SoCalGas settled a lawsuit it filed last year against the California Energy Commission that claimed some of its work to address the climate crisis was illegal. It specifically challenged efforts to advance clean energy under state law and reduce the use of natural gas, including with increased electrification of buildings. The agreement was reached Aug. 26.
“I am glad the petitioners have decided to settle and withdraw the lawsuit and look forward to working together more productively as the state continues to chart a path toward carbon neutrality,” California Energy Commission Chair David Hochschild stated. “Transitioning away from an economy that is based on fossil fuels is a necessary challenge and requires constructive dialogue and creative thinking.”
While not addressing the settlement, SoCalGas spokesperson Christine Detz stated in an email that the CEC was holding workshops and evaluating how “to help the state reach its greenhouse gas emissions goals, including the role that clean fuels like hydrogen and renewable natural gas will play in supporting a reliable electric grid, in eliminating emissions from hard-to-electrify sectors of the economy like transportation and industry, and in making the transition to a clean energy economy affordable.” The utility has been working to develop alternative gas resources.
SoCalGas, the nation’s largest gas utility, and the Utility Workers Union representing its employees, claimed the Energy Commission was not giving equal weight to natural gas when deciding its energy policies. They specifically cited the agency’s policy guidance document, the 2019 Integrated Energy Policy Report. The complaint asserted CEC policies were “anti-natural gas,” and conflicted with the state Natural Gas Act. The case was filed in the Superior Court of Orange County on July 31, 2020, and later transferred to a Superior Court in Sacramento.
Gas company attorneys argued that “phasing out natural gas is fundamentally inconsistent with the CEC’s statutory mandate, including the requirement of maximizing the benefits of natural gas.”
The suit came as numerous cities in California, Berkeley being the first, banned or restricted natural gas use in new buildings and renovations, and as the CEC was working on its 2022 building code update. In July, a federal court upheld the Berkeley ordinance banning gas in new construction, ruling it was not preempted by federal law.
SoCalGas serves 21.8 million customers in 500 communities.
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President Joe Biden announced Sept. 9 that he plans to appoint a new federal regulator to fill the spot left by Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Neil Chatterjee. District of Columbia Public Service Commission Chair Willie Phillips, a Democrat, is expected to be nominated to FERC.
As the Public Service Commission chief, Phillips “was a thoughtful and innovative leader in modernizing the energy grid, implementing the District’s aggressive clean energy and climate goals, and in protecting the District’s customers,” the White House stated.
Phillips appointment is “well deserved,” Darcie Houck, California Public Utilities Commission member, said Sept. 9.
An environmental disorganization strongly disagreed.
Drew Hudson, Friends of the Earth senior national organizer, stated that putting Phillips on the federal commission is “a gift to corporate utilities and the fossil fuel industry.” He said while serving on the D.C. Commission, Phillips “voted in favor of rate hikes, fossil fuel pipelines, and a massive corporate merger that reduced consumer choice and increased monopoly power.”
His appointment gives Democrats a majority on the commission.
Phillips has been a utility regulator and private utility regulatory lawyer for nearly two decades. He has worked on public utility regulation, bulk power system reliability, and corporate governance. He also was assistant general counsel for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.