The California Public Utilities Commission on Feb. 6 moved forward with a long-disputed $677-million project to repair an old, brittle gas transmission pipeline in Southern California.

The CPUC at a voting meeting in Bakersfield approved an alternate proposed decision that will replace 37 miles of gas transmission pipeline No. 1600 in highly populated areas and pressure-test 13 miles of the line with water in less-populated areas.

The pipeline project is strongly opposed by The Utility Reform Network, the CPUC's Public Advocates Office, the Sierra Club, Southern California Generation Coalition, Earthjustice and the Protect Our Communities Foundation, which said the proposal was too costly and completely avoidable.

"The CPUC talks a lot about transitioning from fossil fuels, but its action today reaffirmed the status quo," Earthjustice attorney Matt Vespa said. "This avoidable $677-million gas pipeline investment will be a stranded asset from its first day of operation."

Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said that approving the alternate proposed decision "is one of the difficult decisions we will make as we make our transition away from reliance on natural gas. We know that . . . gas demand is set to steadily decline."

The Line 1600 project is part of Southern California Gas Co.'s and San Diego Gas & Electric's pipeline-safety enhancement plan, which identifies pipelines that have not been strength-tested or that don't have strength-test records.

SDG&E found deformities in Line 1600 and decided to decrease the pipeline's pressure from 640 to 512 psig in July 2019. SDG&E said the pipeline had "hook cracks," which are J-shaped flaws in a pipeline that occur when a pipe's steel strips start to separate.

The CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division first reduced Line 1600's maximum allowable operating pressure from 812 psig to 640 psig after Pacific Gas & Electric's transmission pipeline No. 132 ruptured in San Bruno in 2010, killing eight people.

The CPUC's approved proposed alternate decision eliminates three other options to keep Line 1600 safe and in service. The other proposals ranged in cost from $325 million to $778 million and included a proposal to decrease the pressure of the pipeline from 512 psig to 320 psig, rather than replace portions of it.

Commissioners Rechtschaffen and Martha Guzman Aceves said they would have liked to further study the possibility of decreasing the pressure of Line 1600.

"This line [has] safety problems," Rechtschaffen said. "But addressing these safety problems as proposed is very expensive. I would have been interested in studying derating."

"No action is not an option here," Guzman Aceves said. "The unfortunate part [is that] we do not have a lot of options in front of us."

However, Commissioner Liane Randolph, who wrote the proposed alternate decision, said that derating Line 1600 "would not be appropriate."

"First of all, derating the line doesn't provide instant safety assurance," Randolph said. "It helps, but it is still a gas line . . . we need to move forward with repairs and replacement [and] we can't lose sight of the fact that we are talking about a transmission line in [high-consequence] areas."

The Protect Our Communities Foundation, Sierra Club, Southern California Generation Coalition and TURN filed a joint petition for modification of the proposed decision, stating that SDG&E and SoCal Gas ignored the CPUC's previous comments that Line 1600 should be derated to 320 psig. Derating the line would have decreased the possibility of rupture, allowing the pipeline to remain in service indefinitely, according to the group.

At the meeting, the CPUC also approved the following items:

  • Removed the application fee for residential projects applying under the Self-Generation Incentive Program [R12-11-005]. The fee had been 1 percent of the requested incentive amount. The decision also eliminates the requirement that SGIP applicants must submit a paper copy of an energy-efficiency audit and instead requires the customer to confirm that they performed an energy-efficiency audit at the project site.
  • Approved the Electric Program Investment Charge program research plans of PG&E, SDG&E and Southern California Edison for the years 2018-2020 [A19-04-026]. The EPIC program invests more than $130 million annually in renewable-energy projects and research; electricity system resilience; advanced electric technologies for buildings, businesses and transportation; and other energy subjects.
  • Approved a resolution to require SoCal Gas, PG&E, SDG&E and Southwest Gas Corp. to collectively deduct $50 million from the greenhouse gas allowance proceeds that are used to determine their 2020 Climate Credit amounts [G-3565].

Staff Writer

David Krause is an energy reporter covering the California Energy Commission and Air Resources Board. He writes about transportation, climate change, utilities, and wildfires. He has an MFA in Writing, an MA in English, and a BS in Civil Engineering.