Natural Gas Heroes in Marin County

  • Adam Kay
  • During the recent flooding in California, natural gas was probably not the first thing on most people’s minds. It had, after all, continued to provide reliable heat, cooking fuel, and energy for other household tasks relatively uninterrupted. While natural gas is extremely reliable, with fewer than one in eight hundred customers experiencing an unplanned outage in any given year, the extreme conditions brought by twelve atmospheric rivers – each of which can carry more than twice as much water as passes through the mouth of the Amazon River – required the action of natural gas worker first responders. Their actions to keep natural gas flowing to customers were nothing short of heroic.

    Natural gas pipelines are typically underground. This was the case for two sixteen-inch transmission pipelines along Highway 101 in Marin County, California, until a landslide triggered by extreme flooding uncovered one of the pipelines. Like all natural gas utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) plans extensively for all contingencies. When the landslide was discovered on Wednesday, March 22, PG&E immediately began to implement one such contingency plan. Within 36 hours, heavy equipment had been brought to the hill, despite floodwaters and landslide conditions. PG&E’s first responders worked heroically to attempt to stabilize the hill and prevent further landslides.

    As weather conditions continued to deteriorate, it became clear that it was too hazardous for the first responders to continue with the initial plan. This is where the benefits of extensive, thoroughly drilled contingency planning came to the fore. If the hill could not be stabilized, the first responders would instead execute a complex plan to reroute both pipelines through a single new bypass line. At stake: reliable, lifesaving energy for the 95,000 natural gas customers of Marin County.

    This was not a simple plan. The landslide required that the bypass line be routed under the highway in a U-shape, without significantly inconveniencing drivers who rely on the highway. The clock was ticking – it was Saturday and the twelfth atmospheric river was on track to arrive Monday, risking a new landslide. More than 200 PG&E first responders worked through the night Saturday and into Sunday to lay the line and resurface the road, doing most of the work after dark to avoid closing the road during peak hours.

    The end result? Most customers in Marin County are probably unaware there was ever a potential problem. PG&E’s first responders successfully laid the bypass pipe, preventing any interruption of service. As a testament to their training and professionalism, this was accomplished without a single safety incident.

    In the face of extreme conditions, while faced with a ticking clock and numerous external constraints, PG&E accomplished an incredible task in service of their customers. They lived up to the highest virtues of our industry, and deserve acknowledgment for their accomplishments and the heroic efforts it took to achieve them.