Under pressure from San Bruno, CA, officials who have asked for an investigation, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last week reshuffled two key legal positions in the three consolidated penalty cases against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) for the 2010 natural gas transmission pipeline tragedy.

Friction between the CPUC’s chief lawyer and staff attorneys assigned to the cases has been simmering for weeks. CPUC General Counsel Frank Lindh reassigned four attorneys on the pipeline penalty cases and reassigned another lawyer because of internal friction over how the utility should be penalized.

Last month San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane called for an investigation CPUC’s legal team, the same day CPUC safety staff reiterated its rationale for a proposed $2.25 billion penalty against PG&E (see NGI, June 10).

Last Wednesday, CPUC President Michael Peevey and Commissioner Mike Florio announced staffing changes, including for Lindh to step aside. Lindh was an attorney at PG&E from 1996 to 1998 before coming to the CPUC and assuming the top legal position five years ago.

“Lindh informed us that he will recuse himself from his role as chief advisory attorney in the [penalty] cases,” commissioners said. In his place, retired former CPUC assistant general counsel Arocles Aguilar agreed to assume the chief advisory legal role.

In addition, current assistant general counsel Harvey Morris agreed to continue to lead the team of attorneys working with Jack Hagan, the director of the CPUC Safety and Enforcement Division (SED), which made the penalty recommendation. Morris was one of the four attorneys that Lindh had removed from the San Bruno cases. The cases are now awaiting separate administrative law judge recommendations.

“Both the SED and the Legal Division are seeking the same ultimate outcome, which is justice for the people of San Bruno and a safe PG&E pipeline system,” Hagan said. Hagan weeks ago said “it’s time to throw the book at PG&E,” alleging that the giant San Francisco-based combination utility has shown signs of “no remorse” for the explosion, based on its earlier characterization of the multi-billion-dollar penalty proposal as “excessive” (see NGI, June 3).

Morris acknowledged that the CPUC staff had experienced “some internal misunderstandings,” and he reiterated that his lawyers were “committed to working with Hagan and SED.”

Separately, PG&E last week unveiled a custom smart pig tool that it will use to inspect gas transmission pipelines that was developed by Lingen, Germany-based 3P Services. A PG&E spokesperson said Thursday the 3P device works inside pipelines to provide “a highly efficient and accurate way” to determine the condition of the utility’s natural gas pipeline system.

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