Michael Sah / AP file

In 2010 a massive fire roared through the mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno.

Editorial: California Public Utilities Commission sweetly snuggles up to PG&E

Published: Thursday, Jul. 31, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 31, 2014 - 12:27 pm

We’ve all heard the warnings: the “e” in email stands for evidence. Never put anything into email that you expect to remain private.

Apparently, the memo never found its way to the California Public Utilities Commission, Commission President Michael R. Peevey, or certain executives at Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The city of San Bruno is seeking to persuade the commission to impose a $2.45 billion penalty on PG&E for the 2010 gas explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno.

As part of that effort, San Bruno city officials sued to compel the commission to hand over emails showing the relationship between the regulator and PG&E, the utility it’s suppose to regulate. The result: 7,000 emails.

The vast majority of them are mundane. But San Bruno’s outside communications consultant helpfully created a “highlight reel” of a few dozen choice emails.

There is the one from April 2, in which Peevey sent a note to Brian K. Cherry, who oversees governmental relations for PG&E, critiquing the company’s public relations strategy.

PG&E had issued a press release in March announcing that it expected to be indicted on federal charges related to its failure to prevent the deadly 2010 explosion. Then, on April 1, PG&E announced it had been indicted.

“PG&E’s decision to issue a press release last week anticipating all this only meant that the public got to read two big stories rather than one. I think this was inept,” Peevey said.

Evidently, PG&E’s biggest problem is bad press.

Then there was the April 2013 exchange in which Peevey’s chief of staff, Carol A. Brown, suggested to PG&E executive Laura Doll that PG&E brush off questions from the administrative law judge overseeing the PG&E investigation.

Send a “sweet note” saying the questions were moot, Brown wrote, and “wait for them to throw a fit.” Alternatively, Brown said, “Answer any simple question you can and then object to the others.”

Perhaps Brown would have been smarter to have urged that PG&E comply fully with the judge’s request. But that was not to be. So Doll responded: “Love you.” And who wouldn’t love a regulator who offered such sweet suggestions?

PG&E President Chris Johns promised a full review of the emails. But as San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said earlier this week, the emails show the cozy relationship between the commission and the utility.

Far worse than some embarrassing emails is that nearly four years after the explosion, the commission has failed to conclude its proceeding against PG&E.

The utility long ago acknowledged its failures. The National Transportation Safety Board completed its investigation a year ago, saying that the commission, “as the regulator for pipeline safety within California, failed to uncover the pervasive and long-standing problems within PG&E.” The U.S. attorney’s office indicted PG&E in April and expanded the case in a new indictment earlier this week.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which is most directly responsible for regulating PG&E, has failed to take final action.

The commission was created more than a century ago to oversee the railroads, though it has little power over them now. It does retain broad power over private electric and gas utilities, though how it exercises that power is questionable.

Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat who represents San Bruno, has attacked PG&E over the explosion, and the commission for its investigation. PG&E’s Cherry confided in a supposedly private 2012 email to a commission official that he had lost all respect for Hill.

Hill should frame that email. Gov. Jerry Brown, who nominates public utility commissioners, and state senators, who confirm those nominees, need to share some of Hill’s outrage. They need to insist that the commission act. They also need to undertake an overdue overhaul of the commission.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board



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