At an August 11th conference organized by the Advanced Energy Economy, Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), Chair of the Utilities and Commerce Committee, and California Public Utilities Commission (“CPUC”) President Michael Picker participated in a panel discussion on CPUC reform efforts.

Gatto declared that “the war is over,” referencing the sparring between the Legislature and CPUC over agency reforms in the wake of numerous CPUC controversies, including improper ex parte communications between regulators and utility executives surrounding the shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant, the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, and the Aliso Canyon gas leak.

Gatto explained that utilities are at the forefront of people’s minds at an unusual level, which has motivated the lawmakers’ reform efforts. And not just energy utilities — Gatto explained that he received more emails from the public about the Frontier Communications/Verizon merger than both the San Bruno and Aliso Canyon disasters combined. By having a substantive CPUC reform package, Gatto explained that the Legislature can “hold its head high” and let constituents know that it has heard them and has produced legislation that will move the ball forward.

Gatto acknowledged, however, that reform efforts have been a “distraction” to the CPUC and stated that the time had come to move away from CPUC reform efforts to enable the CPUC to “get back to work” and focus on what it needs to be doing — ensuring that customers have safe, reliable utility service at reasonable rates, protecting against fraud, and promoting the health of California’s economy.

CPUC Reform Package

The day before the panel event, Gatto had released bill language for AB 2903, which is part of a sweeping package of reforms announced in June by Governor Brown, Assembly member Gatto, and Senators Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) and Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). As the primary vehicle for reforms, AB 2903 makes changes to CPUC governance, accountability, transparency, and oversight and safety. (AB 2903, along with the three other bills comprising the reform package will be examined in a subsequent blog post.) Gatto remarked that he doesn’t think any of the reform measures should be difficult for the CPUC to implement.

President Picker, who was asked by Governor Brown to “fix the CPUC,” expressed support for Gatto’s and the Legislature’s efforts, which he believes are helping to advance this objective. While the concept of CPUC reform has long been discussed, the challenge from Picker’s perspective is that “no one sees the same thing” when it comes to differing notions of reform.

For example, one major sticking point is the process by which the CPUC conducts rulemakings. The existing process is quite formal, requiring parties to obtain permission to participate and commit to participating in a range of activities across time, such as entering evidence into the record and submitting to cross-examination. Picker has heard from some who are calling for a more fluid process similar to conventional notice-and-comment rulemakings that may be more accessible to the public. Others have asked Picker to champion an even more formal process that restricts access to decisionmakers. Picker believes the reform package has focused on finding ways to modernize the rulemaking process to give more people an opportunity to participate.

As another example, Picker pointed to the perception by many that the CPUC is too cozy with the utilities it regulates. He believes that a bigger problem is the CPUC’s failure to work well with other state agencies, and supports the legislative reform effort to increase inter-agency coordination and information sharing.