Lawmakers Demand CPUC Fix Safety Culture

A confidential report uncovered by the Investigative Unit sparked a special legislative hearing

A growing number of state lawmakers are suggesting that the way to fix problems at the California Public Utilities Commission is to change the agency’s leadership. The tension between lawmakers and the CPUC has grown since the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit uncovered a confidential document that raises questions about the utility regulator’s commitment to safety.

During a special assembly budget hearing at the state capital Wednesday lawmakers and CPUC commissioners discussed the internal report that revealed what high-ranking directors and staff think of the CPUC—that it has not made safety a priority. 

“Simply put,” said Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, “this report is extremely alarming.”

Lawmakers wanted to know why two and a half years after the San Bruno pipeline explosion killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes the CPUC is still not focused on safety. The commission has said it needs more time to fix problems.

“When I heard about this report I said not again,” Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys said. “Can’t the PUC get anything right?”

Testimonials from employees inside the CPUC describe a culture where safety is still not a priority and where cozy relationships with utility companies such as PG&E get in the way of needed oversight and accountability. One quote included: “If we were enforcing the rules, we would not have to worry about a safety culture. If we were holding the utilities accountable and doing what we were supposed to be doing, San Bruno would never have happened.”

“This is gravely serious,” Blumenfield said. “How can you look at this report and say there is any progress? I look at this report and see failure.”

Assemblywoman Nora Campos said the report’s findings show there has not been a change in culture at the CPUC since the San Bruno explosion.

CPUC director Paul Clanon disagreed.

“We are now safer because of San Bruno,” Clanon said. “We are safer now because of the changes in the PUC.”

Clanon said he ordered the controversial report to candidly identify what needs to be fixed inside the commission.

“We are turning the 100-year-old ship,” Clanon said. “It’s going to take a while, but its turning.”

Clanon said it will likely take at least another two and a half years to get the CPUC’s culture to focus on safety—an answer and a prediction that did not sit well with lawmakers.

“I have come to the point that we need serious change in the leadership of the PUC to bring change,” Assemblyman Richard Gordon, D-Los Altos said.

Campos echoed that concern and posed this question: who should be leading the organization so that Californians are safe?

Pressure by lawmakers follows a move by peninsula senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo who is calling on Gov. Brown to fire CPUC president Michael Peevey.

“The governor needs to replace the president of the Public Utilities Commission,” Hill said during an interview with NBC Bay Area. 

When asked if he would step down and whether Peevey should also step down, Clanon said that he serves at the will of the commissioners and that it is up to them to decide his last day as a director.

“I can tell you every day I am in the chair as executive director I am going to be pushing the safety culture change to make the people of California safer,” Clanon said.

While CPUC leaders stress that the confidential report is not an evaluation of objective truth and that it merely contains views and opinions, lawmakers countered that it’s those perceptions that may identify the problems.

In a statement submitted to NBC Bay Area after the Investigative Unit broke news of the internal report, the CPUC said:

The CPUC has made safety an underlying principle in all its actions. As we work to instill a corporate culture in our regulated utilities that embraces safety as a tool and an enhancement to their mission, we must ensure we do the same at the CPUC. We have hired consultants to help us in our process of culture change across all the industries we regulate. As part of these efforts, our consultants conducted an informal survey of internal employees to see what they think safety means, how they see their role in safety, and how they think we can do better as an agency. The report is the result of the informal survey; it is not an analysis of our safety culture or conclusions by our consultants, but a reporting-back of what some employees said in informal focus groups. As the report says, “This report is not an evaluation of the objective truth of those views and perceptions.”  We will use the results of the report to help us define what we need to change, develop strategies and actions to implement the changes, and ensure accountability as the process continues.

Gov. Brown’s office refused to address the calls for change at the CPUC.

If you have a tip about the CPUC, PG&E or anything else email or call 888-996-TIPS (8477).

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