PG&E exec: ‘No one ever thought it could happen to us’

For many pipeline companies, the talk is how to keep up with demand from U.S. shale plays.

But Nick Stavropoulos, executive vice president of gas operations for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., offered a sobering reminder Tuesday of the risks of carrying volatile hydrocarbons by pipeline through populated areas.

His audience at the Pipeline Opportunities Conference in Houston knew the backstory: one of the company’s natural gas pipelines ruptured in San Bruno, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2010, killing eight people, severely injuring 35 and destroying 75 homes.

“It looked like a war zone,” said Stavropoulos, who was hired after the explosion. “The company was humbled. No one ever thought it could happen to us.”

His talk served as both a cautionary tale and as a check-list for recovering from disaster, as he announced that Pacific Gas and Electric has completed seven of the 12 safety recommendations issued by the National Transportation Safety Board after the blast.

He said afterward that the five remaining recommendations are considered open-acceptable pending completion, as the company continues to work on them.

The three most recently completed recommendations include:

• Maximum allowable operating pressure validation for gas transmission pipelines in populated areas.

• Updating work clearance procedures to include developing contingency plans for work on the natural gas transmission system to require specific personnel have complete knowledge of the intended work and clearance procedures.

• An updated public awareness plan to ensure communities are aware of gas safety information.

Previously completed recommendations include:

• A search of more than 3.5 million paper documents to meet the NTSB threshold for traceable, verifiable and complete records.

• Establishing a comprehensive response procedure for dealing with an emergency on a gas pipeline.

• Updating policies to require gas control room operators to immediately notify 911 call centers when a possible pipeline rupture is detected.

• Revising procedures to ensure all potentially involved employees are tested for toxic exposure after an accident.

Stavropoulos mixed the personal and the technical in his talk, which outlined some of the steps the California utility has taken since the explosion.

He assumed the newly created position in June 2011, just after the California Public Utilities Commission issued its report and two months before the federal transportation board came out with its recommendations.

Stavropoulos said the company immediately embraced all 12 recommendations.

But his first directive from the board was to split the gas and electric components of the company, which he said revealed that many of the executives came from electricity backgrounds. He continues to hire gas executives, although he said he has almost completed that task.

The company has spent about $1.4 billion responding to the explosion, much of it on pipeline tests, repairs and upgrades.

The California Public Utilities Commission ruled in December that the company can’t pass on the full cost of that to customers, which has lowered earnings.

Stavropoulos spoke briefly about a personal tragedy and its role in his commitment to safety.

His 26-year-old daughter, Nicole, died in 2008 after choking on a piece of meat while at home with her parents.

They tried to save her, as did emergency responders.

“We couldn’t do it,” he said. “Two days later, Nicole was gone. I came to PG&E because I didn’t want any other family to experience that loss,” as his family had, and as the families in San Bruno had.

Those losses were individual, but Stavropoulos suggested that the pipeline industry as a whole bears a similar responsibility.

“If we don’t do the right thing for safety, some of those events might lead to tragedy,” he said. “I’m only interested in hiring people that are doing the right thing.”