PG&E ordered to pay for San Bruno investigation

September 23, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
The California Public Utilities Commission, met for the first time since the Sept. 9 San Bruno explosion. They ordered PG&E to foot the bill for an independent investigation into the cause of the incident and to come up with recommendations on changes to PG&E's repair and maintenance programs, its management practices and what regulatory changes are needed.

PG&E, state regulators and even consumer watchdogs are all in the crosshairs as a new fact-finding panel embarks on its mission. It will be made up of business and safety experts, but most likely academics who have the time to do this full-time.

It was their first meeting since the San Bruno explosion and first on the agenda was a resolution that shields no one from the finger of blame.

"The bottom line is that to ensure the public that we have a safe and reliable natural gas transmission system, as an agency we must restore the public confidence by keeping all options on the table," State Public Utilities Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon said.

With one commissioner absent, the vote was four to zero to create a panel of independent fact-finders.

The Blue Ribbon Panel will be established within 30 days and it will have three to five members, appointed by the commission's president.

The cost is expected to run upwards of $2 million and will be paid by PG&E. the resolution did not specify if PG&E shareholders or ratepayers should pick up the tab.

Two commissioners urged it should be the shareholders.

"We are prepared to use shareholder funding to fund the independent panel of the CPUC's investigation. However, that ultimate direction is going to have to come from the CPUC, and we will fully comply with whatever direction they decide," PG&E Spokesman Joe Molica said.

It is implicit that PG&E's maintenance and management will come under scrutiny, but the consumer group TURN also was targeted by commission president Michael Peevey for jumping up and attacking PG&E since the incident when TURN's job all along is to be a watchdog.

"We have complained over and over to the PUC. Our complaints have fallen on deaf ears," TURN Executive Director Mark Toney, PhD said.

The panel's investigation is expected to take six months. However, how much of its findings will be made public is uncertain due to potential lawsuits.

"We'll have to work on this process and see how that goes. There could be some redactions," Peevey said.

The panel will not have difficulty finding critics of PG&E.

"Who's minding the shop? Who's looking out at the infrastructure which is at the core of their mission, which I believe is to deliver gas and electricity safely, reliably and affordably, without death and destruction," Rep Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said.

Besides paying for the state investigation, a PG&E spokesman said today the utility might also be responsible for the cost of the national transportation safety board's investigation.

The pipeline safety agency under NTSB came under fire on Capitol Hill for failing to do strong oversight.


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