PUC pipeline secrecy battle heading to Sacramento

by Eric Nalder, Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle

A battle is brewing in the state Legislature over secrecy at the California Public Utilities Commission.

State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, said Tuesday that his first action when the Legislature reconvenes in January will be to introduce a bill to repeal a law barring the public release of most records at the commission without a vote of its five appointed members.

Yee cited a report Sunday in The Chronicle detailing how the 1951 law and related regulations have blocked or delayed citizen access to the vast majority of commission documents.

Revelations that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had incomplete and misleading documents about the pipeline that exploded last year in San Bruno, and the commission’s failure to police the company beforehand, make repealing the secrecy law all the more urgent, Yee said.

"For a number of years, the utilities commission has been a sort of a kingdom unto itself," Yee said. "We are saying roll down that drawbridge, the sunlight is coming through."

The state’s utilities, including PG&E, successfully lobbied against a proposal similar to Yee’s in 2004. Company spokesman David Eisenhauer said Tuesday that PG&E would not comment on Yee’s legislation before seeing it.

He said PG&E has changed since the San Bruno disaster, although "there are obviously certain things that we wouldn’t want to have public" such as information crucial to infrastructure security.

Frank Lindh, a former PG&E lawyer who is now the Public Utilities Commission’s general counsel, said the commission will vote as early as January on whether to back Yee’s proposal. The commission might not support a complete repeal of the secrecy law, but does believe that "openness is not harmful" when it comes to pipeline safety documents, Lindh said.

Key protections

Lindh said the secrecy law could prevent terrorists from obtaining information that would allow them to target utilities’ infrastructure. Also, he said, the statute bars electricity sellers from inside data that could allow them to drive up prices.

"We would not be willing to throw away the baby with the bath water and abandon" the secrecy law, Lindh said. "But there are probably some areas for improvements."

Yee said Lindh’s arguments against complete repeal were a "straw man." If the secrecy law is repealed, he said, the commission would fall under the California Public Records Act, which contains exemptions that will "protect the safety of the public" and "protect proprietary information," Yee said.

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said he intends to co-author a version of Yee’s bill in the Assembly. He said he expects opposition from the three major utilities in the state, including PG&E.

"They do a full-court press and they are very effective," Hill said.

Changed landscape

But the PG&E pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in September 2010 has changed the legislative landscape from what it was when the 2004 repeal effort was defeated, said Roy Ulrich, vice chairman of California Common Cause.

He said the public is more suspicious of the utilities in the wake of San Bruno, and that as a result, "I think it will not be as tough as it was in 2004."

California ranks among the least transparent states in the nation for the availability of pipeline safety records, according to an analysis released this week by a nonprofit group, the Pipeline Safety Trust.

The data the trust considered included pipeline maps, accident reports, audits, citation reports and damage from excavations.

The California Public Utilities Commission provides less than half the data looked at in the survey, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the trust.

"Clearly, citizens in California can’t get their hands on gas-related incident data, enforcement records or inspection records or maps of transmission lines," Weimer said.

Terry Francke, an expert on transparency laws in California, said the fate of Yee’s proposal will depend on the ability of the utilities to defeat it with lobbying money and campaign contributions.

Money and power

Common Cause Sacramento lobbyist Phillip Ung said the state’s three largest utilities spend more than $2 million a year on lobbying alone.

"I think the question is how loud the money talks this time," said Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a group that advocates for openness in state government.