PG&E hearings can’t be hidden behind mediation

Regulatory agencies established to watch over public utilities often become too close with the companies they oversee. The latest example of such cozy relations involves the ongoing investigations into the deadly San Bruno blast and the conduct of the power company behind that tragedy, PG&E.

On the evening of Sept. 9, 2010, a PG&E natural-gas transmission line exploded. The blast and subsequent conflagration killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes. A blue-ribbon task force eventually blamed the utility for the blast, and the California Public Utilities Commission — the regulatory body that oversees such utilities — launched a series of investigative hearings into the blast, PG&E’s record keeping and the way the company labels its gas lines.

Then the commission turned its back on the public and the idea of openness. First, its Consumer Protection Safety Division, in coordination with PG&E, asked judges to halt these public hearings. That request was granted by an administrative law judge Oct. 12. Then, a few days later, the CPUC announced that it had appointed former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell to mediate between PG&E and various other parties about potential fines against the utility.

In and of itself, the selection of the distinguished Mitchell could have been a decent choice, given that his negotiating skills include such monumental accomplishments as negotiating the peace treaty in Northern Ireland.

But the parties to these negotiations — including San Bruno, San Francisco and The Utility Reform Network — had no say in the mediator’s appointment. And some of these parties have pointed out that Mitchell is the chairman of DLA Piper, a law firm that represents Southern California Edison, the Los Angeles-area power company and a company that CPUC President Michael Peevey once headed.

In a letter to the commission, San Bruno, San Francisco, The Utility Reform Network and the state’s own Division of Ratepayer Advocates all have called for Mitchell to be removed as negotiator. We agree with their assessment.

While Mitchell’s selection might well have been appropriate if handled in an above-board manner, it’s hard to accomplish the goals of mediation if more than half the parties to the proceedings are not treated with respect.

It also is unclear why the CPUC’s public hearings were halted in the first place, as the negotiations didn’t appear to be deadlocked — a time when a mediator is typically called in. And consider that some of these hearings were designed to review the transparency of PG&E’s record keeping and pipeline labeling. Conducting a hearing about openness behind closed doors is counterintuitive and wrongheaded.

What the public needs is for the commission to set aside its cozy relationship with PG&E and to investigate the San Bruno blast in a fair and transparent manner. If the commission continues to operate in this manner, perhaps the next hearing should occur in Sacramento and consider the performance of the agency itself. The people deserve a watchdog from the CPUC, but recent events suggest that too often they have a lapdog.

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