"Consumers are shocked to realize that when PG&E is authorized to raise rates, it gets the money with no strings attached," said Mindy Spatt, a spokesperson for TURN. "PG&E is the only entity responsible for those pipelines, and the CPUC is the only entity that regulates PG&E. So between the two of them, the buck's got to stop somewhere."
A federal investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to determine the cause of the blast has yet to reach any definitive conclusions. A preliminary NTSB report noted that just before the explosion, a system malfunction occurred when PG&E was working on a power-supply terminal in Milpitas, triggering a surge in the gas-line pressure.
Until the whole mystery is unraveled, regulators can't accurately determine how to safeguard against such a tragedy in the future. "I have no idea how this could've been prevented," Richard Clark, director of the consumer protection and safety division of the CPUC, said when asked what the agency could have done differently.
Legislators fired pointed questions about why this issue hadn't been more closely scrutinized by the CPUC. "Did the PUC do any accounting when you gave them $5 million?" Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) queried Clark. "Do we just give them money and cross our fingers and hope they fix it? Is that what we do? Until some terrible tragedy occurs?"
Clark's response was that the CPUC does not manage on the level of individual projects — all the upkeep, maintenance, testing, and replacement of pipeline infrastructure is up to PG&E. The utility maintains its own list of needed repairs, and the company has license to prioritize repairs and funnel money from one project to another without seeking prior approval from the regulatory body. It conducts its own audits, and the regulatory agency looks over the paperwork.
"We can't run the company for them," Clark said. "We don't take a microscopic look, if you will, at what it is they're doing."
A team of nine inspectors for the entire state of California is tasked with auditing PG&E's infrastructure improvements. For the first time in years, the CPUC has submitted a request to hire a few more, Executive Director Paul Clanon noted. This small staff physically inspects about 1 percent of the state's entire gas pipeline infrastructure. PG&E has about 5,700 miles of natural gas transmission lines, with about 1,000 miles in densely populated regions classified as "high consequence areas."