A deadly brew of corporate carelessness and failed regulation caused the natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight residents in a quiet neighborhood of San Bruno, CA., says a long-awaited report by the National Transportation Safety Board. The harsh conclusions and strong language echo a similar report on the causes of a 2005 refinery explosion that killed 15 workers at a BP facility in Texas City, TX–and the investigative reports on BP's gigantic oil rig blast last year in the Gulf of Mexico that killed another 11 workers.
How can anyone still buy the idea that major energy industries should be allowed to regulate themselves?
From Tuesday's report in the Los Angeles Times:
In a scathing critique, federal investigators blamed Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for what one official called "baffling" mistakes that led to a gas pipeline explosion last September that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in the Bay Area last year.
The National Transportation Safety Board also said PG&E exploited the lack of monitoring by regulators, who mistakenly placed "blind trust" in the utility.
The report Tuesday concluded that poor pipeline welds went undetected because of a lack of inspections by the company and inadequate monitoring by state and federal regulators. The utility also lacked a workable emergency response plan that board members said could have helped to prevent the devastation in the city of San Bruno.
"This represents a failure of the entire system — a system of checks and balances that should have prevented this disaster," said Robert L. Sumwalt, an NTSB board member.
Yet "failure" is too neutral a word. The crippling of regulatory checks and balances was exactly what PG&E intended as it spent $100 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies since 2006. From the California Progress Report:
For years, PG&E and utility lobbyists have used a standard set of arguments to head off proposed safety regulations: higher costs to consumers, impractical and rigid prescriptions, unnecessary rules, ‘one-size-fits-all’ regulations that don’t work. If they weren’t reeling from the disaster today, they’d likely be calling new legislative proposals to strengthen pipeline protections “job killers.”
PG & E lobbied aggressively – and successfully — against several key safety proposals over the last decade.
What if PG&E had used some of that $100 million to run an internal pipeline check up through the corners and curves of the San Bruno pipe? Even one check over decades of use would have found the grossly faulty welds that gave way in an inferno.Then again, finding the bad weld would have led to costly digging and replacement, and the likelihood that similarly bad pipes are in other places
PG&E's disregard for the lives of its customers doesn't, however, excuse the state Public Utilities Commission from its own complete failure to inspect pipelines. The PUC never trained specialists in pipeline inspection and relied on corporate promises of safety responsibility–much as federal regulators ceded their responsibility to oil companies drilling in risky deep water in the Gulf of Mexico. Corporate safety in the energy industry has proved an oxymoron–over and over, in ever deadlier ways.
The next time energy lobbyists utter the phrase "self-regulation," legislators need to summon the guts to chase them out of the room.