PUC Reforms Approved in Wake of San Bruno Blast

Firefighters battle a fire possibly resulting from a high-pressure gas line explosion in San Bruno, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Bay Area News Group, Karl Mondon)

SAN BRUNO — Newly approved legislation could go a long way toward reforming the state Public Utilities Commission, which tumbled into disgrace for lax oversight of PG&E that contributed to a fatal explosion in San Bruno more than seven years ago, a lawmaker and consumer group said Tuesday.

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed SB 19, legislation authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat whose San Mateo County and Santa Clara County district includes San Bruno, the site of a lethal explosion of of natural gas. The blast, federal investigators concluded, was caused by a deadly combination of PG&E’s flawed record keeping and shoddy maintenance and the PUC’s lax supervision of PG&E

“This law could help clean up a mess that I believe caused that explosion,” Sen. Hill said Tuesday.

The explosion in September 2010 leveled a San Bruno neighborhood and killed eight people.

The newly approved law has numerous elements. Among them: Utility executives would be prohibited from serving on the PUC within two years of leaving the utility.

Some critics of the PUC believe the state agency maintains ties that are too cozy with big power companies, such as San Francisco-based PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric.

“The PUC must remember that it represents the public interest and not the utility interest,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group.

The new law will create an ethics-officer role within the PUC to oversee training programs and advise commissioners and staff. The legislation also obliges the agency’s public adviser to receive and assess complaints from the public, and to issue recommendations for resolving them.

And in an effort to reduce the PUC’s workload so it can focus more narrowly on gas and electricity utilities, the law will strip the PUC of its oversight of moving vans and regulation of insurance and registration requirements related to for-hire vessels, private motor carriers and commercial air operators.

In August 2016, a federal jury found PG&E guilty on six criminal counts for illegal acts that the utility committed before and after the fatal explosion. Last January, a federal judge imposed the maximum sentence on PG&E, a decision that brands PG&E as a convicted felon because of its role in causing the explosion.

“This is another step to create more integrity at the PUC,” Hill said.