CPUC Turns Lawmakers’ Punishment Back on Them

Thursday, November 26, 2015

State lawmakers were not happy when the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) paid outside legal help $5 million to fight state and federal investigations into scandalous revelations about their cozy relationship with utility companies. So they cut the commission’s budget $5 million.

Unfortunately, the lawmakers didn’t specify where those cuts would be, and the commission singled out a program near and dear to the heart of Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), a critic who pushed for the $5-million cut and a representative of San Bruno, the city where a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) pipeline explosion killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood in 2010.

CPUC Executive Director Timothy Sullivan saved the state some of the money by delaying implementation of Hill’s anti-terrorist legislation to tighten up security for elements of the electric grid. Senate Bill 699 requires the CPUC to adopt new standards that “address physical security risks to the distribution systems of electrical corporations.”

The law was passed in response to the sabotage of the PG&E Metcalf substation in April 2013, the day after the Boston Marathon attacks. A gunman or two entered two manholes at the power station just southeast of San Jose and severed fiber optic cables. 911 service was cut to the area and AT&T cellphone service was disrupted.   

Someone then shot up the place with a high-powered rifle, pumping more than 100 rounds into several transformers. Cooling oil leaked out and the overheated transformers shut down. No one was injured and the disruption of electrical power was minimal. But power had to be rerouted.

An investigation did not link the action, or a dozen other attacks on fiber-optic cables in the Bay Area since 2014, to terrorism. But they were not solved and they serve to highlight the vulnerability of the grid.

Sullivan slashed $350,000 for staff members to oversee the security program. In a letter to lawmakers, he likened the $5-million budget cut to speed bumps:

“I live in Berkeley, which is full of speed bumps. If you hit a speed bump going more than 15 mph, it shakes the car violently and causes you to slow down immediately. . . . We will need to reduce training, reduce travel, delay hiring, and delay certain work. We will not be compromising safety.”

The lawmakers’ action, while ostensibly tailored to the outside legal bills incurred by the CPUC, was meant as a general rebuke to the commission’s cozy relationships with the utilities it regulates. Critics have long complained about the public’s business being done behind closed doors, but the release of e-mails last year during a federal court proceeding exposed unethical behavior that could very well prove to be illegal.

One agreement that came to light was a provision of the secret 2013 deal on a framework for cashing out the shuttered multi-billion-dollar San Onofre Nuclear Power Generating Station. Then-CPUC President Michael Peevey had agreed to a greenhouse-gas research project on University of California campuses.

Sullivan suspended oversight for the program, effectively derailing it, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. He also cut $1 million out of $1.9 million earmarked for improving the commission’s computer databases. The Chronicle said that could impact implementation of a system for tracking natural gas leaks that was drawn up after the San Bruno blast.

–Ken Broder   


To Learn More:

California Regulators Cut Antiterror Spending for Power Plants (by Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle)

Watchdog Group Says Californians Suffer as Lawmakers Punish California Public Utilities Commission (by Mark Matthews, NBC Bay Area)

“Vandals” Are Slicing Fiber-Optic Cables Around the Bay Area (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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