When it comes to major natural gas distribution companies, there are the big ones, the extremely big one, and then there is SoCalGas, the nation’s largest, with 5.9 million customers (See, P&GJ’s annual 500 Report, November 2017.)
The company’s vast service area covers about 20,000 square miles of California, extending from the city of Visalia north of Los Angeles, south to near the Mexican border, where its sister Sempra Energy utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, is located.
Obviously, the upkeep on the infrastructure needed to support such a massive undertaking requires a great deal of manpower and effort, as does the systematic replacement of older pipe. In the case of SoCalGas, this generally entails replacing plastic pipe installed prior to 1986 and steel pipe dating back to before 1960. The company removed the last section of its cast-iron pipe in 1994.
“We, at any given time, always have multiply programs that pertain to replacement,” said David Buczkowski, vice president, gas engineering and system integrity. “Sometimes it’s strictly replacement, sometimes it’s part of our integrity management program.”
SoCalGas’ replacement management program has grown in significance since the Code of Federal Regulations (49 CFR 192.1), which prescribes minimum safety requirements for pipeline facilities and the transportation of gas, went into effect in 1970.
“Here in California, there is also General Order 112 [concerning testing, operation and maintenance of gas distribution piping systems] that went into effect in 1961, making this is a multibillion-dollar, multi-year program, and it will be going on for many more years,” he said.
In recent years, SoGalGas has replaced an average of 150 miles of pipe a year as part of its distribution integrity management program (DIMP), and the company expects that replacement rate to increase. Year to date, SoCalGas has replaced 30 miles of vintage mains and associated services and is on target to replace more than 40 miles of vintage mains and services this year.
In the case of high-pressure transmission pipelines, SoCalGas is replacing steel pipe with diameters up to 36 inches with new steel pipe, while the distribution pipeline program relies on polyethylene pipe for replacement purposes. In order to evaluate distribution risk, Buczkowski said the company places various data into an algorithm to calculate and prioritize which pipelines and areas to work on next.
“We look at families of pipe, type of construction, methods that were used at the time, geotechnical conditions like rocky soil and different flow characteristics,” he said. “We’ve had this algorithm in place for some time now, and we continue to improve it. We are always looking for trends and better ways of prioritizing.”
From a purely logistical standpoint, Buczkowski said permitting, particularly in the many congested portions of the company’s service area, may be the most challenging aspect of the work.
“Here in Southern California, it seems like there is always a rush hour, so you get to the point that it’s a challenge to get a window to effectively do the work,” he said. “Sometimes as the result of impact to traffic, we are required to work on weekends or at night to avoid congestion.”
In addition to traffic-control permits and lane-closure permission, often SoCalGas finds adequate laydown and staging areas difficult to come by. This can force the company to use a traffic lane for staging, or rent space in the corner of a parking lot or a field in more rural areas.
“We don’t necessarily have, as a gas company, a complete overview of city projects, but for a larger programs we’ll certainly talk to cities and counties really early to let them know what’s coming,” he said. “We have good relationships with our 220 cities and nine counties. Our outreach efforts are really good, and we try to get ahead. We try to coordinate that.”
While SoCalGas’ Public Affairs Department has had relationships with local entities for decades, the company has been in an infrastructure investments mode, particularly in the area of safety, over the last five or six years. With this, has come the need for additional outreach and education.
“We’ve increased our staffing in outreach and public affairs groups because the effort is all about education – explaining to cities, counties and agencies what a program is, why it’s important from a policy standpoint, and what it means to them and their constituencies,” said Buczkowski, a six-year utilities executive who joined Sempra in 2011 and was previously vice president of gas engineering and major projects. “A mayor never likes to get blindsided.”
As part of that effort, SoCalGas regularly holds town halls and community meetings, as well as using old-fashioned strategies such as going door-to-door with door hangers or speaking directly with individuals. When projects are at various stages, three months from getting underway, for example, the company employs a more highly saturated level of outreach than it would six months or a year out. Buczkowski said this is especially helpful in gaining entry and access to properties for cases in which that’s necessary.
Outreach efforts became especially important in late 2012 when SoCalGas began its Advanced Meter Installation Project, which involves upgrading over 6 million gas meters with the new advanced meter communication device. The devices are attached to an analog gas meter that automatically transfers usage data to the customer service and billing centers. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved a budget of $1.05 billion for the project, expected to be completed this year.
To avoid interrupting the daily routines of residents in its service areas, SoCalGas uses various methodologies in its replacement and maintenance projects, utilizing trenchless technology whenever possible.
“There are cases in which boring or drilling operations are more effective,” Buczkowski said. “Opening a trench through an intersection is not something we want to do, and cities don’t like to have it done.”
In the area of third-party digging, SoCalGas has developed a concept that is both innovative and simple, one which he feels will decrease the number of incidents involving contractors and homeowners accidentally striking gas lines while digging. In recent years, the company has placed a colorful mesh on top of its pipelines, making them easier to see.
“It’s a very low-cost effort that is highly effective. If you hit an orange mesh that says gas company on it, you stop,” said Buczkowski.
Additionally, the company is looking at implementing fiber-optic, third-party intrusion-detection devices that would send a signal to the company’s control room whenever the soil near one of its pipes is disturbed.
With over 8,000 employees, SoCalGas workers do all of the company’s maintenance and operations work, but contractors are used in other areas such as safety and DIMP (distribution integrity management program) work.
Starting in 2019, the company plans to target 78 miles of mains and associated services for replacement above and beyond routine replacements in accordance with DIMP regulations, with a 25-30-year horizon for wholesale replacement of early vintage plastic.
With a 30-year horizon, SoCalGas will increase the level of replacement over the next six to eight years while monitoring performance to continually review the benefits and risk-reduction accomplished through indicators such as leak repair and incident rates related to early vintage plastic.
Buczkowski said meeting early with building trade unions and contractors to explain what is coming in the way of steel or high-pressure replacement work has paid dividends for the company.
“We were able to meet our peak two years ago without a problem,” he said.
While not seeing a significant change in SoCalGas’ strategy in recent years, Buczkowski said events that have profoundly affected the industry as a whole have certainly influenced the company as well. While the emergence of shale gas was most noticeably among them, in the case of SoCalGas, ever-increasing regulatory restrictions have also had a big effect.
“Here in California, it’s a complete political landscape that has emerged,” he said. “We are excited about renewable natural gas, which works well with legislation to reduce greenhouse gas at the state level.”
For several five years SoCalGas has developed and advocated for renewable natural gas, which the company decided needs to be part of its mix. Now, the company is at the point of being able to execute on its plan.
Last year, the state PUC required the company to do a pilot program involving five dairy clusters and a process to capture methane from the cattle, clean it and inject it into the existing natural gas infrastructure.
“When you think about it, and I’m an engineer, over 80% of methane comes from agriculture and dairy,” said Buczkowski, a graduate in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. “Less than 10% leaks from natural gas distribution or transmission pipes or systems.”
Even as lower natural gas prices make the fuel an even more attractive choice for heating, SoCalGas – with 90% of the households within its service area already connected – has found most of its increase in customers comes as a direct result of new developments.
In some places, the San Joaquin Valley, for example, where overnight temperatures fall as low as 30° F. in winter, no natural gas service is available, forcing residents to heat with propane or, in some cases, wood. With the PUC opening up possible expansion for disadvantaged areas, Buczkowski said he sees an opportunity for growth.
“We clearly believe if we have infrastructure in the proximity of some of the disadvantaged areas, we are in a position to supply something that will make it easier for people there to pay their bills,” he said.
While not considered an expansion as such, a Sept. 29 decision by CPUC that extended the Mobilehome Park Utility Program (MHP), which began in 2014 and runs through 2019, authorized SoCalGas to convert another 5% of MHP spaces in its service area.
The extension of the program will provide enhanced safety and reliability through direct utility service to an additional 6,400 mobile homes in 65 parks. The projected targeted older meters dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. The initial program affected 10% of the mobile homes.
For Buczkowski, who prior to working for SoCalGas’s parent company Sempra Energy, held various engineering, project management and project operations positions with Shell Oil, Parsons and Fluor, it is this sort of commitment to improving local living conditions that makes work at SoCalGas so rewarding.
“Energy delivery, as well as water, sewer and telecommunications – these are all conveniences that we count on,” he said. “Working on these big domestic and international projects, I’ve been to places where the service in not so good. For me, this has always been my calling, to make things better.”
He said this is exemplified by the attitude put forward by one of his employees who told Buczkowski that “we, as a company,” should think about his 92-year-old aunt when performing tasks at work.
“We have to think about providing her safe and dependable service that she can afford,” Buczkowski said he was told by the employee. “In many ways, the simplicity of that is easy. It’s our burden and it’s our duty. We live here.”
A Little Early History
SoCalGas’ elaborate protocols of today are pretty far removed from the company’s early years, when in 1867 its forerunner, the Los Angeles Gas Co., installed 43 manufacturing gas lamps in downtown L.A. Back then, natural gas was something of an unknown commodity, and the company sold manufactured-gas made from the tar-like substance, asphaltum.
The gas-lighting business was modestly successful until Thomas Edison introduced his electric light in 1879, prompting the company to change strategies, heavily promoting stoves and heaters as a means of replacing lost revenues. By the end of the 1950s, the company estimated 90% of all cooking ranges and 98% of water heaters and home heating systems in Southern California were fueled by natural gas.
By the early 20th century, naturally occurring gas associated with underground oil started to gain attention. A huge field of natural gas was discovered near Taft, CA in 1909. Since natural gas had twice the heating value of manufactured gas, Pacific Lighting, parent company to Sempra Energy, took the bold step of converting its system to natural gas and building pipelines throughout the state.
Aliso Canyon and Lessons Learned
The methane leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility – discovered by SoCalGas employees on Oct. 23, 2015 – led to intensified safety advances at each of the company’s four storage operations.
Aliso Canyon, California’s largest underground natural gas storage facility, was cleared June 19, 2016 to resume operations, following months of inspection at the sprawling field above Porter Ranch, CA.
“We have technicians onsite around-the-clock, monitoring every single well, and we are using industry-leading technology for our operations,” said Bret Lane, president and COO of SoCalGas, in an open letter to the community. Some of the technology and safety advances, according to the company, include an infrared methane-detection system, continuous pressure monitoring, twice daily patrols to visually examine every well, and daily infrared video scanning.
SoCalGas has also upgraded wells and replaced the inner-tubing in the storage wells with 40 miles of steel tubing since receiving approval from the state Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).
“This facility will be held to the most rigorous monitoring, inspection and safety requirements in the nation and will store only the minimum gas necessary to supply the Los Angeles area,” said Ken Harris, head of the DOGGR.
Withdrawal and injection of natural gas will only occur through newly installed steel piping, which will provide an additional layer of protection against potential leaks.
To strengthen communications with the community, the company initiated a Porter Ranch community advisory council. The group consists of residents, business owners and community leaders throughout the area, as well as representatives from the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Fire Department and local schools.
As of Sept. 15, all 114 of the active wells at Aliso Canyon had completed the first phase of required tests, 62 wells were in the second phase of inspections, 54 wells have completed all of the required tests and 52 wells have received final DOGGR approval.