California Gov. Gavin Newsom last month had a golden opportunity to turn around the state Public Utility Commission and make it into the consumer-friendly agency it was designed to be. He blew it, and badly.
Newsom’s latest utility regulation move turns out to be almost a carbon copy of what he did three years ago, when he made one of his anonymous aides California’s top supervisor of utility companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.
The result of that first move was several years of unfettered favoritism of electric and natural gas companies over their customers.
The new move looks equally predictable in the same direction.
In his earlier move, Newsom replaced the scandal-prone former president of the utilities commission (PUC) with Marybel Batjer, one of his top energy aides. Batjer first designed the 2019 state bailout of then-bankrupt PG&E, and then as PUC president rubber-stamped her own work.
Batjer’s plan, created to benefit one of Newsom’s longest-term political donors — PG&E — is called the state’s Wildfire Fund. It now sees customers of all the big electric companies donating $13.5 billion over 15 years, to be deployed when the utilities cause high-damage fires.
Now Batjer has left the PUC, having dunned utility customers tens of billions of dollars, and Newsom seeks to replace her with someone who seems almost like her clone.
This time the appointee is Alice Reynolds, Newsom’s senior energy advisor. The governor, who has received well over $1 million in campaign donations over the last two decades from PG&E, called Reynolds his “lead energy policy expert.”
In his press release encomium to Reynolds, like Batjer a longtime state bureaucrat, Newsom says she helped “navigate the bankruptcy of the state’s largest investor-owned utility (PG&E) and accelerate progress toward meeting our…energy goals.”
Essentially, then, he was saying Reynolds helped him push the Wildfire Fund plan through the Legislature even as Batjer guaranteed it would get needed approval from the PUC.
One of Reynolds’ first tasks will be to ensure the utilities toughen up their power line inspections and beef up programs to cut back trees and other vegetation that can ignite big fires when they are hit by sparks from power lines arcing unpredictably during dry-weather windstorms.
Showing just how lenient the PUC has been with utilities, the Reynolds appointment came mere days after the commission gave PG&E a very mild slap on the wrist with a $7.5 million fine for safety problems with its equipment.
About $5 million of the fine was for deficiencies on a high-voltage line in Marin County just north of San Francisco, home to several large stands of coast redwood trees.
While about one-fifth of all California’s (and the world’s) giant Sequoias were killed in last year’s hotter-than-ever fires, so far coast redwoods have been largely spared, except a few stands near San Jose.
But the latest fine included a charge for inadequate inspections of 55,000 power poles everywhere in PG&E’s vast service area.
Just such dereliction of its inspection duties led to most of the PG&E-caused fires of the past few years.
The $7.5 million fine is so small PG&E will not feel it, and as usual, no individual was held responsible for any of the myriad failings cited.
It’s highly likely that the state Senate’s standing committee on energy, utilities and communications will, as usual, rubber stamp the Reynolds appointment to a job where she cannot be fired even by the governor who appointed her.
But there is at least an off-chance the committee will actually ask some tough questions this time and force Reynolds into committing herself to at least some pro-consumer moves during the four years left in her term.
That’s never happened before, as senators usually take little interest in anything having to do with utilities, perhaps because the subject is more complicated than most things they deal with.
But wildfires and the gigantic damages from them focused more attention than ever on the PUC, so perhaps there is some hope this time that promises for saving consumer dollars can be elicited, even if there is no means ever to enforce any of them.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].