agreement between the city and the utility and through repairs, performed either by PG&E or SFPUC.
“A vast majority of them have already been fixed,” Jue explained. However, “There are some that are still remaining.” Meanwhile, cost recovery for damage to sewer lines is still the subject of litigation.
The city made repairs to nearly 100 locations where sewer pipes were damaged by gas lines, incurring more than $1.2 million in costs.
Efforts to Raise Awareness About Cross Bores
PG&E has issued tens of thousands of brochures to sewer districts, public works agencies, plumbers and equipment rental stores to raise awareness about cross-bore safety concerns.
Nationwide, public safety programs stress that property owners should be aware of the potential safety hazard caused by cross bores.
“OK, someone’s sewer or toilet is backing up. Normally they just call the plumber. Now they’re saying, call the gas company first to make sure there’s not a cross bore,” said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.
Before you or your plumber perform a repair to a sewer line outside of your foundation, call 811.
Palo Alto’s Mayor Youth Video Corp made the video below about cross bores.
SAN FRANCISCO — California regulatory judges recommended a $1.4 billion penalty on Tuesday — the largest safety-related levy ever against a public utility in the state — for a fiery 2010 gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people in a suburban San Francisco neighborhood.
The California Public Utilities Commission said the figure reached by two administrative law judges over the San Bruno pipeline explosion reflected nearly 3,800 violations of state and federal law, regulations and standards by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in the operation of its gas pipelines.
The penalty is meant to “send a strong message to PG&E, and all other pipeline operators, that they must comply with mandated federal and state pipeline safety requirements, or face severe consequences,” Timothy J. Sullivan, one of the two judges, wrote in the order.
The largest share — $950 million — of the penalty is a fine to be paid directly to the state. That amount drew objections from city officials in San Bruno, the utility and a private ratepayers-advocacy group that the overall penalty should be focused on spending for the safe operation of the aging pipeline network.
“We are accountable and fully accept that a penalty is appropriate,” the utility said in a statement.
Asked whether PG&E would appeal, utility spokesman Greg Snapper said, “We’re reviewing the decision and believe that any penalty should go toward pipeline safety.”
The recommended penalty requires approval by members of the state utility board. PG&E and other parties in the case have 30 days to lodge an appeal.
The commission previously ordered PG&E to pay $635 million for pipeline modernization in the wake of the Sept. 9, 2010, blast in the suburb of San Francisco. The explosion destroyed more than three dozen homes and was California’s deadliest utility disaster in decades.
The blast occurred when a 30-inch natural-gas transmission line installed in 1956 ruptured. At the time, survivors described the heat of the blast burning the back of their necks like a blowtorch as they ran away.
The $1.4 billion penalty also includes $400 million for pipeline improvements, and about $50 million to enhance pipeline safety. PG&E cannot recover any of the money from customers, including the earlier $635 million penalty, although a ratepayers’ group called The Utility Reform Network maintained PG&E could raise rates in other rate cases to indirectly offset the penalty.
Sending $950 million to the state’s general fund, with no strings attached, means it could be spent in any way the governor and Legislature see fit, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.
The public utility commission staff recommended in July that the utility pay at least $300 million in fines.
San Bruno city officials were just beginning to study Tuesday’s decision but on first read believed the overall judgment fell short of what was needed to ensure PG&E upgraded pipeline safety as much as necessary, city manager Connie Jackson said.
The penalty was historic in terms of financial charges levied against utilities on safety violations, said Britt Strottman, a lawyer for San Bruno. However, “a lot of the utilities do not cause the same amount of devastation and destruction that was a result of the PG&E explosion in San Bruno,” Strottman said.
A 2011 investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the rupture occurred in a weak weld in a pipeline that PG&E records had shown as being smooth and unwelded. Among other safety failings, PG&E let 95 minutes go by before shutting off the natural gas that was fueling the fire, the federal investigators said.
That same 2011 federal investigation also faulted what it called the California Public Utilities Commission’s weak oversight of the utility, which serves customers in the northern two-thirds of California.
The San Bruno blast prompted congressional hearings on pipeline safety and recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and other government bodies that utilities intensify their oversight of decades-old natural gas lines.
This year, federal prosecutors separately indicted PG&E on 27 counts alleging the utility violated pipeline safety requirements.
PG&E faces additional fines of more than $1 billion if convicted of the federal charges, which are separate from the state financial penalties. PG&E has pleaded not guilty to the counts.
Separately, PG&E was hit with about 160 lawsuits from people who lost family members, suffered injuries or had property damage.
AP writers Garance Burke and Donald Thompson contributed to this report.
Assembly Bill 2145, the proposed law aimed at crushing Community Choice Energy programs in California, is officially dead. When Senator Steinberg brought down the gavel this morning at 3:00 a.m. with no vote from legislators for AB 2145, the bill died. The bill’s author, Assemblyman Steven Bradford, was unable to find a colleague to manage his bill on the senate side.
The victory over extremely powerful corporate forces in Sacramento resulted from the uprising of governments, businesses, and clean energy advocates from San Diego to Del Norte County. A statewide coalition, Californians for Energy Choice, fought the bill to the bitter end.
Community Choice energy is the most powerful tool to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the local level. Large utilities have repeatedly tried to stop it. Pacific Gas & Electric spent nearly $50 million in 2010 pushing Proposition 16 that would have ended Community Choice in California. Voters roundly defeated this statewide ballot measure.
The Climate Protection Campaign played a central role in raising awareness and educating the public about the perils of AB 2145, which originally would have turned Community Choice law on its head and made the large corporate utilities the default service providers in the State.
“Regarding Community Choice, you know you are on to something good when the corporate utilities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to stop it, said Ann Hancock, Executive Director of the Climate Protection Campaign. She added, “We recognized immediately the serious threat that AB 2145 posed, so we acted, and it has paid off. We are now very eager to continue helping to develop clean energy Community Choice programs across the State.”
More information: www.no2145.org
Contact: Woody Hastings, 310-968-2757,woody@
Ann Hancock, 415-298-1224, ann@
The second of California’s community choice aggregates (CCA) was launched amidst state legislation (AB 2145) that could restrict further competition with established utilities.
There are other community choice aggregates being formed in San Diego, San Luis Obispo, the Bay Area, and other parts of California.
Up until now, local governments that wished to form a community choice aggregate could count on enrolling the residents of their districts. They would have the option of opting out and staying with their old utility.
AB 2145 would make it necessary for every would-be customer of the CCA to make a positive declaration before they can be enrolled.
According to an online petition, that you can access here, it is a “poison pill” designed to limit a CCA’s ability to viably exist at the local level.
“Sounds fine until you realize that very few people opt-in to anything new and thus this bill guts the very provision of Community Energy law that assures a successful launch: All-In on Day One … plus opt-out at any time to return to the Investor-Owned Utility,” said Lane Sharman, Co-founder of the San Diego Energy District Foundation, in a press release.
“AB 2145 would completely gut the ability of California communities to viably launch CCA programs that can compete on a level playing field with investor owned utilities. This bill is anti-consumer, anti-competition, and anti-environment,” said Shawn Marshall of LEAN Energy, in the Bay area.
Ann Hancock, Executive Director of the Center for Climate Protection, the organization that helped launch Sonoma Clean Power, stated that “Community Choice is the most powerful solution local governments have to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This bill would steal that solution from cities and counties throughout the State.”
Al Weinrub, coordinator of the Bay Area’s Local Clean Energy Alliance said, “There are emerging Community Choice programs all over California that have the potential to put thousands of people to work building local clean energy resources, and thereby enable us to shut down fossil fuel power plants that are polluting the air and lungs of our lowest income communities. AB 2145 would halt these clean energy programs dead in their tracks.”
Sierra Club’s Andrew Christie, who is working to establish a Community Choice program in San Luis Obispo County, said, “If AB 2145 passes, community choice will be replaced with zero choice. There will be no chance of establishing local, public energy programs that would incentivize a local green energy economy.”
AB 2145 opponents include several local governments around the state; Sierra Club California; The Utility Reform Network; 350.org Bay Area, Santa Barbara and San Diego chapters; LEAN Energy U.S.; Local Clean Energy Alliance; the California Public Utility Commission’s Office of Ratepayer Advocates; the California State Association of Counties; the League of California Cities; Communities for a Better Environment; CLEAN Coalition; Retail Energy Supply Association; Alliance for Retail Energy Markets; Marin Clean Energy; Sonoma Clean Power; World Wildlife Fund US; and the California Solar Energy Industries Association.
This bill has been referred to the Standing Committee on Appropriations.
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SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 15, 2013 – A study released today by the Vote Solar Initiative finds that net-metered rooftop solar will provide more than $92 million in annual benefits to ratepayers of California’s three investor-owned utilities. Net metering is a program that provides rooftop solar customers with utility bill credits for the surplus clean energy that their solar systems feed onto the electric grid. Net metering has been a key driver of the rapid expansion of solar across California’s rooftops, with two-thirds of home solar installations now occurring in low and median income neighborhoods, according to a July 2012 California Solar Initiative report.
The study comes as the state’s investor-owned utilities– Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric– increasingly criticize net metering, which reduces their ability to justify the capital investment infrastructure projects that earn them a guaranteed profit.
The study was commissioned by the Vote Solar Initiative and was authored by consultant and former California Public Utilities Commission advisor Tom Beach of Crossborder Energy. Using a CPUC-approved economic model and data from solar customers, the study assesses the overall impacts of net metering to ratepayers in territories covered by Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric.
It finds that the financial benefits of net metered power outweigh the costs, with a total net benefit value of more than $92 million annually by the time the state’s net metering program is fully subscribed. Benefits include: savings on expensive and polluting conventional power; reduced investments in transmission and distribution infrastructure; reduced electricity lost during transportation over power lines, as net metered solar’s surplus energy is sent to the grid locally; and savings on the cost of meeting carbon reduction and renewable energy requirements.
“When someone decides to put solar panels on their roof, they not only generate clean power, but also reduce strain on the electric grid while offering financial benefits to all ratepayers,” said Adam Browning, Executive Director of The Vote Solar Initiative. “We’ve got a long way to go in revamping an antiquated energy grid and growing California’s clean economy, and net metering is critical to those efforts.”
In addition to the bill-saving ratepayer benefits outlined in the study, solar provides environmental, public health and economic benefits. Thanks to policies like net metering, California is home to a fast-maturing solar industry, which now employs over 43,000 Californians and has attracted over $10 billion in private investment.
“It’s crystal clear that the way we produce and consume electricity needs to evolve,” said Daniel Kammen, University of California Berkeley Distinguished Professor in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG), and Professor of Public Policy in the Goldman School of Public Policy. “The good news is that net metering is doing what it was designed to do—accelerating solar adoption while reducing our dependence on dangerous fossil fuels and kick-starting one of the most promising job-creating industries of the 21st Century. Solar produces energy at the times of highest cost to the utilities, so with the right market incentives, it is a simple ‘win-win-win’ for ratepayers, utilities, and the environment.”
Solar adoption has helped school districts and other public agencies survive steep budget cuts, with savings from solar installations freeing up funds to retain teachers, educational programs, and important government services. Over the next 30 years, schools and public agencies will save more than $2.5 billion on energy bills via net-metered solar systems.
“Bill savings from solar projects coupled with efficiency are important at a time when schools have been forced to cut budgets and grow classroom sizes. Net metering helps taxpayer-funded institutions operate more efficiently by allowing schools to use these utility savings for other purposes such as books, supplies and teachers,” said Anna Ferrera, Executive Director of the School Energy Coalition. “Not to mention the added benefit of having our students witness the clean and natural resources that can power their classrooms and computers.”
WASHINGTON, DC – November 7, 2012 – We are pleased that the ITC has determined that there were no critical circumstances, and thus no reason to apply the tariffs retroactively. This means that tariffs will not apply to modules made with Chinese cells that were imported into the U.S. during the period of the investigation. As several witnesses testified at the ITC’s hearing in October, those adversely affected by retroactivity would have been small- and medium-sized U.S. solar businesses that functioned as direct importers and were caught in the middle of SolarWorld’s protectionist case.
Now that both Commerce and the ITC have ruled, we will continue to encourage dialogue and negotiation between the U.S. and Chinese governments to seek a constructive resolution. Unilateral tariffs and a trade war in today’s interconnected global marketplace are unnecessary and detrimental to effective and efficient business competition. Going forward, we must avoid a repeat of the SolarWorld saga, as the growth of the solar industry here, in Europe, and around the world is too important to be upended by one company’s self-serving crusade.
About CASE: The Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE), a coalition of American solar companies representing 97% to 98% of the U.S. solar industry jobs, believes free trade and industry competition are critical to making solar electricity affordable for everyone. CASE is united in its commitment to creating jobs through the growth and development of the American solar industry. For more information about CASE, please visit: http://
|By Travis Mitchell|
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Wednesday proposed a $470 million fine against British bank Barclays as punishment for allegedly manipulating California energy markets from 2006 to 2008.
The Order also calls for $18 million in fines for four individual Barclays traders involved in the scandal, which FERC called a “highly coordinated and discussed” scheme to manipulate the western U.S. power market over 35 months. Total losses to market participants were pegged at nearly $140 million.
More specifically, the Order outlines that, “Barclays generally began by assembling substantial physical index positions in the opposite direction of its fixed-for-floating financial swap positions. Barclays flattened those physical index positions in the next-day fixed-price physical markets in a manner designed to move the daily index settlement up if it was buying and down if it was selling.”
The bank has 30 days to defend itself against the accusations and the penalty. If the penalty holds, it’s another huge financial blow for the bank, which was just recently fined $450 million for its involvement in the Libor interest rate setting scandal.
In a statement released Thursday, Barclays admitted no wrongdoing.
“We have cooperated fully with the FERC investigation, which relates to trading activity that occurred several years ago. We intend to vigorously defend this matter,” the bank said.
This is the latest push by FERC to crack down on energy market manipulation in California. Back in September the Commission launched an investigation into allegations that JPMorgan skimmed $80 million off inflated profits in the state. FERC has taken similar action against Deutsche Bank.