This problem is more than 100 years old: When it comes to safety, California’s Public Utility Commission coddles the big utility companies it regulates, sometimes to the detriment and death of the companies’ own customers.
In 1915, state legislators passed a law requiring the Railroad Commission (renamed the PUC in the 1940s) to assure “protection of employees and the general public.” But the commission waited 13 years, until 1928, to make actual rules, most of which were never enforced.
More recently, the Legislature in 2016 passed a law demanding regular reports on electric line safety, especially in likely fire areas.
But consumer lawyer Michael Aguirre, the former elected city attorney of San Diego, says he has not been able to get the PUC to reveal whether it hired any inspectors since passage of that law, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Jerry Hill of San Mateo. Déjà vu, a century later.
“They should have been inspecting all along … but they have admitted they did not prioritize this,” Hill said in an interview. “I believe the PUC didn’t think this was all that important, and so didn’t do it. They will stonewall wherever they can.”
Meanwhile, in lawsuits filed after last fall’s deadly Woolsey Fire burned more than 1,000 homes in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, the Los Angeles law firm of Panish, Shea & Boyle claimed Southern California Edison Co. has maintained a “run to failure” safety policy. Under that system, the law firm charged, “the utility relied entirely on reactive maintenance as its equipment failed, rather than requiring and enforcing preventative maintenance for its electric facilities.”
The lawyers claimed Edison’s practices were in “callous…disregard for the safety of California communities…”
Edison has not responded to those lawsuits.
Both Edison, which last Oct. 30 admitted at least some responsibility in the nightmarish 2017 Thomas Fire that decimated parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. now want consumers to fund wildfire safety campaigns costing hundreds of millions of dollars, including coating many miles of power lines.
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Despite Edison’s Thomas Fire admission and PG&E’s having been found officially at fault in the massive wine country fires of late 2017, the PUC has never tried to punish any corporate official supervising power line safety. That’s coddling. It has persisted more than 100 years, and it’s high time it ends.
Even after years of enhanced fire danger, the PUC reports it has just nine employees in its Safety and Enforcement Division tasked with making random audits of power transmission lines and checking natural gas pipes. That’s nine to cover thousands of miles. PUC officials did not answer queries on whether randomized inspections by those nine engineers included any areas where big recent fires began and whether they ever issued citations there.
All this presents incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom with an opportunity for significant action, for anyone who follows utility rate increase proceedings knows that no matter who’s been on the PUC over at least the last 50 years, it has favored companies over customers.
Newsom can quickly begin changing this.
His first chance arises with the Dec. 31 end of the six-year term of PUC Commissioner Carla Peterman, appointed by Brown in late 2012. Peterman, who declined to be interviewed, has never fought against favoring the utilities.
Newsom’s choice for her position will be critical, as will his picks for two more slots opening in early 2021. Plus, he can demote PUC President Michael Picker back to being an ordinary commissioner. A former Brown aide, Picker expressed more concern for the financial well-being of utilities than their customers’ fates after the immense fires last fall. PUC presidents decide who supervises each case and can influence meeting agendas.
A new PUC chief could spur the large-scale safety checks required by Hill’s 2016 state law.
So Newsom can create big change at this scandal-ridden agency, which only four years ago spent $10 million in public funds on criminal lawyers to protect commissioners.
It’s an early consumerist test for the new governor, also testing the Democratic supermajority in the state Senate, which must confirm any appointee to the powerful PUC.