What Can Utility GIS Leaders Learn from the San Bruno Explosion?

by Dennis Beck on November 19, 2014

On September 9, 2010 a 30 inch diameter natural gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) exploded in a quiet neighborhood in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. The event has changed the lives of many people, and has also shaped the way many of us think about how spatial information is managed in utilities. As with any tragedy, the San Bruno pipeline explosion offers an opportunity for us to look at what happened so we can learn and hopefully never have to experience an issue like this in our lifetimes. This article will focus on the geospatial information management aspects of San Bruno.

SANBRUNO PIPE by  photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg

Author’s note: While I have worked with many utility companies in my career, I have not had any direct involvement with the GIS activities at Pacific Gas and Electric. This article is based on research I have done based on publicly available information. As part of my professional development I annually devote a portion of my time to studying professional ethics issues in my field. I am sharing this because the San Bruno incident is something we can all learn from.


On February 14, 2011 the San Francisco Chronicle published an article on the PG&E geographic information system and the challenges the utility has had over the last 20 years as they sought to deal with challenges with their GIS. For those of us who have spent major parts of our careers working with GIS some of the challenges may sound familiar.

At the heart of the problem was a faulty pipe. PG&E researchers believe that 30” pipe supplies were running low back when the line was constructed in 1956 and surplus, or potentially salvaged pipe was used to fabricate the failed segment. Over time the records of the segments and the details of welds were somehow lost. When PG&E built their GIS in the 1990s this information was not included in the GIS. During hearings on the case a PG&E engineer testified that issues about data quality had been raised for many years and that gaps in the data were commonly known.

An earlier article from the Chronicle also highlighted issues with missing map sheets from the PG&E gas distribution system. The paper reported that there were 16 map sheets that were lost for up to two decades. The sheets were normally used to support mandated piping inspections and the system had not been inspected for many, many years. When the issues with the missing sheets were uncovered PG&E hurriedly initiated inspections on the 14 miles of previously missing pipe and found 22 leaks, including one that was considered an immediate danger.

Perhaps the most damming issue however was a management practice that seems to have encouraged employees not to find issues with the pipeline system. Like most gas utilities, PG&E has used leak surveys to support their required inspection processes and to determine the ultimate safety of their lines. Between 2004 and 2008 the company had instated an incentive policy that rewarded crews that found fewer leaks in the pipeline system. An audit revealed that the tests performed under these incentives were not effective and when new tests were run 38 high-priority gas leaks were found, including 4 leaks that required reporting to federal officials.

From a regulatory relations standpoint things got even worse this summer when PG&E officials were caught seeking to influence the California Public Utilities Commission to select a state judge that would rule favorably in an upcoming rate request. The actions resulted in the dismissal of employees from both PG&E and the CPUC. An investigation is currently underway and PG&E has formally announced that they participated in improper communications with the Commission.

San Bruno fire levels neighborhood by Brant Ward, The Chronicle

Photo by Brant Ward, The Chronicle

So what does GIS have to do with it?

GIS has been featured in a number of the articles associated with PG&E and the San Bruno incident. Is GIS the problem? Could it have prevented the tragedy? The answer is “Probably not”, for both of those questions. Here’s why:

GIS data is not necessarily as comprehensive as the San Francisco Chronicle article implies. Most GIS maps are fairly general. They show pipelines, locations, fittings, valves, land features and much more information, all geographically positioned on the earth. Anyone who has been more closely involved in the utility construction process knows however that GIS maps do not contain nearly as much information as exists in the original construction drawings. And the construction drawings do not contain all the details either. The information about welds and detailed construction are often contained in fabricators details, sometimes referred to as “shop drawings”. In fact, GIS maps are typically simplified from the construction drawings so they can be easier to read when used to support field operations.

A well-implemented GIS can certainly help. GIS can form a reference to other sources of related information. Construction drawings, work orders and other details, including inspection records can be linked to GIS records so they can be easily referenced when engineers and operators seek to gather more information to assess the conditions of the pipelines they are managing.

A well-implemented GIS is also an integrated GIS. The information described above is often best hosted in a document management system and linked to the GIS records. The inspection processes that were suspect at PG&E are typically managed by an asset management system (AMS). The GIS can be integrated with the AMS to provide a geographic context to support the inspection work processes along with the appropriate details of the assets to be inspected.

Map of Pipe Layout by John Blanchard The Cronicle Source ESRI
What Can Utility GIS Professionals Learn from San Bruno?

Going back to the original question posed in this article, there is much we can learn.

Data matters!
From the top down, progressive utility organizations are realizing the importance of managing their information so that they can make the best decisions. The value of the gas assets managed by the PG&E GIS is in excess of $14 billion. Going beyond the obvious safety considerations, the details of any multi-billion dollar asset portfolio can have a huge impact on return on investment. PG&E has spent nearly $2.5 billion on non-recoverable charges related to gas matters since the San Bruno incident, which is a very large percentage of the portfolio value. Taking this perspective on the management of GIS data might be helpful to those utilities that need help in justifying additional investment in their GIS data management.

Systems are as good as the people who manage them.
As a GIS consultant for the utility industry, I have seen some very strong GIS systems, and some very weak ones. The differences have rarely been caused by the core GIS platform in use. Yes, some systems do things better than others, but the difference is nearly always the people. People that generate outstanding results usually have strong management that is effective in setting meaningful goals and infusing a passion for accomplishing the work at hand.

It is incumbent on all of us as managers and leaders (and we can manage and lead from any position in our organizations) to translate the complexity of advanced systems into meaningful objectives that make sense and motivate all the people around us to do great things.

Be careful of how you incent your people.
Doing more things at a faster rate may not always be better. The experiences with the PG&E gas inspection incentives appear to have driven negative behavior that exposed the utility to the potential to have serious safety and compliance issues. The PG&E management team made some mistakes, but they also noticed the problem and changed things to mitigate the problems they were creating. What behaviors are you exhibiting with your teams that improve short-term productivity at the expense of overall quality, and possibly life safety? Incentives can be amazingly effective, or very dangerous, depending on how they are implemented.

Strive for continuous improvement.
Put actionable plans in place to make your GIS better every year. These systems are dynamic and will rapidly lose value if they are not enriched on a regular basis. The large volumes of spatial information that are generated each year continue to increase at a rapid rate. Meanwhile, regulations are getting stricter and information is becoming more important. The world’s infrastructure is getting older and more vulnerable. All these factors are opportunities to do more with spatial technologies.

Cars and homes lie burned out in San Bruno by Jana Asenbrennerova, Special to the San Francisco Chronicle

Photo by Jana Asenbrennerova, Special to the San Francisco Chronicle


Last month we learned that PG&E will be fined $1.4 billion for their role in the San Bruno explosion. This, added to the nearly $2.5 billion spent on non-recoverable charges related to gas matters since the incident add up to nearly $4 billion in expenses that could might have been avoided. None of this, however, adds up to the human impact of this crisis. I’m hopeful that this article will stimulate some thoughts on how we as professionals can contribute to improvements in managing the spatial information used by utilities.

Please speak up!

I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on how utilities can improve the safe operations of their systems through the proper use of GIS. Please share your thoughts with us.



PUC / Legal Issues:
PG&E to be penalized $1.4 billion for San Bruno explosion
September 2, 2014

Attorney General Kamala Harris Called On To Investigate Secret PG&E-CPUC Emails
September 19, 2014

State Senator Says PG&E Trying To Get Away With Murder; Emails Following Deadly 2010 San Bruno Explosion Examined
July 28, 2014

Senior PG&E, CPUC Officials Lose Jobs Over Improper Email Communications
September 15, 2014

September 15, 2014

September 15, 2014
GIS / Information Management Related Topics
PG&E Ignored Gaps in Data, Engineer Says
July 31, 2012

PG&E’s computers faulted: Utility’s pipeline data full of omissions, errors
February 14, 2011
History of Deadly Gas Pipeline Revealed
March 1, 2011

PG&E incentive system blamed for leak oversights
December 25, 2011

Missing maps mean PG&E lines weren’t inspected
December 31, 2011

Post-Disaster, PG&E Turns to Tech
March 29, 2013

All Points Blog:
PG&E Will Share Shutoff Valve Locations with Public Safety Agencies
Oct 6, 2010

PG&E GIS Examined as Part of Explanation of San Bruno Gas Pipe Explosion
February 15, 2011
PG&E’s GIS implementation faulted in San Bruno Explosion
February 17, 2011 (references San Francisco Chronicle article).

PG&E Loses Maps, Fails to Leak Test 14 Miles of Pipeline for Up to 20 Years
January 3, 2012

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Dennis F. Beck is President and CEO of Spatial Business Systems, Inc, responsible for overall company operations, corporate business development activities and executive consulting in the advanced use of geospatial technologies. Prior to forming Spatial Business Systems Mr. Beck was the Vice President of Global Business Development for GE Network Solutions. In this role Mr. Beck was responsible for managing acquisition activity and expanding the use of GE Smallworld technologies to government and transportation markets. Mr. Beck also oversaw the technical delivery of geospatial technologies to customers in the utility and telecommunications market segments. Prior to that, he was the GIS Program Manager at IBM Corporation, responsible for GIS product management activities for IBM's utility-based geospatial applications. Mr. Beck has also served as an Adjunct GIS professor at Marist College in New York State, USA. Mr. Beck is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineering and has served as the Chairman of the Oracle Spatial North American Special Interest Group. Mr. Beck has a BS in Engineering from Purdue University and a Master's Degree from the University of Texas at Austin and is a registered Professional Engineer in the State of Texas.

Dennis BeckWhat Can Utility GIS Leaders Learn from the San Bruno Explosion?

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