Utility Reform May Be On The Horizon

Gov. Brown expected to appoint a new regulator this week to police power companies. TURN is looking for independent commissioners who have the guts and the backbone to stand up to PG&E, and we’re looking for commissioners that are going to fulfill the commission’s mission, which is to protect consumers.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company could be policed by new sheriffs by the middle of this week.

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to appoint at least one new member of the five-person California Public Utilities Commission, which currently has three vacancies, on Tuesday or Wednesday.

The CPUC, which is responsible for regulating power companies including PG&E, has long been criticized for being overly friendly to the energy industry. Those criticisms reached a fever pitch in the wake of the deadly Sept. 9 San Bruno explosion of a PG&E-owned pipeline.

Two of the CPUC’S five members reached the end of their terms after Brown was sworn in. Brown promoted another member to a senior staff position on Friday, creating a third vacancy.

The CPUC requires at least three members to be present at meetings.

Despite having just two commissioners, agency staff published a full agenda for a meeting scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Thursday.

Sources familiar with the CPUC told The Bay Citizen that they expect Brown to appoint at least one commissioner before Thursday’s meeting. Many of the leading candidates enjoy the support of utility consumer advocates who are pushing for major agency reform.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup told The Bay Citizen on Monday afternoon that no announcements had been made regarding CPUC appointments. "More information will be provided in the coming days,” he said.

Lawmakers and activists have been calling on Brown to reform the agency by appointing a majority of commissioners who are unaffiliated with utility companies and would create and enforce stringent rules and ensure that investor-owned utilities, particularly PG&E, follow state laws.

The commission failed to impose safety-related fines on PG&E for natural gas pipeline safety infractions during the six years that led up to the San Bruno disaster, which killed eight people.

The CPUC voted last month to approve $29.1 million in ratepayer-funded bonuses to its shareholders despite the company’s failure to meet the required energy efficiency goals. Commissioners said they concluded that the company deserved the bonuses because the energy efficiency goals were set at levels that were difficult to meet.

“We’re looking for independent commissioners who have the guts and the backbone to stand up to PG&E, and we’re looking for commissioners that are going to fulfill the commission’s mission, which is to protect consumers,” said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for the consumer advocacy group The Utility Reform Network. “We don’t feel like they’ve been doing that.”

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has sharply criticized commissioners in recent weeks and has held meetings with Brown’s staff as he pushes for agency reform.

"The culture of the commission is one of complacency, not oversight and regulation," Hill said Monday. "At the PUC you have former utility executives running a regulatory agency that oversees those utilities. At the utility, PG&E, the CEO is from the mortgage banking industry—so you can see where their prioirities are just by their leadership."