Tag Archives: CPUC

Showdown over PG&E Penalties for San Bruno Explosion

PG&E calls CPUC’s $2.25 Billion Fine Excessive

by Brian Leubitz

In 2010, one of PG&E’s main gas lines exploded, killing 8 people, and injuring many more. Since that time, we have discovered that PG&E hadn’t properly inspected the lines, and continued to resist the real work that was necessary to maintain system safety.

The CPUC has proposed that the company be fined $2.25 billion, with administrative law judges scheduled to rule on that soon. The Commission is rather fed up with PG&E at this point. Director of Consumer Safety Jack Hagan had this to say:

PG&E’s brief on penalties displays a chilling lack of remorse for the many failures that led up to the tragedy in San Bruno. I believe the lack of remorse by PG&E in its brief only serves to reinforce the need for the Commission to impose the very substantial $2.25 billion penalty I have proposed.

PG&E’s lack of remorse is particularly evident in the section of its brief entitled “Severity of the Offense.” Although PG&E commences that section of the brief with a statement of “regret” for the incident in San Bruno, the gist of PG&E’s argument is “don’t blame us.” … PG&E’s statements of “regret” ring hollow in the face of this continuing lack of any sincere remorse whatsoever for the Company’s past shortcomings. If there was ever any doubt about the need for a very large penalty in this case, any such doubt is removed by the unrepentant tone of PG&E’s brief. It is time to throw the book at PG&E(H/t to KCET)

Now, this “fine” is rather misleading. Even if they would be fined that large amount, the current proposal is for the money to be required to spend on safety improvements. And as a bonus, the company would get about $900 million back of that in tax benefits. Now, normally PG&E likes to charge customers for these kinds of expenses, but given that the system needs far more than $2.25 billion of safety improvements, this is hardly the end of the world for them. They can still try to recoup some of the other safety costs and the money really goes back on to their system.

You can read Hagan’s full reply brief here. We should get a decision on the fine by the end of the summer.

Photo credit: ABC7.

Steinberg Stands With SRO Tenants Against AT&T

State Senate President Darrell Steinberg has announced that the Senate Rules Committee will not hold a hearing on CPUC Commissioner Rachelle Chong before the end of the year – effectively killing her confirmation.  For low-income residents and consumers, this is wonderful news.  Chong used her position at the CPUC to sponsor an AT&T-backed proposal to de-regulate the state’s Universal Lifeline program – which would have meant thousands of Californians losing basic telephone service.  The Central City SRO Collaborative spent months turning out tenants against this proposal (with invaluable help from TURN), and Chong paid a heavy price for it by losing her job.  An Astroturf campaign by Verizon and AT&T wasn’t enough to save her, and the message it sends to the CPUC is – “Don’t mess with Lifeline!”

SRO tenants never thought they would venture in the world of CPUC appointments, but the campaign to save Universal Lifeline inevitably took them there.  For a flat monthly rate of $6.11, low-income people can get a basic “no-frills” phone line that helps them keep in touch with doctor’s appointments, job interviews and loved ones – or to handle emergency situations.  The Central City SRO Collaborative has signed up tenants onto Lifeline for years – so when TURN told us it was in jeopardy, we jumped into action.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is one of the most powerful state agencies, but its Commissioners keep a low profile.  And when there isn’t much public attention, companies that the Commission regulate and stand to gain billions run the show.  Rachelle Chong has functioned as the CPUC’s unofficial telecommunications “expert” – and is close to telecom giants Verizon and AT&T.  When AT&T wanted to de-regulate Lifeline, Chong was the Commissioner they asked to submit their proposal.

For the Central City SRO Collaborative, testifying at the CPUC was a new experience.  We would bring Lifeline customers out to their hearings to speak against the proposal, and at every meeting the Commissioners would postpone the vote.  It began to look like a common delay tactic we see in many corrupt government bodies – keep putting off the decisions until the poor people get tired of always having to come back.  Problem is, we just kept turning out every time.

The CPUC finally realized in July that we weren’t going anywhere – so Chong temporarily “shelved” her proposal to re-write it.  Of course, she was hoping the issue would quiet down until after her confirmation sails through.  After all, most people don’t know who is on the CPUC – so who’s going to stop her from getting re-confirmed in Sacramento?  With AT&T and Verizon lobbying heavily on her behalf, she could take up the proposal later.

The Governor appoints CPUC Commissioners, but the State Senate must confirm them.  Chong had provoked us by attempting to de-regulate Lifeline, and it turns out that she had angered other grassroots organizations as well.  We may have blocked her proposal to de-regulate Lifeline temporarily, but our leverage depended on blocking Chong’s confirmation.

TURN did an excellent job assembling a grassroots coalition to lobby the State Senate Rules Committee.  It was the first time that all three major consumer rights groups in the state (TURN, UCAN and Consumer Federation of California) worked together to oppose a CPUC Commissioner.  Seventeen groups (including our organization) that represent low-income communities and people of color sent letters against Chong’s confirmation.  We were joined by 3 faith-based organizations, 3 environmental justice groups, five small business organizations and three labor unions (including the Communication Workers.)

Chong had her own set of trade associations and non-profits write letters to the Senate Rules Committee on her behalf.  What did virtually all of them have in common?  They took generous donations from AT&T.  When the Los Angeles Times interviewed one of these non-profits, the director admitted he endorsed Chong upon the advice of AT&T executives – who had given the group money.  It was an Astrotruf campaign.

We expected the Rules Committee to hold a hearing this week – and were prepared to bring a busload of Lifeline customers to testify.  Then, we heard the hearing would be postponed until next week. Yesterday, Darrell Steinberg’s office announced there would be no confirmation hearing for Chong. “We felt it was important to have a commissioner with a little more enthusiasm for consumer protection,” said a spokesperson.

“This is exactly the way the confirmation process is supposed to work,” said Sam Kang, managing attorney of the Greenlining Institute, which had been part of  our coalition.  “Rather than rubber stamp the Governor’s choice the Committee investigated and reached its own conclusions.  The evidence was overwhelming that Ms. Chong’s decisions have had a disastrous impact on low-income communities and people of color.”

Without a confirmation hearing, Chong will be off the CPUC by the end of the year.  It’s true – of course – that Governor Schwarzenegger will now get to appoint someone else, and we don’t know who that will be.  But the Senate Rules Committee would have to confirm that person, and we are grateful that Darrell Steinberg stood up for consumers.

Regardless of who replaces Chong, the message for the CPUC is clear.  If you mess with a program that helps thousands of low-income residents have basic phone access that the rest of you take for granted, we will take you out.  Remember that you serve the people!

Broad Coalition Fights to Block CPUC Commissioner Chong

(I’ve been meaning to promote this for a couple of days. Confirmations don’t always get the level of attention they should. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

Low-income telephone customers won a brief reprieve last month, after the California Public Utilities Commission temporarily shelved a dangerous plan to gut the Universal Lifeline program.  But the battle is far from over.  While the AT&T backed plan is being “re-written” at the CPUC, the measure’s sponsor – Commissioner Rachelle Chong – is up for a confirmation vote by the State Senate to a full six-year term.  Yesterday, a diverse coalition of advocates went to Sacramento to lobby against Chong’s re-appointment.  Two residential hotel tenants from the Central City SRO Collaborative who were selected by their peers to go joined senior advocates, consumer groups, Latino leaders and faith based groups – to express strong opposition to a Commissioner who has disregarded the CPUC’s mandate to protect consumers.  After a grueling day at the State Capitol, we met with four of the five members of the Senate Rules Committee – and all four of San Francisco’s delegation in the legislature.  “I’m impressed,” said State Senator Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), after we told him who else we had met with that day.  “I can’t even get a meeting with four of my colleagues in one day.”

The California Public Utilities Commission is one of the most powerful bodies in the state, with a budget as large as the state General Fund.  The five CPUC Commissioners are supposed to look out for consumers and regulate utility industries, but too often fall under the influence of PG&E and AT&T.  Appointed by the Governor to a six-year term, the only “check” on the CPUC’s power is a confirmation vote by the State Senate – but rejections almost never happen.  But we were going to try to stop Commissioner Chong.

Universal Lifeline is a program mandated by the state legislature – but regulated by the CPUC – which provides a “no-frills” telephone line at an affordable rate of $6.11/month – allowing poor people to keep in touch with doctor’s appointments, job interviews and loved ones.  But Commissioner Chong’s proposal replaced the flat rate with 55% of the highest market price (when AT&T has jacked up telephone rates.)  Only after hundreds of seniors and low-income tenants representing various organizations spoke out at multiple hearings did the CPUC suspend this proposal, but it will be back after Chong gets confirmed.

For Catalina Dean, who lives at the McAllister Hotel – where her income is $104/month under Care Not Cash – the idea of keeping Chong on the CPUC is absurd.  “What else is her job,” she asked, “if it’s not to look out for low-income people who need a phone?”

But other groups oppose Chong’s confirmation.  For the first time ever, the largest three consumer rights groups in California – TURN (The Utility Reform Network), UCAN (Utility Consumer Action Network) and the Greenlining Institute – are working together to oppose a CPUC nominee.  Hene Kelly of the California Alliance of Retired Americans (and San Francisco Senior Action Network) also joined us on the lobbying trip to oppose Chong, as did Minister L.B. Tatum of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches.

And Chong has alienated many ethnic-based groups who had once supported her on the CPUC to represent their community interests.  “When the Governor appointed Chong in 2005 [to complete Susan Kennedy’s unexpired term],” said Sam Kang of the Greenlining Institute, “a lot of us supported here confirmation.”  But leaders like Faith Bautista of the Mabuhay Alliance, and Viola Gonzales of the Latino Issues Forum were there to explain how Chong had not reached out to their communities.  “When I complained to Chong about diversity issues,” said Kang, “she said that it’s not her job to ‘enforce quotas.'”

Chong has also broken earlier promises, such as: (a) restoring consumer protections against deceptive AT&T marketing practices, (b) convening public hearings to solicit input for basic phone service and (c) protecting limited English proficient customers by requiring companies to provide contracts in the same language as marketing materials.

Our delegation met with the four state legislators who represent San Francisco – Senators Mark Leno and Leland Yee, and Assemblymembers Fiona Ma and Tom Ammiano – all of whom had submitted letters to the CPUC opposing Chong’s deregulation of Lifeline.  Although none of them are on the Senate Rules Committee, we dropped by to thank them for their support – and to ask them to help persuade their colleagues to oppose Chong.

We also met personally with four of the five members of the Senate Rules Committee – Democrats Darrell Steinberg (who is also President of the State Senate), Jenny Oropeza and Gil Cedillo, and Republican Bob Dutton.  We also met with the Chief of Staff of Republican Senator Sam Aanestad.  Before the State Senate gets to vote on Chong’s confirmation, it must first pass a hearing at the Senate Rules Committee – when our delegation will return to Sacramento, and speak out during public comment.

Chong’s confirmation was scheduled for next week’s Senate Rules Committee.  But the hearing has now been postponed – along with all of Governor Schwarzenegger’s appointments – due to State Senate President Darrell Steinberg’s strong disapproval of Arnold’s “blue-pencil” budget cuts that hurt the most vulnerable Californians.  Steinberg and other Democrats have filed a lawsuit against the Governor, alleging that these cuts are unconstitutional.  I thanked Steinberg for his leadership on Arnold’s budget cuts, and reminded him that Chong’s actions at the CPUC are hurting the very same people.

The other two Democrats on the Committee might vote “no” on confirming Chong.  Gil Cedillo has long been a champion for the poor (such as his controversial legislation to ban “patient dumping”), and we hope he will take a similar stand on CPUC appointees who are messing with Lifeline.  Jenny Oropeza has also been willing to take a stand on commissioners.  For example, she recently blocked the confirmation of a homophobic appointee to a public safety commission.  We hope she will also do the right thing here.

By being the point-person for deregulating Lifeline telephone service, Commissioner Rachelle Chong has jeopardized her tenure on the CPUC.  And for low-income people across California who are struggling in this economy, they’d be glad to see her go.

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco’s Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.

CPUC issues unflattering report on Prop 7

I do some work for the No on 7 Campaign.

The California Public Utilities Commission(CPUC) is something of a stodgy institution, not particularly known for making big statements. While it’s worth noting that al least one member of the PUC has a history as an executive with the utilities in California, the CPUC’s take on Proposition 7 is at least worth a look, especially now that major newspapers, like the LA Times today and the SJ Merc, and all the major environmental groups in the state, including the Sierra Club, are opposed.

The CPUC report is available in HTML . Thank you CPUC, I wish more governmental bodies and research institutions could put their reports in HTML so I’m not constantly having to open bulky PDFs which make copy and paste difficult.  Though you can still find a Word Doc here and a PDF here. So to my friends from policy school at the CPUC who might have taken part in this analysis, thanks! Sorry, end tangent.

Anyway, the report is broken down into thirteen points, but is generally pretty short. While they do not take a formal position on the initiative, as they are a governmental body, they have few words of praise and a bevy of criticism of Prop 7.  Take this for example:

[Prop. 7] will establish… [a] potentially dysfunctional, structure for the further development of renewable energy in California … [Prop 7] could lead to grid operation problems.

They take a look at each of the 13 things that the analysts at the CPUC perceive that Prop 7 will do, but begin with this summary of concerns…over the flip.

Emphasis added.

The current regulatory framework, as embodied in the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (“RPS”) program, which is being implemented via the Commission’s long-term procurement, resource adequacy and other related proceedings provides the Commission with the flexibility needed to address emerging technologies and the changing marketplace. However, the legal changes that Proposition 7 would impose would seriously interfere with, and delay the implementation of, the numerous renewable energy-related programs that the Commission is currently carrying out. Of particular note, Proposition 7 appears to exclude all renewable resources smaller than 30 megawatts (“MW”). Such smaller renewable facilities can be expected to provide a significant portion of the renewable energy that will be needed to meet the RPS, and their exclusion from the program would inevitably hinder, rather than facilitate, the accomplishment of the state’s RPS goals.

Furthermore, the institutional changes that Proposition 7 would impose would, in the short term, actively disrupt and slow down our ability as a state to meet the 20% RPS goal that is currently enshrined in state law, as well as the more aggressive 33% goal that has been established as a policy of this Commission and the California Energy Commission (“CEC”) and Governor Schwarzenegger, among other leading state officials. Additionally, none of the regulatory or institutional changes that Proposition 7 would make would actually facilitate the accomplishment of the state’s RPS goals in any way. For example, shifting the environmental review of transmission projects from the CPUC to the CEC would not in any way reduce the timelines needed to build new transmission. The most significant source of delay in the siting of new transmission is the environmental review process, which is a legally required step regardless of whether the CEC or CPUC is the responsible agency. Another significant source of delays in the permitting of transmission projects is beyond the control of the state, and is, rather, within the purview of the federal government or of other states.

Finally, Proposition 7 would create a conflict, because under current law, the CPUC has the responsibility for siting all transmission lines, but Proposition 7 proposes to enact a law that would only transfer transmission siting responsibility for renewable energy to the CEC. Since most transmission lines carry both renewable and non-renewable electricity, it is unclear how both agencies would be able to carry out their statutory duties. (CPUC report )

The report then goes through each of thirteen points that the commission finds of note. I won’t belabor the points here, but I’ll send you back to the CPUC report for more details, but here are there thirteen points:

     _ Establishes new, higher RPS targets for electricity providers – 40 % by 2020 and 50 % by 2025;

     _ Changes the cost cap provisions that limit electricity provider obligations under the RPS;

     _ Future amendments to Proposition 7 would require a 2/3 vote of the legislature which limits the ability of the state to respond to changes in the marketplace if a need becomes evident;

     _ Excludes renewable electrical sources under 30 MW from participating in the program set up by Proposition 7;

     _ Falsely states that it will cap rate impacts at less than 3 percent ;

     _ Incorporates a Fast-Track Plant Approval process that could undermine environmental protections and local input;

     _ Changes the process for defining “Market Price of Electricity;”

     _ Transfers some of the CPUC’s authority over the siting of transmission lines carrying renewable power from the California Public Utilities Commission (“CPUC”) to the CEC, which would be in conflict with the CPUC’s statutory duties;

     _ Directs the use of RPS penalty revenues to construct government-owned transmission facilities;

     _ Changes minimum RPS contract length from 10 years to 20 years;

     _ Makes renewable procurement requirements enforceable on publicly-owned utilities by the CEC;

     _ Sets a lower penalty rate than what is currently in statute and removes the cap on the total penalty amount for failure to meet RPS requirements; and

     _ Transfers permitting authority over new non-thermal renewable energy power plants over 30 MW from local government to the CEC.

These bullet points themselves are argumentative, and the CPUC clearly has a position, even if unspoken. So, take a moment sometime before Nov. 4 and learn about Prop 7.