Gov. Jerry Brown has tapped two Bay Area consumer advocates to join the California Public Utilities Commission, an agency under fire recently for neglecting its duties in light of September’s gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno.
Mike Florio, of Oakland, and Catherine Sandoval, of Campbell, were appointed by the governor yesterday.
Florio, 58, is senior attorney at San Francisco-based The Utility Reform Network, a nonprofit agency that has previously charged that the commission is too "cozy” with the companies it regulates, including Pacific Gas and Electric.
The commission has been criticized in recent months for its "culture of complacency” as stated by federal and state lawmakers following the explosion of a natural gas pipeline in San Bruno that killed eight and completely destroyed 37 homes Sept. 9.
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, recently blasted the CPUC for not levying a single fine against PG&E, or any other utility, for pipeline safety violations in more than a decade.
His comments followed a rebuke by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, of the CPUC for failing to properly regulate utility companies in light of a National Transportation Safety Board report that indicated PG&E gave inspectors faulty documents related to the 30-inch pipe, line 132, that exploded in San Bruno.
Both lawmakers have introduced legislation calling for stronger pipeline safety regulations and both support Brown’s appointments to the CPUC.
"Mike Florio knows the subject matter,” Speier said. "I feel greatly relieved that issues around pipeline safety will be addressed.”
The NTSB report revealed the San Bruno pipe, installed in the 1950s, had welded seams, a fact PG&E records did not indicate.
NTSB has called on PG&E to update all documents related to its aging infrastructure so that they are accurate.
"The pipe was unbelievably poorly constructed, even by the standards of the time,” said Speier, who spent two hours with NTSB investigators yesterday in Virginia. The pipe was apparently installed by subcontractors, Speier said.
Now, Speier wants to know what other sections of line 132 the subcontractors may have worked on more than 50 years ago to determine whether other sections of the pipe may be vulnerable.
Hill praised both Florio and Sandoval, an associate professor at Santa Clara University, for having stellar reputations as consumer advocates.
"In the aftermath of the deadly gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, it is my hope that they will provide the crucial oversight that is needed to end a culture of complacency on the commission,” Hill wrote in a statement.
Florio and Sandoval, 50, will fill two of the three vacancies on the five-member board. They are both Democrats and their appointments require Senate confirmation.
Commissioners Dian Grueneich and John Bohn left the CPUC when their terms expired in December. Commissioner Nancy Ryan was appointed deputy director of the CPUC by Brown last week, moving her into a staff position and off the board.
Recently, Hill said the CPUC had become less of a "watchdog” and more of a "lapdog” to those it regulates.
Florio spent 32 years at TURN, an agency bent on protecting consumers from unfair rate hikes, for instance.
"Consumers in California now have a CPUC commissioner they can depend on,” TURN Executive Director Mark Toney wrote in a statement. "Mike Florio is eminently qualified to serve on an agency whose mission is to ‘protect the public interest by protecting consumers.’ His expertise and dedication are likely to help the commission rehabilitate its tarred image.”
Florio coordinated development of TURN’s policies on energy-related issues and is regarded as a leading authority on the natural gas industry.
Sandoval is a Rhodes Scholar who previously served as undersecretary and senior policy adviser for housing with the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.
"We are confident these appointments will be sensitive to the needs of businesses and consumers,” Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said yesterday. "Their jobs involve keeping Californians safe and aware of the challenges that the utilities face.”
The CPUC employs about 1,000 people and regulates privately owned utility companies.
Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.