A hole and a section of pipe remain in a neighborhood that was devastasted by a gas line explosion in September of last year on May 19, 2011 in San Bruno, California. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier toured the San Bruno gas explosion site and a construction site where gas lines are being replaced.

President Obama’s re-election means “pretty aggressive” reforms of natural gas pipeline safety, undertaken in the wake of the fatal San Bruno pipeline explosion in California, will continue on schedule, a top safety official says, but the industry still needs better technology to improve safety.

Speaking to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) meeting in Baltimore this week, Jeffrey Wiese, Associate Administrator for Pipeline Safety with the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), said regulators will “see a fair amount of regulation coming forward.”

Wiese said there had been some speculation before the election about whether the reforms proposed in several PHMSA rulemaking notices, which are the federal rulemaking process, would go forward. He predicted the administration will be “pretty steady” in pursuing reform, despite the difficult decisions involved.

PHMSA is following up both directives from Congress and recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board from its San Bruno investigation.

Eight people died and 38 homes were destroyed when a 30-inch gas main exploded under the suburban San Francisco neighborhood in 2010.

The reforms may include requiring integrity inspections of older pipelines previously grandfathered under federal law, Wiese said, but advances in inspection technology are needed to make those inspections feasible, in both practical and cost terms.

“You have pipelines that are the sole gas source into a town,” Wiese told Breaking Energy. “You can’t just take them out of service” for inspections.

Pressure testing that’s used for newer pipelines may not be appropriate for older pipelines and can even damage them, he noted.

Reforms may also include requiring wider use of pressure shut-off valves, now required only for new homes, which shut off supply when they sense a disturbance in the distribution system. The devices are “stupid,” Wiese said, and false alarms cutting gas supply create unhappy consumers, another instance where better technology could help.

“Millions of Leaks”

Wiese urged the state regulators and the gas industry to invest more in research and development, saying even a few cents a month on gas bills could add up to a substantial difference. “Research has to be accelerated,” he said, adding that the industry has “grossly underinvested” in safety research.

Michael Woelk, CEO and President, Picarro, said there are “millions of leaks” in the US’s 3 million miles of natural gas pipeline. He cited experience with his company’s new mobile technology, which can be mounted on a car and driven through neighborhoods to locate natural gas leaks.
Several regulators questioned whether Picarro’s detection system was so sensitive it was finding “frivolous leaks” that weren’t really a problem. DDD said small leaks were instead “sleeper leaks,” with leakage building up dangerous pressure underground.

Michael Cooper, Chief Technology Officer, Tiger Cat Software, said just over half of all gas line accidents are caused by improper digging and workers without proper qualifications. He said the number of jobs involving pipelines any day “vastly exceed” the number of inspectors available in states. His company is developing software to manage the data involved in regulatory and commercial management of those activities.

Alicia Farang of the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) said finding ways to collect and coordinate data on what equipment is installed underground, and its exact location, is another signficant challenge that GTI and industry partners have been working on. She said under new national standards, equipment gets barcodes for lifetime tracking.