San Onofre

2014 photo of San Onofre nuclear power plant. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Liam Dillon
August 28, 2016

For years, state lawmakers have been trying to crack down on private meetings between utility companies and members of the California Public Utilities Commission after revelations that top officials and industry executives had frequent dinner dates, shared talking points and even sketched out details of the multibillion-dollar closure of a Southern California nuclear power plant during a secret rendezvous in a luxury hotel in Poland.

The push culminated in a deal announced in June between Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators to force both agency and utility leaders to disclose more details of their contacts and stiffen penalties if they don’t.

But the measure, part of a package of bills reforming the commission that remain under discussion in the final few days of this year’s legislative session, has worried some advocates and observers that it won’t do enough to break up the close relationship between power companies and those overseeing them.

Robert McCullough, a consultant who investigated the state energy system during the Enron Corp. scandal in 2001, argued there shouldn’t be any private communications between regulators and the industry when they’re deciding electric and gas rates for consumers.

“The amounts of money are so huge and the potential for abuse is so great that even just a pinkie on the scale can mean millions or tens of millions [of dollars],” McCullough said.

The federal government and a majority of other states with similar regulatory bodies don’t allow ex parte communications, or discussions in which all interested parties aren’t present, in these cases, according to a 2014 study by UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.

“There’s a huge concern about the fairness of the process when certain parties can gain access to decision-makers behind closed doors,” said Deborah Behles, an environmental attorney who co-wrote the report.

The PUC has been under the microscope since a natural gas pipeline explosion killed eight people in Bay Area suburb of San Bruno six years ago.

Attention quickly focused on the relationship between the agency’s leaders and executives from Pacific Gas & Electric. Emails released in the wake of the explosion showed frequent chummy communications, including references to sharing bottles of wine while discussing the energy business and a request from a PG&E executive to hold off visiting a company control room during an audit because of unspecified problems there.

The outcry only grew after a criminal investigation into the PUC’s activities revealed a secret March 2013 meeting in a Warsaw hotel during an energy conference between a Southern California Edison executive and then-PUC President Michael Peevey regarding the shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. PUC regulators also have been criticized for not acting fast enough to prevent safety issues that eventually led to last year’s Aliso Canyon gas leak in Porter Ranch, which lasted four months and forced thousands from their homes.

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