PG&E patrols gas pipelines from the skies

Helicopter crews for PG&E soar over Northern California nearly every day, looking for digging crews along portions of the agency’s 6,750 miles of natural gas transmission pipelines.

It’s a proactive approach to try to prevent gas ruptures by construction crews who might not have called 811 to get pipelines marked before digging, PG&E spokesman Nick Stimmel said today.

PG&E had 1,900 reports of third-party dig-ins last year, Stimmel said. Such dig-ins could lead to disastrous situations like the evacuation of a neighborhood or a massive explosion.

Most of the dig-ins happen on PG&E’s smaller distribution lines that run nearly everywhere. But the biggest pipelines have the biggest risk, so two helicopter crews are tasked with regular patrols of the transmission pipelines looking for potentially dangerous situations.

They move all over Northern California, sometimes taking a tour of a few days over urban areas, other times hopping between different locations in more rural areas.

The crews of two follow routes based on extensive maps of the complicated pipeline network displayed on a tablet. Once they spot a construction crew digging near a pipeline, they take a photo and flag the location on the digital map so ground dispatchers can send a crew to investigate.

Work crews can dig near the large transmission pipelines — which range in size from 6 inches to 38 inches in diameter — but need to take special precautions, so it’s important to know where they are, Stimmel said.

Monday morning, one helicopter crew patrolled a stretch of 26-inch pipeline that runs under the Delta de Anza Regional Trail in Pittsburg, and a 24-inch section near state Highway 4 on the way back to their landing strip at the Buchanan Field Airport in Concord.

During their three-day visit to the Bay Area, they will patrol the East Bay, South Bay, Peninsula and San Francisco, closely following PG&E’s numerous transmission pipelines.

Brad Gutnik, 26, of Frontline Energy Services, has contracted with PG&E for two years to work on the aerial patrols. Based in Concord, his job gives him a bird’s eye view of the entire state:

“I’m not going to lie, I love my job.”

He was approached to conduct the surveys after earning a degree in geography, and he is able to closely follow the mapped pipelines from the air using high-tech mapping software.

Gutnik patrols for about six hours each day, four days per week.

He’ll do patrols three or four weeks a month. After finishing this three-day patrol of the Bay Area, he’ll likely be back for another by the end of the month.

With warmer weather approaching, PG&E is expecting to see increased digging activity as summer construction projects get rolling and is trying to get the word out about the dangers of digging near natural gas pipelines, Stimmel said.

Gutnik said on a daily patrol, he might see about a dozen crews digging near natural gas pipelines, and in a particularly dense urban area like San Francisco, he might see more than 20.