An independent panel appointed by the California Public Utilities Commission issued a report Thursday blasting PG&E's technical competence and pipeline integrity management procedures.
The panel found that shortcomings in those and other areas not only contributed to last year's San Bruno pipeline explosion, which left eight people dead and 35 homes destroyed, but they also have led to a flawed response to the disaster.
"We met many capable people," at PG&E, business advisor and panelist Paula Rosput Reynolds told the CPUC today. "Somehow that has not created an atmosphere where inquiry, thinking and curiosity mesh together in a way that is fulsome."
She and the other four members of the panel found that PG&E's pipeline integrity management program had focused more on worker safety than the safety of the system.
The company's record keeping, organizational effectiveness, and resource allocation also came under fire, as did its response to the San Bruno explosion, the five-stage "Pipeline 2020" improvement program.
"Pipeline 2020 is not a plan," Reynolds said, calling the materials "reactive" and underdeveloped.
PG&E released a statement saying the company "strongly agrees" with the panelist's comments and will work with the CPUC to improve its pipeline safety.
"It's clear, as we've openly acknowledged, that we need to make major improvements in our operations and culture in order to deliver the performance our customers rightly expect -- and that we expect from ourselves," the company said.
Although the National Transportation Safety Board is responsible for identifying the root causes of the explosion, the independent panel found that it could not separate technical incompetence from the problems it identified with PG&E's safety record, according to the 204-page report.
Reynolds said PG&E's staff is committed and has good technical skills, but that they are under-trained and need to specialize more. The company is also understaffed, the panel found.
"Only one senior person was an engineer, and did not have much gas experience," panelist Karl Pister, an engineering professor emeritus, told the CPUC.
He said the company did not seem to grasp the importance of systems engineering, which is necessary for construction, evaluation and maintenance of gas transmission lines.
As a result, the company has been focused on "cataloguing information" instead of collecting useful data that can be used to make inferences about the pipelines, Pister said.
He and Reynolds said widespread hydrostatic pressure testing of pipelines, which PG&E has vowed to do in the wake of the explosion, is not as valuable as doing more in-depth testing of fewer miles.
Hydrostatic testing involves raising the pressure of the pipe enough to detect a leak but not burst the pipe, Reynolds said.
But if there's a metallurgical anomaly, the testing can actually weaken the pipe, she said. It's therefore important to take core samples of the piping.
"We think this is a good example of how in the rush to be safe we can sort of take on the law of unintended consequences," she said.
Pister also cautioned against rushing to install electronic shut-off valves without looking at the impact it would have on the overall pipe system. He said the company needed to bring in people who understand the complexity of the issues it's facing.
"No one solution is right," he said. "It's a system evaluation design problem. You can't ad hoc that one."
The group also found that PG&E has excessive levels of management and an inconsistent expertise within the management ranks, which has been coupled with an overemphasis on financial performance, according to the report.
The independent panel was assembled about a month after the Sept. 9, 2010, pipeline explosion ripped through the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood.
Its other members are University of California, Davis chancellor emeritus Larry Vanderhoef,
CPUC President Michael Peevey thanked the panel and called the report "deeply disturbing" at today's meeting.
He said the commission will "do its damndest" to implement the changes recommended in the report, which included guidelines for both PG&E and the CPUC.