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CPUC more so than PG&E deserves wrath of the public they supposedly protect

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POSTED July 17, 2012 11:57 p.m.

Pity the poor souls who make a living as PG&E company spokespersons.

The latest in a long line of public relations nightmares du jour graced the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle this week. The company that spent $35 million in an unsuccessful bid to get voters to amend the California constitution to secure protected monopoly status and then blew up a chunk of San Bruno now has to explain away a company document that threatens to further erode public confidence in the for--profit utility.

This time around company brass suggested in 2008 that downgrading the severity of 2,300 natural gas leaks and not repairing them could save the company nearly $4.9 million at an average of $2,100 per leak. What prompted the suggestion was a PG&E bonus system for supervisors of crews that found fewer leaks  and therefore kept costs down and profits up.

The “profit first” nature of the 2008 PG&E document certainly differs greatly from today’s virtual non-stop corporate pleadings to get customers to believe that PG&E is sincere when it says it puts safety first.

Once the PG&E board was made aware of the  suggestion that potential safety concerns be ignored they quickly put an end to such talk.

This comes on the heels of a California Public Utilities Commission investigation that determined PG&E violated state and federal pipeline rules by ignoring safety requirements for more than 100 miles of aging natural gas lines in densely population regions.

The bottom line was 3,062 code violations that translated into 15 million plus daily violations with each violation eligible for fines up to $20,000 piece. That translates into a maximum fine potential in excess of $220 billion.

As shocking as it may sound, PG&E isn’t the real problem.           

PG&E’s drive to maximize profits which appears now to have included taking a lot of short cuts at the expense of public safety is one thing. The CPUC’s inability to do its job and protect the people of this state is another.

How can a watchdog agency not have detected any of the 3,062 code violations or monitor PG&E closely enough that it didn’t catch moves by PG&E management to avoid repairs to increase profits? The true public watchdogs at The Utility Reform Network (TURN) has been able to document a number of cases where the CPUC gave PG&E a rate increase that included doing certain work and then PG&E failed to do it. Not only that, PG&E had the audacity to ask for funds a second time to do the work they never performed in the first place.

It is clear that the CPUC either can’t do its job or isn’t doing its job.

Governor Jerry Brown should demand the resignation of virtually the entire board. In their place needs to be people appointed who are concerned about public safety and impacts on ratepayers first and foremost and not PG&E’s profitability. It’s tough to do that when your board and key upper management are riddled with people who used to oversee various for-profit utilities in California.

 The public’s trust was placed in the CPUC, not PG&E.

It may  indeed be true that PG&E is what one might call less than a stellar corporate citizen.

But no one could possibly believe that a for-profit’s business No. 1 concern ever was public safety. PG&E has been pushing it to the max since they successfully sweet talked lawmakers into deregulating power in California.

PG&E has had its share of failures but for the most part they still deliver natural gas and electricity in a fairly safe and efficient manner.

It has always been the job of the CPUC to make sure that happens.

How could CPUC not have at least stumbled across one of the 3,062 code violations they documented after PG&E killed eight people and destroyed 36 homes in San Bruno.

PG&E made mistakes. No doubt about it. But they still delivered natural gas to most of their customers without failure and in a safe manner.

The CPUC, on the other hand, has been a colossal failure. They failed to make sure rate increases they granted PG&E went to do work that the public was assured it would cover. They have proven they are neither watchdog or guardian of public interest.

There needs to be a thorough cleaning of the CPUC. Our lives and pocketbooks depend on it.

 

This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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