California PUC says it’s making changes

by Steven Harmon, San Jose Mercury News

A week after it was excoriated for its lax safety and regulatory culture, the California Public Utilities Commission claimed to have made strides in turning things around in a report it filed with a legislative committee.

At a subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Paul Clanon, the PUC’s executive director, offered a thick document filled with what he described as accomplishments in following through on sharp criticism leveled at the agency. That criticism was outlined in a scathing report put together by an outside consultant that also showed the agency is too cozy with major utilities it’s supposed to regulate.

Some lawmakers have called for the ouster of Clanon, who has been the PUC’s top staffer since 2007 and has had ties to the commission dating back to the 1980s. But legislators held their fire Wednesday, refraining from asking any questions because they said they had not had time to review the document because they didn’t get it until late Tuesday. They may not pick up the saga of the PUC for weeks, now that they are heading into an intense period of budget work.

The PUC is also in a defensive crouch over a controversy that erupted after an agency official was caught secretly taping a private conversation in a meeting between Senate staffers, the state Department of Finance and the PUC.

Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, the chairman of the Assembly Budget subcommittee on resources and transportation, said he doesn’t know when the next hearing on the PUC will be held. He cited a full agenda for the panel’s next meeting on May 8. And the following week, legislators will be grappling with Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget.

Clanon said at Wednesday’s hearing that the PUC had carried out all changes recommended by the National Transportation and Safety Board and an independent review panel after the rupture of a PG&E gas line killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno in September 2010.

And he said the commission has increased its enforcement actions, fining utilities by "many tens of millions of dollars," conducting "many" audits and publishing a safety action plan that is on its website. The plan allows the Legislature and the public "to see exactly what we’re doing on specific safety actions related to natural gas," Clanon said.

Most significantly, he said, the PUC was eliminating a grandfather clause that previously allowed transmission lines not tested before 1970 to continue operating without being tested.

"All transmission pipelines are being tested or they’re being replaced," Clanon said. "In many of your communities, you’ve seen PG&E and contractor crews out, pressure testing those pipelines as a result of those actions.

"I want the committee to understand that beginning with the explosion at San Bruno and the revelations of the commission’s own shortcomings that helped lead up to that," Clanon said, "the commission has engaged … in a process of improving safety and improving safety regulations across the board — and we have many accomplishments to point to."

Meanwhile, a Senate subcommittee on resources, environmental protection, energy and transportation prepared to hold its own hearing Thursday on the critical report on the PUC.

In the taping controversy, PUC Energy Division Director Edward Randolph was caught when his smartphone announced that his recording space was full, according to the Sacramento Bee. Randolph initially denied he was recording the meeting, but he eventually apologized.

Bloom said he was "deeply, deeply troubled in this day and age that that would happen. This is an obvious and egregious violation. We all know that we don’t record without one’s permission. And I’m unclear why it happened, whether it was requested by someone — and if so, what purpose?"

Last week, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Senate Budget Chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, sent a letter to Michael Peevey, the president of the PUC, saying that the legislative counsel advised them that the recording was illegal. "In addition, it was inappropriate and unethical," they wrote.

Brown offered a vote of confidence earlier this week to Peevey, saying he "is well-experienced. He’s flawed like everyone else in this building, but he has a lot of knowledge, and he has great commitment."