Soapbox

Free the Public Utilities Commission so it can tackle climate change

The California Public Utilities Commission holds a public meeting in September 2017 in San Luis Obispo regarding PG&E's application to close Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
The California Public Utilities Commission holds a public meeting in September 2017 in San Luis Obispo regarding PG&E's application to close Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. The (San Luis Obispo) Tribune

The vital role that the California Public Utilities Commission has played in advancing the state’s leadership in energy and environmental policy is in grave jeopardy. Ironically, the commission's leadership and innovation is being shackled by new rules in the false name of reform and consumer protection.

There has been a total failure to recognize the basic differences between a regulatory agency whose job is to arrive at the right answer and a court that is more like an impartial umpire.

David Freeman.jpg
David Freeman

In the past, the five commissioners talked freely with pretty much everybody who knew about PUC business, and the best commissioners were never shy about doing so. Especially between 2003 (when California emerged from the Enron energy crisis) and 2013, the commission pushed the state forward on a smart clean energy agenda.

Frank Lindh Photo.jpg
Frank Lindh

Now, under the judicial-type rules, the commissioners are kept in "ivory towers,” cut off from the people and even from one another. As a result, the once-impressive record of progress on climate change has stalled.

Opinion

Few people realize this, but the PUC was created not by statute, but by the California Constitution at the height of the Progressive era. It is unlike any other state agency, vested with very broad powers to use its rule-making authority to regulate private railroads and utilities to promote the common good. It is basically a legislative body, and commissioners are experts whose duty is to drive utility companies to advance state policy.

They are similar to legislators, who need to be able to converse freely with their constituents and with lobbyists, not only in formal hearings, but also in hallways, restaurants and in their private offices.

Lately, however, the political forces in Sacramento, cheered on by well-meaning consumer activists, have decided that "reforming" the PUC means imposing severe restrictions on "ex parte communications" between commissioners and the industries they regulate.

Consumer advocates say that commissioners will be unduly influenced by talking to industry officials. But a good commissioner will talk to everyone, including environmentalists and consumer advocates. A commissioner has to be honest and knowledgeable, and then we need to trust them.

We have a huge task on our hands to address the threat of climate change. We need dramatic solutions. We need to completely electrify our entire energy infrastructure, including the transportation sector, and we also need to build new, pollution-free sources of electric energy. We need to totally eliminate fossil fuels, not only from our vehicles but also from our electricity generation. The technology already exists or can be stimulated to accomplish these ambitious goals, but it will require heroic efforts.

It makes absolutely no sense that at exactly the moment when we most need the powerful influence of the PUC as an agent of change to all but shut it down with restrictive rules borrowed from the court system.

It is time to unleash the commission again to lead the electric power industry in creating an all-electric California to protect consumers from devastating climate change.

S. David Freeman, a former general manager of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, is a senior advisor to Friends of the Earth and can be contacted at greencowboysdf@gmail.com. Frank Lindh is former general counsel of the California Public Utilities Commission and regulatory lawyer with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and can be contacted at franklindh@comcast.net.
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