California's top energy regulator rolls with power company executives behind the scenes
THE BUDDY SYSTEM
CFEE isn't the only nonprofit that regularly flies Peevey overseas for green travel tours with high-ranking utility executives, and the 12 days he spent in Spain wasn't the only time he spent away from official duties and in the company of the corporations his commission regulates.
These controversial getaways are just a small part of Peevey's involvement with private-sector interests. He also chairs the board of a nonprofit investment fund created as part of a $30 million settlement agreement with PG&E. Called the California Clean Energy Fund, it funnels money into private venture-capital funds that invest in green start-ups, plus a few companies in the fossil-fuel sector.
While legislators have voiced frustration that lax CPUC oversight of PG&E on pipeline-safety issues opened the door to disaster in San Bruno, inside observers are critical of the outright favors Peevey has granted utilities, such as guaranteeing an unprecedented, higher-than-ever profit margin for PG&E as part of the company's 2004 bankruptcy settlement.
The CPUC is set up to perform as a watchdog agency, yet social and professional ties running deep within California's insular energy community mean regulators sometimes run in the same circles as the executives who answer to them, making for cozier relationships than the general public might anticipate. It's an old-fashioned insider game that one longtime observer wryly characterizes as "the buddy system." But the buddy system can bring consequences.
As the public face of the CPUC, Peevey repeatedly has been thrust into the spotlight. He has absorbed advocates' concerns about pipeline safety, rising electricity rates, SmartMeters, missed targets for energy efficiency, and municipalities' David-vs.-Goliath battles with PG&E to implement community choice aggregation (CCA), to name a few. He's a magnet for public scrutiny while occupying the center seat at commission meetings, but Peevey's behind-the-scenes engagements with private-sector organizations bent on shaping statewide energy policy demonstrate how power is wielded in California's energy world, a system in which regulators seem to be partnering with utilities rather than policing them.
Based at Pier 35 in San Francisco, CFEE's board of directors is composed of a small group of officers, plus a long list of members who hail from some of the most prominent businesses nationwide. Shell, Chevron, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, AT&T, and PG&E all hold positions on CFEE's membership board, and each entity chips in to fund the foundation's activities and travel excursions.
The group also includes representatives from labor organizations like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and mainstream environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council. Among the emeritus members of CFEE's governing board are some high-ranking figures, such as CIA director-turned-Pentagon boss Leon Panetta. CFEE received $45,000 in donations from PG&E in 2009 (the most recent year available) and was granted similar amounts in prior years.
CFEE spokesperson P.J. Johnston, the son of former state senator and CFEE officer Patrick Johnston and the press secretary under former Mayor Willie Brown, described the trips as valuable opportunities for top-level stakeholders to gain insight on best practices and engage in noncombative dialogue on key issues.
"The idea for us was that it made sense to have someplace where it was nonconfrontational to engage in policy, work-type discussions," Johnston explained. He added that the trips are "all about policy, on the 30,000-foot level," and emphasized that discussions aren't about specific decisions pending before the CPUC.