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Unnatural Disaster

Some people thought a plane had gone down. As black smoke rose above them and scorching flames shot into the air, community members in San Bruno, California, didn’t know what else could have caused the destruction they saw before them. 

Rico Medina remembers the blazing heat on that day, September 9, 2010, as resources arrived and people fled, fire still raging.  In an interview with The Politic, Medina, now the city’s mayor, recalls the realization: It was not a plane that had crashed but a natural gas pipeline that had exploded. It had been over an hour before someone figured this out and turned off the gas. By the time the firefighters controlled the damage, 38 homes were destroyed and 70 others damaged. Fifty-eight people were injured and eight had been killed.

In the months and years after the explosion, various investigations tried to determine who was culpable for the disaster. These investigations uncovered that Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the energy company that owned the pipeline, failed to properly inspect or maintain their infrastructure. The California Public Utilities Commission, the agency meant to regulate PG&E, was also shown to have a “cozy” relationship with the company itself, resulting in extremely insufficient government oversight. 

State Senator Jerry Hill, the State Assemblyman serving San Bruno at the time, has been a leader among the politicians working to prevent similar catastrophes. On the night of the explosion, he remembers being at an event in South San Francisco and seeing the San Bruno flames off in the distance. 

He also remembers how community members’ feelings changed as the truth about the explosion slowly came out. “At first it was sorrow and sadness…. Everyone thought accidents happen. It didn’t take us long to find that it was not an accident. That this was basically a negligent act on the part of PG&E,” Senator Hill said in an interview with The Politic. “We found that they had diverted and cut expenses of about a half a billion dollars from safety, from maintenance, from proper testing of equipment and infrastructure, which would have identified this problem with that pipe.” 

In January 2017, PG&E was convicted of six felony charges, receiving the maximum allowable sentence—itself a weak slap on the wrist—which included a three-million-dollar fine and 10,000 hours of community service. “We will remain forever committed to taking action to meet the high safety standards that our customers, and we, demand and expect,” the company apologized.

But Senator Hill believes that the problem was not limited to PG&E. “The California Public Utilities Commission, in my opinion, [was] a corrupt body,” Senator Hill said. In fact, he cited CPUC’s own report which detailed a wide berth given to private companies. Companies like PG&E “called a lot of the shots…. That’s why they were allowed to get away with as much of the stuff as they did—because no one paid attention to them anyway.”

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Over two thousand miles away, in a suburb outside Cincinnati, Ohio, Elizabeth Rueve-Miller is trying to keep the same tragedy from happening in her community. A member of NOPE (Neighbors Opposing Pipeline Extension) since early 2016, she has spent years working to stop Duke Energy from building their Central Corridor Pipeline (CCP) through her home city.

Rueve-Miller hadn’t known much about Duke—a top power holding company that serves millions of people across six states—when she heard of its plan in February 2016. “The more I researched the project, the more I found out that this wasn’t like a pipeline that delivers gas to people’s homes or a pipeline that delivers gas to neighborhoods,” she said. “It was a massive transmission line designed to move tons of gas across distances. It’s not like a normal pipeline that would be in a neighborhood. And once I learned that, I thought, ‘I don’t want this in my backyard, and I don’t want this in anybody’s backyard.’”

Duke doesn’t see the problem. In an email interview with The Politic, Sally Thelen, a spokesperson, explained, “The Central Corridor Pipeline will help strengthen our local natural gas system and position Duke Energy Ohio to continue its long history of providing safe and reliable natural gas service to Ohio communities for decades to come.” 

But Rueve-Miller believed these arguments should not have been enough to gain approval from the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB), the branch of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio that handles issues related to energy capacity and transmission. Over the phone, she carefully picked apart each one.

In establishing need, Duke has made three primary arguments. First, the new pipeline would allow them to retire propane peaking plants—which ensure customers have natural gas services on the coldest days of the year—that have been in service since 1964. If a plant’s infrastructure is even slightly compromised, it would have to be shut down, which Thelen said “could be devastating” because thousands of homes and businesses could lose natural gas service. 

Rueve-Miller’s response: Duke did not show proper evidence of the need to retire the plants: “They didn’t have any kind of…experts evaluate the propane peaking plants. They just said they needed to be replaced because [of how long] they’ve been in operation.” 

Second, Thelen argued that the new pipeline would allow Duke to replace older pipelines in their system while continuing to provide natural gas service. 

Rueve-Miller’s response: “Duke replaces pipelines all the time. They don’t need this to replace existing pipelines, it just makes it easier for them.” 

Third, Thelen said that Duke “needs the flexibility to bring natural gas into southwest Ohio from a diverse supply of pipelines located north of our Ohio service territory.” 

And last, Reuve-Miller explained, “In their own testimony they said it’s not a concern, not a problem, and this project does not address the North-South balance issues. There’s very little impact on it.” 

Ultimately, it is the duty of the Ohio Power Siting Board to reconcile these diverging arguments, and on November 21, 2019, they approved the Central Corridor Pipeline with 41 corresponding stipulations, including higher safety standards. But NOPE still strongly believes the OPSB has failed Cincinnati, and is exploring potential next steps, including the possibility of appealing to the Ohio Supreme Court. 

In an interview with The Politic, Haynes Goddard, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Cincinnati and a NOPE member, shared, “It’s pretty clear that the staff and the board—that’s the OPSB—really ignored all the evidence. And safety is totally ignored.”

This negligence leads Goddard to partly attribute what NOPE perceives as the OPSB’s inefficacy to “regulatory capture,” a political environment in which an oversight agency is beholden to the interests of a certain industry or ideological group. Periods of regulatory capture are cyclical, and Goddard believes we are in yet another era when the oversight agencies have little power. 

***

Even after the explosion in San Bruno, emails released in July 2014 showed that the CPUC and PG&E were on more intimate terms. Executives commonly gathered for dinner meetings and, in one email, a PG&E member signed off, “Love you.”

After the release of these emails, the CPUC released a bland statement arguing that it “takes seriously all allegations of bias and rule violations,” and that it will work to “improv[e] safety in all of the industries the CPUC regulates.” 

Mayor Medina still maintains that PG&E and the CPUC failed his community: “There was deferred maintenance…. When you don’t allocate the resources and maintain, that is a problem.” 

He added that the community knew too little of the pipeline’s significance—or, in the case of many, even that it existed at all—and PG&E knew too much about the inner workings of the government. And he didn’t just blame PG&E. He shared that, “Those at the top [in the CPUC] have to take the responsibility and the ownership.”

Nevertheless, even as the truth has shown how preventable the tragedy was, Medina has been awestruck by the resilience of his community. “The courage of the residents and the support of the community were phenomenal. We had [so much] desire for helping and goodwill.”

***

Back in Ohio, the public was invited on several occasions to speak about the pipeline at hearings scheduled by the OPSB. Rueve-Miller recalled, “There were hundreds of people there either testifying or listening to this testimony. There were some heartfelt, very personal stories, expressions of emotional anguish that occurred during that testimony, and nobody from the Ohio Power Siting Board could even bother to show up.” 

Ignoring citizens, she explained, is dangerous: “It’s easy to make a decision when you have distanced yourself from the reality of its impact.”

Nonetheless, on November 21, 2019, the OPSB approved the pipeline on the grounds that Duke demonstrated “need to retire the aged and outdated propane air facilities” and to “improve the north/south system supply balance.” 

NOPE members are concerned about bias toward Duke Energy. In particular, they cite large donations from Duke Energy lobbyists—including $7,250 from Charles Gerhardt III and $1,000 from James Benedict—to the 2018 campaign of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who appoints the leadership of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. In 2017, DeWine himself owned stock in Duke Energy, though it was not clear if this was still true in 2018. 

These connections reinforce Goddard’s regulatory capture thesis. Goddard explained that by the time a company like Duke is interested in building a pipeline, it’s already too late. Underpaid, middle-tier engineers in the OPSB don’t have an incentive to think twice repeating well-worn processes. “This has [already] been rubber-stamped,” he said.  

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While California may be starting to combat patterns of regulatory capture, weaker utility regulators still appear common elsewhere. A pipeline explosion in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley in September 2018, which killed one person and injured over 20 more, led to major leadership changes at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. An investigation later showed that Columbia Gas, the company the Massachusetts DPU was overseeing, improperly managed the pipeline’s engineering. In August 2019, one person died in Danville, Kentucky in an explosion of a pipeline owned by the company Enbridge. In the aftermath, it became clear that the Kentucky Public Service Commission did not have the funding or personnel to inspect pipeline infrastructure as thoroughly as they hoped.

NOPE wants to make sure Cincinnati does not suffer a similar fate. Unlike San Bruno, where the community grew after the pipeline was already in place, the Cincinnati pipeline would be built in an already heavily populated area. “If there were to be an incident involving this particular pipeline, the result could be devastating with loss of human life, loss of property,” Rueve-Miller said. That is why NOPE has worked so urgently to identify the problems within the system and try to combat them. On January 17, a judge presiding over the case put approval for Duke’s pipeline on hold. In the meantime, NOPE plans to continue its advocacy as the OPSB consider whether they should re-hear the case.

San Bruno is giving them a model, now, for what to do differently. For starters, “We made sure the leadership of the Public Utilities Commission is now representative of the community and not the utilities, and is interested in safety as a priority,” Senator Hill shared. Further, the CPUC has introduced more thorough training for new engineers and maintenance workers.

It shouldn’t take a local tragedy to spur such changes, Senator Hill argued. Mayor Medina, reflecting on his city’s experience, believes there is a path forward. He said, “You can overcome, you can move on, but you don’t want to forget what got us here. Because at the same time maybe it could have been avoided.”