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California Regulators Slammed for Utility Lapses

Using unusually harsh language, the California Senate Subcommittee on Gas and Electric Infrastructure Safety in a staff-generated report strongly criticized the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for allegedly dropping the ball on safety oversight of the state's major energy utilities.

The 36-page document, "Slow Progress Toward Safety: Improving Performance Priorities in the Safety Plans of the CPUC," will be part of the agenda for a second hearing set for Nov. 18, following one on Monday (see Daily GPI,Oct. 29). The state legislators are examining the work of the CPUC concerning Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) in the three years since the natural gas transmission rupture and explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno, CA.

The critique authored by the subcommittee's staff consultant Tony Marino concluded that the CPUC has failed to properly integrate more of a safety culture into its operations regulating all of the state's critical services, and also failed to demand more in terms of safety from the major energy utilities it regulates, particularly PG&E.

The report alleged that the CPUC "is having difficulties convincing the public that it has the knowledge, skills and ability to correct safety challenges identified by numerous [unnamed] independent reviewers." A CPUC independent review committee two years ago also offered a number of strong criticisms of the five-member panel. That examination of the San Bruno disaster concluded that the pipeline rupture was "a consequence of multiple weaknesses in PG&E's management and oversight of the safety of its gas transmission system” (see Daily GPI,June 13, 2011).

A CPUC spokesperson told NGI Tuesday that the report "echoes many of the points" made in the earlier independent review panel's work. The CPUC is using that earlier report as its "touchstone...The CPUC has made substantial progress in integrating safety into all aspects of our work and that of the utilities we regulate, but more remains to be done."

While the subcommittee report stressed the various areas in which it found the CPUC has fallen short, such as not having "a common safety philosophy integrated throughout the organization and the utilities it regulates," the report concluded with seven specific recommendations, including setting measurable goals, "re-imagining" safety plans as more akin to "strategic plans," and better understanding and shaping utilities' safety responsibilities.

Ignoring the negative tone of the legislative report, the CPUC spokesperson noted that integrating safety can be a "multi-faceted and complex" undertaking that requires leadership and commitment throughout state government. "We recognize the pace of change can feel frustratingly slow to those not doing the work day in and day out, [and] we welcome the subcommittee's constructive engagement in helping with our shared goals," the spokesperson said. "With the committed efforts of all involved, we look forward to fostering the safest utilities and utility regulators in the nation."

The report's author had some pointed suggestions, including making the CPUC safety plans "far more comprehensive," developed as "strategic plans for safety, including goals, action and metrics to determine progress." Along these lines, the report alleged that the commission safety staff is unsure how to better integrate safety into routine decisionmaking, so it suggested that regulators develop guidance using models of other government agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration.

"This report examines current weaknesses of the CPUC's safety plans and identifies a path toward addressing those weaknesses to build public confidence in the CPUC's commitment and capabilities."

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