Citing the action as an attempt to prevent public safety and environmental degradation, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Thursday approved a citation program under which its staff can levy fines, payable by shareholders, against public utilities.
The added authority is designed “to quickly address and prevent situations that may threaten human beings, public safety, or sensitive environmental resources,” a CPUC spokesperson told NGI.
CPUC staff can now fine utilities for noncompliance mitigation measures within a permit to construct (PTC) or certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) issued for natural gas storage facilities, electric generating plants, electric transmission/power/distribution line facilities, and substations. Prior to the citation program, fining a utility for violating mitigation measures within PTCs or CPCNs required the opening of a proceeding and vote of the five commissioners.
Thursday’s action comes just days after the CPUC’s Consumer and Enforcement Division (CSED) recommended that regulators impose a total $2.25 billion penalty against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) for three penalty cases arising from the Sept. 9, 2010 pipeline rupture in San Bruno, CA (see Daily GPI, May 7).
The CPUC said it thinks Thursday’s action will increase regulators’ ability to address and prevent potential safety issues, even though in the last several years the regulatory panel already established citation programs in numerous areas, including gas safety; household good movers; charter party carriers; passenger stage corporations; maintenance and operation of power plants; “slamming” by telecommunications providers; and utilities’ compliance with Resource Adequacy and Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) requirements.
“Public utilities must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as part of receiving PTCs and CPCNs for natural gas storage facilities, electric generating plants, electric transmission/power/distribution line facilities, and substations,” the CPUC spokesperson said.
Commission members acknowledged that in many cases the CEQA documents will require the utility to establish specified mitigation measures designed to reduce or eliminate environmental harm and increase the safety of the projects.
“The CPUC ensures that projects comply with these mitigation measures or conditions identified in the final decision granting a PTC or CPCN,” the spokesperson said.
In early 2012 PG&E was hit with a $16.8 million fine under a program on citations established at the end of 2011 by the CPUC, noting that the penalty was assessed for the utility’s admitted failure to conduct natural gas pipeline leak surveys in the wake of its continued close scrutiny following the San Bruno pipeline rupture and explosion.
In December 2011 the CPUC bolstered its natural gas safety efforts by creating a citation program under which gas pipeline operators could be fined by the regulatory CSED’s previously named Consumer Safety and Protection Division for violating state and federal safety rules (see Daily GPI, Dec. 2, 2011).
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