Pacific Gas & Electric has been found guilty of 6 of 12 counts against arising from a deadly pipeline explosion that occurred in 2010. The main charges were obstructing a federal investigation and failing to properly monitor its pipeline system, the federal jury said. It faces a maximum fine of $3 million.
“While we are very much focused on the future, we will never forget the lessons of the past,” Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said, in a statement. “We have made unprecedented progress in the nearly six years since the tragic San Bruno accident and we are committed to maintaining our focus on safety.
“We want our customers and their families to know that we are committed to re-earning their trust by acting with integrity and working around the clock to provide them with energy that is safe, reliable, affordable and clean,” it concluded, after the verdict on Tuesday.
The jury found PG&E guilty of five counts of violating U.S. Pipeline Safety Act regulations related to integrity management and one count of obstructing a National Transportation Safety Board proceeding. The jury found PG&E not guilty of six counts of U.S. Pipeline Safety Act regulations related to record keeping. No individuals were ever charged.
In 2014, federal prosecutors indicted California’s biggest utility in a case tied to the September 2010 pipeline blast that killed eight people in its Northern California territory.
A key question is whether the federal prosecution of PG&E — as opposed to the managers who failed to perform their duties — is fair or effective. At least one former federal prosecutor who specializes in environmental crimes and who is now a law school professor says that charging a “faceless” corporation and not holding individuals accountable is hardly a “criminal deterrent.”
Each criminal count against the company had come with a maximum penalty of $500,000, or $6 million total — a dollar figure that some legal experts have called meager considering the loss of life and the physical devastation — especially when compared to other corporate criminal fines.
Professor Jane Barrett of the University of Maryland Law School has said that the potential total fine of $6 million — and now the $3 million actually levied — is “ridiculously low.”
Besides killing eight people, the explosion in San Bruno, Calif. destroyed entire neighborhoods. The criminal fines are one element of the story. There’s also the component of civil law suits as well as who pays what with respect to the pipeline upgrades that are now required.
The explosion helped spawn discussion about the nation’s 2.4 million miles of existing interstate and oil gas pipelines are in the United States as well as 1.8 million miles of shorter distribution lines. That’s according to thePipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which adds that 7 percent of the current lines are classified as “high consequence areas,” which means that people can be killed if accidents happen.
Transmission lines in less dense areas do not need to be inspected at all, says the Pipeline Safety Trust, in an email. It goes on to say that the national laws have too little teeth — that much more could be done to try and prevent the kinds of pipeline accidents that have occurred in recent years. The question then becomes how do regulators patrol such a vast network of pipelines and what is an operator’s role in ensuring that federal guidelines are met?
California says that its measures signed into law in 2011 are effective. The state is requiring the utilities commission there to track the funds used to make repairs to existing lines. Pipeline operators, meanwhile, must meet new pressure testing standards for vulnerable areas.