Democratizing California’s Most Powerful Regulator

September 25, 2020 | 2:22 pm
Mark Specht
Western States Energy Manager/Senior Analyst

I usually find myself criticizing the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for their energy policy missteps, but right now, the CPUC deserves a round of applause. Yesterday, the CPUC approved important changes to the public comment process that will help ensure people’s voices are heard and that public input actually influences CPUC decisions.

Historically, the CPUC has been notoriously inaccessible to the public. This is a problem because the CPUC is responsible for regulating a wide variety of businesses that are critical to California’s economy. The CPUC has regulatory authority not just over California’s investor-owned electric utilities (e.g. Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric), but the CPUC also regulates transportation companies (e.g. Lyft and Uber) and communications companies (e.g. AT&T and Verizon). As if that’s not enough, the CPUC also regulates railroad safety and investor-owned water utilities.

All that to say, the CPUC has a great deal of power in California, and these changes to make the CPUC more responsive to the public are long overdue.

Options for public participation

If you want your voice to be heard at the California Public Utilities Commission, there are a few different avenues for public participation. However, between the different forms of public participation, there are steep trade-offs between the effort required and the effectiveness.

  1. Become a party: The most effective way to have your voice heard at the CPUC is to become a party to a proceeding that addresses the issues you care about. However, for individual members of the public and even small organizations, this level of participation often requires herculean efforts to familiarize yourself with the rules and to stay on top of all the documents submitted by the CPUC and other parties. Even though the CPUC has an intervenor compensation program designed to bring diverse perspectives into CPUC decision-making by providing compensation for participation, in practice, participating as a party just isn’t feasible for most people and small organizations. In almost all cases, parties to proceedings are companies or organizations (like the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has been very involved in the Integrated Resource Planning and Resource Adequacy proceedings) that have the time and resources to participate fully.

    People line up to speak at a meeting in the CPUC auditorium in San Francisco.

  2. Attend a meeting: A much more common (and lower-effort) option for public participation is to attend a public meeting. There are two different types of meetings where the public can provide input. The first are Public Participation Hearings, specifically scheduled to gather public input on important decisions. However, most CPUC proceedings do not typically include a public participation hearing. The other type of meeting with the opportunity for public participation is CPUC voting meetings, where members of the public can sign up to speak for two minutes.
  3. Submit a comment: The CPUC also accepts written comments from the public. However, until yesterday’s changes, these comments have gone directly into the “correspondence file” for a proceeding… and who knows what happens to them after that.

With all these options for public input, it might sound like the CPUC is open and responsive to public comment, but in my experience participating in CPUC proceedings, that has not really been the case. Many forms of public comment are included in the official record of proceedings, but up until now, there hasn’t been any requirement for CPUC decision-makers to explicitly consider public comment when arriving at their decisions.

But now that’s changed.

The five commissioners who serve on the California Public Utilities Commission are some of the most powerful regulators in California.

Changes to public comment

Yesterday, the CPUC approved changes (new Rule 1.18) to the public comment process that will require the explicit consideration of written public comment in decision-making. Instead of written public comments going into the abyss of the “correspondence file,” these comments will now be automatically entered into the official record of proceedings, and (this is the kicker) written public comment now must be reviewed and considered by CPUC decision-makers and summarized when arriving at final decisions!

This is a very positive step that eases public access and increases public influence. But being realistic for a moment, this doesn’t mean that the CPUC will suddenly become much more accountable to the public. However, it does effectively guarantee that CPUC decision-makers will at least read what the public has to say and consider public comment to a certain extent.

The opposition

Alarmingly, these changes in favor of a more democratic process did not sail through without opposition. There were plenty of groups (UCS included!) that submitted letters of support for these important changes. But there were several groups opposed to these changes as well.

Who would possibly be opposed to rule changes that would make public participation more meaningful? I don’t want to name names, but I’m looking at you, SoCalGas and SDG&E, Southwest Gas, and Goodin, MacBride, Squeri & Day.

Why are gas companies and law firms opposed to these changes? I can’t say for sure, but SoCalGas’s opposition is definitely consistent with its history of shady behavior (e.g. sneakily using customer dollars to fight against climate change policies). On the other hand, law firms make a pretty penny by representing clients in the complex legal proceedings that happen at the CPUC, and keeping those proceedings inaccessible to the public only means that people need lawyers in order for their voices to be heard.

Luckily, the CPUC was not convinced by these opposition arguments, and the CPUC did the right thing by approving these changes.

Now let’s use it

So now there’s a requirement for the CPUC to consider written public comments in their decision-making, but that rule won’t have any effect if the public does not submit comments.

There’s just one piece missing here: when the CPUC is in the midst of making important decisions, how will the public know to weigh in? Unless you’re following the CPUC on Twitter, most people just aren’t going to hear about these things. However, groups like UCS that are deeply involved in CPUC proceedings, along with journalists who cover CPUC activities, could all help raise public awareness of important CPUC decision-making and drive public participation in those processes.

Let’s make sure that these changes are not in vain and that increased consideration of public comment really does lead to better outcomes at the CPUC.

About the author

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Mark Specht is the Western States Energy Manager/Senior Analyst for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In his role, he leads research and advocacy efforts in California and other Western states to advance the transition to a less polluting and less carbon-intensive energy system.