Panel Blasts Regulators for Safety Skimps

By Published On: April 19, 2013

State energy regulators are taking a lot of heat for failing to reduce the risk of avoidable accidents two-and-a-half years after Pacific Gas & Electric’s gas pipeline blew up in San Bruno. A report detailing continued safety shortcomings at the California Public Utilities Commission was the focus of an Assembly budget committee hearing April 17. The study, contracted by the commission, was confidentially released to the agency in January but slipped to the legislative panel last week. It attributes the agency’s flawed safety culture to an “overly cozy relation[ship]” with utilities it regulates; failure to prioritize safety issues; and lack of post-decision follow through. “This report is extremely alarming,” Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), chair of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Resources & Transportation, told Paul Clanon, commission executive director. The report’s revelation exacerbates strained relations between the Legislature and regulators. It follows on the heels of the agency’s energy division director, Ed Randolph, being caught secretly recording a closed-door meeting with a Senate budget subcommittee last week. There are also questions about the agency’s budget raised by an earlier state audit (Current, Jan. 18, 2013). “Why should anyone think today’s leadership at CPUC is capable of being part of the solution instead of the cause of problem?” Assemblymember Bob Bluemfiled (D-Los Angeles) asked Clanon. The director was called before the committee on short notice. “We are way ahead of you on the corrective action plan,” Clanon said. “Turning a ship that is 100 years old is an immense task that will not happen overnight,” he explained. Panel members took issue with Clanon’s spin on the report now in their hands. The report was prepared after more than a dozen interviews with CPUC executives, including the executive director and division heads. “If we were holding the utilities accountable and doing what we were supposed to be doing, San Bruno never would have happened,” an unidentified CPUC staffer told the report author. The consulting firm was hired by the commission to review the agency’s safety culture after the Sept. 9, 2010, gas explosion in San Bruno. That accident left eight dead and destroyed more than three dozen homes. The report attributed the lack of a protective culture at the CPUC to safety being “considered less compelling than other priorities.” It noted problems also were caused by “excessive process” and staff conflict over whether a regulatory stick or carrot was more effective in achieving desired utility behavior. Safety problems at the commission highlighted in the report also were attributed to: * Inadequate resources directed to the safety division by the Legislature and commissioners; * Executive director Clanon’s “aversion to conflict,” and his discouragement of staff from “taking issues head on;” * Excessive access by utilities to the commission, its documents and process; and, * Insufficient tools for tracking and implementing regulatory decisions. “I expect constant updates from CPUC and that suitable corrective action will begin immediately,” Bloom told Clanon. The Assembly Budget Subcommittee chair told the executive director he’s to reappear April 27 to answer questions about implementation of the commission’s safety strategy. Whether Clanon should remain in his post was called into question by the committee. There is considerable pressure in and outside the Legislature to change the CPUC leadership. CPUC president Mike Peevey has one-and-a-half years left in his second six-year term. Calls to the governor’s office for comments on whether a leadership change was under discussion were not returned before press time.

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