Critics of California’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) have long complained that the regulator was too cozy with the companies it oversees.
They received a measure of vindication on Friday when 7,000 e-mails, released as part of a lawsuit settlement, documented how the PUC and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) worked together to fend off criticism and investigators after the San Bruno pipeline explosion killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood in September 2010.
The Friday document dump, a favored method for avoiding unwanted publicity, came five months after the city sued to see them.
San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson told the Oakland Tribune, “Some of the files clearly document the illegal and inappropriate behavior between the PUC and PG&E that has concerned us for some time.”
In one e-mail detailed by the San Francisco Chronicle, PUC President Michael Peevey told PG&E Vice President Brian Cherry the utility blew it by announcing that it was about to be indicted for the blast before the actual indictment came down. “Anticipating all this only meant the public got to read two big stories rather than one,” Peevey told Cherry. “I think this was inept.”
Inept, indeed, and the e-mails reveal a concerted effort by officials at both ends to do better. Peevey’s chief of staff, Carol Brown, advised PG&E that there were two ways for them to fend off a public-information request in May 2013 prior to a seminar that was to be attended by commission and utility officials. San Bruno officials were interested in knowing who paid for the seminar, at which the utility planned to publicize its safety improvements, and had complained about the imprudent association.
“Talked with the judge,” Brown wrote to PG&E official Laura Doll. “I think you have 2 ways to going (you might want to chat with your legal people).” Brown outlined the two suggestions, which involved obvious obfuscation. She knew at least one of them—say the seminar was delayed and refuse the request— would get a rise out of critics. “Just wait for them to throw a fit,” Brown wrote.
Doll was most appreciative and responded, “Love you.”
Some of the e-mails showed top PUC officials listening sympathetically to the utility’s resistance to the “unchecked appetite” of agency staff lawyers for company documents. “These do nothing to improve safety, and we have already conceded our records suck. I'm being naive again, right? But thanks for listening.”
No thanks necessary. A spokesperson for the commission said the e-mails were routine communications and showed no bias or unethical behavior. “We strongly believe that we all—PG&E, the CPUC and the communities we serve—ought to be communicating and working together toward the shared goal of making the natural gas system the safest and most reliable in the country,” PG&E spokesman Greg Snapper said in a statement.
A federal grand jury indicted PG&E in April on 12 counts involving safety violations leading to the San Bruno explosion. “Despite knowledge of these deficiencies, PG&E did not keep a record-keeping system for gas operations that would ensure that pipeline records were accessible, traceable, verifiable, accurate and complete,” the indictment said.
The utility settled civil lawsuits for more than $560 million late last year. PG&E also faces fines of up to $2 billion from the state.