The Office of Ratepayer Advocates would be given financial and legal independence under legislation passed on a 7-3 vote in the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee this week. SB 608 by Senator Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) adds back in funds for ORA?s staff?which were slashed over the last few years, leading to plummeting morale and wreaking havoc on the consumer advocate. ORA was originally created as a counterweight to utility clout and operates under the umbrella of the California Public Utilities Commission (<i>Circuit<\/i>, March 4, 2005). The commission removed its opposition to SB 608 after the bill was weakened to limit ORA?s authority to contest issues to commission proceedings, deleting language that would have extended its domain to ?other forums.? Some consumer advocates want ORA, which is funded by ratepayers and not dependent on intervenor funds, to litigate issues in the courts on behalf of investor-owned utilities? customers. The office has never taken a matter to the courts, and whether it has the authority to appeal issues on behalf of its constituents is not clear. It is evident, however, that ORA would face significant opposition were it to attempt to litigate issues. Escutia?s bill would give the ORA director independent legal staff, in place of sharing CPUC lawyers. The term of the ORA director, who is appointed by the governor and an at-will employee, would also become a fixed six-year term. Also moving ahead is a bill that would create new conflict- of-interest standards for CPUC commissioners. The new rules would exclude those who have reaped significant income from businesses regulated by the commission in the last two years. SB 204 by Senator Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) would apply the same conflict-of-interest rules to the CPUC that bind California Energy Commission members. She said the bill?s aim is to avert conflict violations like those of former commissioner Henry Duque. Duque voted on matters affecting a company?Nextel?in which he held stock and was fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission. Bowen noted that the current CPUC members would qualify under her measure. It passed on a 7-4 vote. About 20,000 old, energy-gobbling refrigerators in low-income residences would be replaced by energy-efficient ones every year for the next five years under SB 769. Passed on a 6-3 vote, the measure would slash ?a huge avoidable demand,? said Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), the bill?s author. Refrigerators account for about 20 percent of a utility bill. Ralph Cavanagh, Natural Resources Defense Council policy director, said the measure would reduce low-income renters? utility bills by about $130 a year. The bill sought to use public-goods money to replace 250,000 refrigerators, but the goal was reduced to less than 10 percent of the original because of concerns about the program?s cost and the ability to reach that target. Last year, utilities replaced about 42,000 refrigerators in low-income homes. In 2004, Southern California Edison replaced about 16,000 refrigerators at a cost of $9.4 million. Pacific Gas & Electric replaced about 20,000 units for a cost of about $15.5 million. Sempra replaced 7,000 refrigerators for $4 million, according to the bill analysis. Another bill that passed would codify the CPUC long-term procurement ruling that gives energy efficiency the top billing in resource planning. Senator Christine Kehoe?s (D-San Diego) SB 1037 was approved on a 7-3 vote. Two conjoined bills, which failed passage but will be reconsidered next week, would require the California Energy Commission to assess the need for liquefied natural gas terminals in the state and permit projects that meet economic, safety, and environmental criteria. Currently, the CPUC has the state?s authority on the matter. The fight over LNG siting turf is not limited to the current legal and policy debate between federal and state governments but also continues between the CEC and the CPUC. SB 1003 by Escutia and SB 426 by Simitian require the CEC to fill the statutory void left by the repeal of the 1977 state LNG terminal act. It was enacted the last time the state seriously considered certifying LNG terminals. The CPUC, LNG developers, Republican committee members, and industrial and commercial groups opposed the bill but insist that California have a say about the location of an LNG project on or off the coast of California. Republicans and business groups see the bill as another regulatory layer that would slow down LNG development. Simitian stated that he supports bringing LNG into the state to increase fuel diversity, saying it was wise to determine in a ?comprehensive and systematic way? how much gas demand is projected and which project or projects should be approved. ?This bill is agnostic,? he said, explaining that it sees imported natural gas neither as a ?miracle fuel? nor as an ?insidious evil.? During the debate on the bills, Simitian tried to assuage concerns about the governor?s statement last week that he backed BHP Billiton?s offshore facility near Oxnard. He stressed that Schwarzenegger?s statement implied that a decision would be made only after an examination of the assessments of the various proposals.