Paul Clanon

Viewpoints: PUC is making California safer with actions, culture change

Published: Saturday, Apr. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A

Californians deserve safe, reliable utility services at reasonable rates. The mission of the California Public Utilities Commission is to ensure that happens.

Since the tragic Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline rupture in San Bruno in September 2010, the PUC has worked to change how it views, implements and oversees safety. The commission will be a model of safety and accountability that the public can rely on. The PUC is taking a two-pronged approach to this: making immediate changes to make California safer and embarking on long-term changes to its safety culture and that of the utilities.

In the last 2 1/2 years, the PUC has hired a new safety team, appointing a new director with extensive experience in leadership, culture change and safety. The commission has ordered utilities to test or replace all pipelines not previously tested and ordered tens of millions in fines for safety-related issues, fining PG&E $16.8 million for failure to conduct pipeline leak surveys and $38 million for a natural gas explosion in Rancho Cordova. The PUC also approved a $12 million settlement agreement with telecommunications companies over the Malibu fire.

The PUC has published a Natural Gas Safety Action Plan; expanded its citation authority; ordered utilities to develop enhanced safety plans; imposed utility reporting requirements to make sure safety decisions are justified; ensured that utilities return money not spent on certain projects to ratepayers; established a risk assessment unit; and put more boots on the ground to conduct inspections and audits of utilities. The Legislature and the governor have helped by giving the PUC new staff and new tools to focus on safety, including the approval of several critical pieces of legislation.

But there is more to safety than immediate actions. The PUC is changing its culture by making safety an underlying principle in all of its work. The result will be that safety accomplishments like those made thus far will become the norm in the commission's regulation and will endure for future generations. To enhance the PUC's safety culture, every decision voted on by the commissioners now includes an analysis of safety implications, including the PUC's analysis of pending legislation. Every voting meeting also includes a public presentation on a safety issue involving the PUC and the companies it regulates. The commission has created a safety council, and PUC directors have written safety goals and are expected to implement them with their team.

Permanent culture change is a slow and deliberate process in any organization, including the 100 year-old Public Utilities Commission. Legislative and media attention has recently focused on a report by a consultant the PUC enlisted to help in its process of culture change across all the industries it regulates. The report is an important tool to define what needs to change, develop strategies, and implement and ensure accountability.

That kind of internal analysis is precisely what the public needs us to do. The PUC must look at itself in the mirror to make a permanent safety culture change. The commission demands safety behavior of all its employees and expects that behavior will form the foundation of a lasting safety culture.

The safety path ahead includes continued culture change and continued specific safety actions. This includes the conclusion of penalty cases under way to determine fines and penalties for the San Bruno disaster and PG&E's record-keeping and pipeline classifications. The PUC is developing new rules for the safe and reliable operation of natural gas pipelines in California that will be the strictest in the country. The commission continues to seek the support of the state Legislature to help prevent the single biggest danger regarding natural gas pipelines – accidental dig-ins by non-utility companies.

The bottom line is that Californians are safer now than before the tragedy in San Bruno, and the PUC will not stop until its safety programs and culture are a model for the nation.

Paul Clanon is the executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission.

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