Public outcries over Pacific Gas & Electric\u2019s 2010 gas pipeline blast increased the last two weeks as settlement talks behind closed doors have continued and the California Public Utilities Commission postponed public hearings. The commission appointed former Sen. George Mitchell Oct. 15 to serve as mediator in the settlement talks. Mitchell\u2019s background includes attempts at peace in Ireland and the Middle East, as well as investigating steroid use in Major League Baseball. PG&E supports Mitchell\u2019s appointment. Facing a barrage of public speakers at its Oct. 11 meeting, commission president Mike Peevey attempted to disabuse them of the notion that the agency is cutting backroom deals with the utility. Peevey claimed the commission is doing its utmost to hold PG&E responsible while the settlements are under negotiation. He stated negotiations could resolve the cases against the utility \u201csooner than later.\u201d The utility expects a minimum penalty of $200 million from the disaster, according to a Securities & Exchange Commission filing. As a result of the 2010 explosion in San Bruno that killed eight, the commission is requiring heightened safety efforts on the part of PG&E, as well as other gas utilities. An Oct. 12 proposed decision would require a 36 percent increase in spending for gas pipeline safety investments. Ratepayer recovery of expenses would be limited to $166 million and capital investments capped at $1 billion. Rate of return on capital investments would be limited to about 6 percent. Currently, the utility is allowed an 11.35 percent rate of return on investments. \u201cThe inherent danger to the public created by a natural gas transmission and distribution system requires a profound and unwavering commitment to safe operations,\u201d notes the proposal. It adds that the actions required are \u201clikely to be expensive\u201d with the \u201coverall goal of no significant accidents.\u201d The investments would be directed to pressure testing, automating valves, and pipe upgrades. PG&E shareholders would bear the cost of pressure tests where the documentation on pipelines remains missing. The decision also requires the utility to demonstrate that its safety investments \u201cprovide good value to California\u2019s families and businesses.\u201d \u201cPG&E is disappointed in the proposed decision,\u201d the utility stated. \u201cNow is the time to invest in a much-needed next generation of infrastructure upgrades to the state\u2019s and PG&E\u2019s vast network of gas transmission pipelines,\u201d it added. Consumer advocates maintain that even the commission proposal allows too much ratepayer investment. \u201cIn the end, PG&E will reap windfall profits from the tragedy,\u201d The Utility Reform Network executive director Mark Toney stated. San Bruno mayor Jim Ruane and Assemblymember Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) appeared on the CPUC\u2019s courtyard Oct. 17 to oppose settlement negotiations and the commission\u2019s proposed decision.