California PUC is PG&E’s lapdog

Posted by Christine, June 13, 2013

The San Jose Mercury News comments on the relationship:

Last week brought yet more evidence that the Legislature needs to remind the Public Utilities Commission that it works for the people. The regulatory agency continues to act as PG&E’s guardian, keeping taxpayers and ratepayers in the dark while the utility rakes in hundreds of millions of their dollars — and does who-knows-what with them.

The latest outrage unfolded two days before the PUC’s deadline for filing a final brief on PG&E’s role in the gas explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. PUC staff lawyers reportedly wanted to throw the book at PG&E. But the PUC hierarchy on Wednesday reassigned the lawyers so the agency could go easy on the utility.

“PG&E couldn’t have written a better brief unless it wrote it itself,” said San Mateo Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Bruno. Many local and state officials believe, in effect, that’s exactly what happened.

Gov. Jerry Brown is clearly loath to do what needs to be done: fire PUC President Michael Peevey. So it’s up to the Legislature to at least demand transparency in the actions of PG&E and the PUC — including finding out what PG&E is doing with its money before any decision is made on penalties.

PG&E is in effect a monopoly, yet Californians have no idea how it spends its vast revenues. After San Bruno, multiple investigations found that PG&E for decades has used money intended for gas line maintenance and


other safety essentials to instead pay executive bonuses and line shareholders’ pockets. And we still don’t know that it has done the repairs and inspections it claims to have completed since San Bruno. From the public’s vantage point, PG&E finances remain largely a black hole.

Hill tried to bring greater transparency to the PUC and PG&E through his bill, SB 611, which would separate the PUC’s prosecutorial and judicial functions, and through his call for the state to independently audit PG&E’s accounts. But the bill got killed in committee. Hill should try again, and every Bay Area legislator should get on board. Who knows what other communities are in peril from unsafe gas lines?

All of this must have former California Gov. Hiram Johnson spinning in his grave. Johnson was elected governor in 1910 on a platform of reining in the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, which dominated state politics. Johnson returned power to the people by instituting a regulatory commission with the authority to put the railroads in their rightful place.

The California Railroad Commission was the precursor of today’s Public Utilities Commission — but it has lost its way and now looks out for the utility’s interests. The Legislature needs to refresh its memory, even if the governor is comfortable with the status quo.