Poorly maintained gas pipelines put increasing numbers at risk
Copyright 2011, REMAPPING DEBATE
By David Clay Johnston
August 17, 2011
Utility workers across the country said in interviews that they believe they and customers are being put at risk by cost-cutting that they say began with the deregulation of gas distribution.

“All the gas utility companies are basically playing the odds,” said Charlie D. Rittenhouse, president of the Utility Workers of America Local 98 in West Virginia. “They’ve cut the workforces and cut the workforces and cut the workforces while at the same time keeping the CEOs and top executive wages going up and up and up. A major concern for our group and many other groups we deal with [is that] there’s not enough people there to do the work.”

Documents in rate cases filed by several utilities show that they have reduced spending on pipeline maintenance or, in the case of Pacific Gas & Electric, have diverted money approved for increased pipeline maintenance to what the company considered more pressing needs.

PG&E gave Remapping Debate data showing it spent $698 million over the past seven years on its 6,400 miles of transmission pipelines or about $15,000 per mile annually. It costs about $3.7 million per mile to build onshore transmission pipelines in 2010, the Oil & Gas Journal reported, indicating PG&E spends about four-tenths of one percent of construction costs per mile on safety. Just how that money was spent and whether it was adequate are among the issues being investigated by the California Public Utilities Commission and a State Senate committee.

PHMSA does not analyze data on safety spending, spokesman Knightly said.

“De-rating” a pipeline

Shutting down a pipeline for repairs or replacement is costly, so pipeline owners prefer a different approach as corrosion eats through pipeline walls and water, earth movements, and “dings” from earthmoving equipment damage exterior walls and welds. The pipeline companies just reduce the pressure in the pipeline, explained Gordon Allen Aaker, Jr., a pipeline engineer in Kingwood, Tex., who consults on safety issues to both pipeline companies and those who sue them.

“It’s called de-rating,” Aaker said. He and others say by allowing pipelines to lower the maximum rated pressure at which gas and petroleum can be moved, the rules discourage maintenance and all but completely unavoidable repairs.

He said if engineers determine that a pipeline wall must be an inch thick to operate at maximum pressure the pipeline may be built with steel that is an inch and 3/8ths thick.

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