Speculation swirls around Pacific Gas and Electric, CPUC relationship

PG&E was to be among attendees of natural gas symposium
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The 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight and injured many more is still making headlines, putting both Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) squarely on the hot seat in front of local advocacy groups and state lawmakers. The incident gained further momentum recently after a planned safety symposium sparked conflict of interest cries from the City of San Bruno. The utility and the Commission are both facing media scrutiny over their handling of the explosion and the subsequent investigations. The City of San Bruno is seeking more than $1 billion in fines against the utility.

The San Bruno pipeline explosion in September, 2010. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/MisterOh

The symposium, "Forging a New Vision of Safety in California," was meant to be an opportunity to discuss progress and challenges facing California utilities, according to the CPUC. It was not clear if other utilities were attending the symposium or not. But given that the Commission is tasked with adjudicating PG&E's 2010 safety lapses by way of three formal investigations, this event appeared to be a not-insignificant conflict of interest.

The CPUC since cancelled the safety event, originally scheduled for May 7-8. The controversy points to a deeper rift between the CPUC, PG&E, the City of San Bruno and the surrounding community.

A "dog and pony show"

The April 24 motion filed by the City of San Bruno asks the CPUC to justify why two of its Commissioners should be permitted to speak during the symposium. Specifically, it notes that CPUC President Michael Peevey and Commissioner Michel Florio are two of five members that will determine the nature and size of PG&E's penalty. The motion contends that having the Commissioners appear alongside PG&E to speak about natural gas safety would not only be unethical, but illegal according to CPUC code.

Additional symposium attendees expected were CPUC Executive Director Paul Clanon, and Safety Director Jack Hagan. PG&E representatives were expected to include President Chris Johns and Senior Vice President of Gas Operations Nick Stavropoulos, according to the motion. It could not be confirmed if other utilities were planning to attend, as all information regarding the symposium has been taken offline.

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San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson said there was a "high probability" of direct involvement by PG&E in planning and delivering the symposium.
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The motion noted that any evidence facing the CPUC should be heard in a courtroom, not at a public relations event.

"This is like the defendant in a criminal case taking the judge to play golf together before the judge rules on his case and his penalty," attorney Steven Meyers of the Meyers Nave law firm, representing the City of San Bruno, said in a statement.

The motion goes on to describe the event as a "dog and pony" show.

PG&E spokesperson Brittany Chord said the utility had planned to contribute funding to the symposium, and that it was invited by the CPUC to speak at the event.

Chord told FierceEnergy that the utility viewed the symposium as a way to discuss the current state of utility safety.

"We are always eager to share our message about safety and what we've learned about safety and also share what we are doing to enhance the safety of our system," she said. "We think it's very important to discuss with industry leaders the progress that we're making and also discuss the work that still needs to be done."

San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson told FierceEnergy that, after looking into matters, it became clear to them that there was a "high probability" of direct involvement by PG&E in planning and delivering the symposium.

CPUC goes silent

The Commission is remaining coy on the situation, and offered only a brief comment on the event and its intentions.

"Although the Symposium is a forward-looking event and issues related to the CPUC's ongoing PG&E pipeline cases would not be discussed, to eliminate any possible public concern over the fairness of the CPUC's process the CPUC has decided to postpone the Symposium to a future date," the Commission said in a statement provided to FierceEnergy.

All registration and online information regarding the details of the symposium have since been taken offline. Requests to the CPUC to provide additional context and details about the symposium were not granted.

The City of San Bruno does not expect any follow up to the motion at this point, given that the illegal activity did not occur, according to City Manager Connie Jackson. She said, however, that they would vigorously take up the issue if the meeting was rescheduled and are aiming to get to the bottom of the thought process behind the safety symposium.

Both the CPUC and the City of San Bruno agreed that the issue surrounding penalties and fines for PG&E is likely to reach a tipping point in the coming days and weeks.