California's top utility regulator announced Tuesday she'll step down at the end of the year, leaving Gov. Gavin Newsom searching for new leadership as the state continues to grapple with devastating wildfires and the threat of power blackouts.
Marybel Batjer announced her resignation in an email to staff at the California Public Utilities Commission. Newsom, a Democrat, appointed her to the job in 2019 as Pacific Gas & Electric was in bankruptcy proceedings, and her term was set to run through the end of 2026.
She did not provide a reason for her early departure, saying in her message that it was a difficult decision “in the face of a changing climate and global pandemic."
The CPUC is one of the most important regulatory bodies in the state, particularly as California deals with devastating wildfires sparked by utility equipment and the increasing use of intentional power shutoffs to prevent equipment from sparking further fires. Beyond electric utilities, the commission oversees telecommunications, water, rail, and transportation companies such as Uber and Lyft.
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Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the state's largest investor-owned utility, filed for bankruptcy in 2019 and much of Batjer's tenure has focused on stepping up oversight of the troubled utility. The company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter related to the 2018 Camp Fire that wiped out most of Paradise and was sparked by its equipment. It also faces numerous criminal charges for fires caused by its fraying equipment, including four charges of manslaughter charged last week.
The CPUC approved a plan in 2020 for the utility to exit bankruptcy that included greater oversight. In April, the commission said the company was falling short on vegetation management and required it to begin submitting corrective action reports every 90 days. PG&E has filed paperwork indicating its equipment may be responsible for the massive Dixie Fire, which sparked this summer.
The utility also remains under the supervision of a federal judge who is overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation for a felony conviction after the utility’s gas lines blew up part of a suburban neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010.
The CPUC has faced criticism for being too lax with the utilities it regulates.
The Center for Biological Diversity criticized Batjer on Tuesday for failing to hold utilities accountable and not doing enough to help the state transition to renewable energy.
“Batjer’s departure is an opportunity to appoint a utility regulator who will actually hold PG&E and other utilities accountable for their dirty energy choices and grid failures,” Jean Su, director of the center's Energy Justice Program, said in a statement.
Batjer is one of five commissioners. She was previously head of the Government Operations Agency under Newsom and former Gov. Jerry Brown. Newsom also tasked her with modernizing the Department of Motor Vehicles as it faced long lines and errors in the state's automatic voter registration system.
She was previously a cabinet secretary to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and undersecretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. She also worked in Nevada state government and for Caesars Entertainment Inc.
Newsom will appoint a new commission president who must be confirmed by the state Legislature. His office said he'll decide on a replacement by the end of the year.