The president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Thursday criticized the state's oldest consumer utility group for its accusations regarding how Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars designated for past pipeline maintenance work.

After passing a resolution to expand the state's investigation of the catastrophic PG&E San Bruno pipeline failure (see related story), CPUC President Michael Peevey took a few minutes to unload on the executive director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN), Mark Toney, who appeared before the CPUC earlier on Thursday at the beginning of the commission's meeting in San Francisco.

Toney earlier sent a letter to the CPUC and issued a press release, demanding that the CPUC make sure PG&E gets no rate increases to cover its response to the expanding investigations of its transmission pipeline system. In those documents, Toney alleged that PG&E has spent $103 million in 2008-10 on what he called "a broad review of its gas distribution system," in the wake of revelations that the utility's leak detection system was deficient, with falsified records, inadequately trained personnel and other problems.

Noting that TURN for more than a decade has been a very active participant in all of PG&E's major natural gas and electric cases, Peevey said "as a party to the PG&E gas proceedings, TURN has had open access to PG&E's books and records, including every aspect of [the utility's] gas transmission safety inspections, leak surveys and pipeline replacement activities.

"It has full and complete information about PG&E's spending levels and all of these critical areas of its operations. And TURN doesn't do this work for free. On the contrary, it has been handsomely compensated for its broad participation in these proceedings. Its consultants have been paid tens of thousands of dollars in intervenor compensation. [Coincidentally, the CPUC approved on Thursday six separate requests by TURN for these payments, totaling nearly $200,000.]

Peevey said TURN's compensation "comes from PG&E ratepayers, and in all of these rate proceedings -- case after case after case -- TURN has signed onto the settlements that were submitted to this commission for approval. And in every one of these settlements without exception, TURN and the other parties have agreed to PG&E's spending levels as set forth in the settlements."

Peevey said that TURN is now calling for a "thorough investigation" of the San Bruno tragedy, noting that the CPUC members and staff "fully agree with that." He said investigating something like this incident is at the heart of what the CPUC does as the state's major utility regulatory body.

"But I want to remind the public that TURN, itself, has played an active role in PG&E's spending programs in the area of pipeline safety for many years and has validated those expenditures. I am a little concerned about the insensitivity sometimes expressed by entities like TURN at moments like this, such grievous and injurious times."

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