In light of the “national importance” and “precedent-setting character” of the pending bid-rigging and price-manipulation complaint against El Paso Natural Gas, California regulators and the state’s three principal utilities have asked that they be given a chance to make a pitch for their case before the full FERC.

“This case is of profound importance to the Commission’s oversight of the energy markets within its Natural Gas Act and Federal Power Act jurisdiction,” said the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison, in asking that they be allowed to take the unusual step of arguing the case orally in front of the full Commission before it begins its deliberations. Southern California Gas filed separately to join the parties in oral arguments [RP00-241].

This will give FERC commissioners a “deeper level of understanding” of the many and often complex issues in the complaint proceeding, which Chief Administrative Law Judge Curtis Wagner Jr. has referred to as a “bellwether” case for the Commission, the CPUC and the utilities said.

The oral arguments will give “individual commissioners an opportunity to test first-hand the parties’ positions, through the give-and-take of questioning and argument.”

The CPUC and the utilities further noted that the defendants in the case — El Paso Natural Gas, El Paso Merchant Energy Co., and El Paso Merchant Energy-Gas LP — “do not oppose this [request],” provided they receive equal time to make their arguments.

FERC is scheduled to address the complaint case at its hearing next Wednesday, possibly responding to the request of the FERC Office of General Counsel’s Market Oversight and Enforcement (MOE) to carry out a “more complete investigation” into whether El Paso violated the Commission’s open-access regulations by refusing to provide customers with interruptible transportation service to the Southern California border last winter (see NGI, Nov. 5).

The request by MOE, which was made in late October, came only a few weeks after Judge Wagner recommended the dismissal of charges that El Paso and its affiliate, El Paso Merchant Energy, illegally exercised market power to drive up prices for gas delivered to the border beginning in mid-2000 (See NGI, Oct.15 ). Wagner, however, found merit to the charge that El Paso rigged its capacity bidding process to favor El Paso Merchant, ruling that the pipeline engaged in “blatant collusion.”

Wagner’s decision has been forwarded to the full Commission, and is ripe for a final decision. FERC has the option to accept or reject the judge’s ruling in full or in part.

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