Few things in politics are as they appear, which is what makes the study of politics so intoxicating for some of us. And so it is with the case of Michael Peevey, the long-time president of the California Public Utilities Commission.
To say Peevey is controversial is to state the obvious, certainly in Northern California. The PUC oversees the operations of state utilities, including Pacific Gas & Electric Company. Most of the time, the PUC/utility relationship gets little notice, except when the utilities request rate increases Even then, public fidgeting tends to wane quickly.
But the PUC. and Peevey’s role have been under a political magnifying glass since the San Bruno pipeline blast in 2010. Since then, critics have questioned the regulatory body and its leader on everything from safety rules to responsibility for paying for the San Bruno disaster.
Through it all, Peevey has kept his power. And for good reason. First appointed by Gov. Gray Davis to his post at PUC head in 2002, Peevey has now served the administrations of three governors—that’s a lifetime in California politics. He has earned high marks for promoting energy conservation and alternative energy, helping California to become a leader in both areas. Most significantly, Peevey gets credit for bringing California out of its horrific energy crisis of 2000-2001, when out-of-state utilities seemingly held the state at gun point.
But yesterday’s news is just that in politics—yesterday’s news. It’s what happening now that counts, and that’s where Peevey may be vulnerable. Increasingly, he’s come under criticism for poor management of the San Bruno disaster and allowing much of the bill to be passed through to PG&E customers despite the utility’s fault. Now comes word that his agency may be more concerned with promoting a harmonious relationship with utilities than protecting customers and the PUC operates with an “anti-safety” attitude.
The extent to which these latest allegations are true remains to be seen, yet one can’t help but wonder whether the 74-year old Peevey has many friends left. Up until now, Gov. Brown has defended Peevey, but increasing numbers of legislators and consumer groups have called for his dismissal.
The answer may come in time but not in the way many expect. Peevey’s latest six-year term expires in 2014. Moreover, that’s the year that the term of his state senate wife, Carol Liu, also ends. A convenient time for an exit? Perhaps. In politics, like so many other aspects of life, timing can be everything.