Appointees to Powerful Utility Regulator Set to Testify

Gov. Jerry Brown’s two most recent nominees to a powerful commission that regulates natural gas and other utilities are before lawmakers Wednesday for confirmation hearings.

Commissioners Clifford Rechtschaffen and Martha Guzman Aceves began six-year terms in January on the Public Utilities Commission, but the Senate has a year to confirm them. The 5-member PUC regulates privately-owned natural gas, electric, telecommunications, water and rail utilities, and it has long been criticized for its cozy relationship with the utilities it regulates. Investigations into a 2010 Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline explosion revealed secret communications between PUC and utility executives.

Most recently, the PUC’s July decision to re-open the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility two years after the largest-known methane leak in U.S. history sparked criticism.

Both Rechtschaffen and Guzman Aceves, former Brown aides, are expected to make it through the rules committee and be confirmed by the Democratic-led Senate. Brown praised both for “sound judgment and a commitment to protecting ratepayers and ensuring safe, reliable and climate-friendly energy in California” when announcing their appointments in December.

But critics say Rechtschaffen in particular deserves hard questioning.

He served as Brown’s senior adviser on energy and environment and was involved in the 2011 firing of two top oil and gas regulators who warned Brown against overriding environmental safeguards to issue permits for oilfield injection wells, according to testimony from one of the fired officials. The state later acknowledged hundreds of the approved operations were polluting federally protected underground water supplies.

“Rechtschaffen’s record shows that he will pander to the largest energy companies in the state at great expense to the public, to the proper role of government, and to fair play,” reads a letter from critics including the group Consumer Watchdog to senators in May. Consumer Watchdog is a frequent critic of Brown’s ties to the oil industry.

Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the PUC, said Rechtschaffen was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Evan Westrup, Brown’s spokesman, called Consumer Watchdog’s concerns “bogus.” Some environmental groups defend his record.

“Commissioner Rechtschaffen’s appointment to the CPUC will ensure the state’s clean energy leadership and pragmatic approach to policymaking won’t skip a beat as we move into the post-Brown era,” said Tim O’Connor, a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Others disagree.

Rex Parris, a Republican mayor in Los Angeles County and head of a law firm representing residents affected by the Aliso Canyon methane leak, said Rechtschaffen has repeatedly failed to represent the interests of consumers.

“With Cliff, it’s whatever the oil industry wants he’ll get it for them,” Parris said.

Spokesmen and women for all five senators on the rules committee declined to say Tuesday if the senators have concerns about either nominee or detail what questions they planned to ask.

Rechtschaffen now leads the PUC’s Natural Gas Leak Abatement program, which launched in June and promotes better training, detection and repair of methane leaks at natural gas utilities, Prosper said. He also plans to focus on expanding California’s renewable energy portfolio standards, she said.

Guzman Aceves previously served as Brown’s deputy legislative affairs secretary, with a focus on natural resources, food, agriculture and environmental protection. Her appointment has not driven similar criticism.

Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, said consumers are best served by commissioners “who are independent from the governor, the utilities and Wall Street.”