California's top energy regulator rolls with power company executives behind the scenes
Loretta Lynch, a former president of the CPUC who brought a reformist spirit to the agency and was never shy about rebuking utilities, is skeptical of CFEE's stated program goals. When she was first appointed to the commission, Lynch said, CFEE contacted her to ask where she wanted to travel. If the trips are arranged to fly regulators to destinations they've been itching to visit, she reasoned, must-see green innovations probably aren't dictating the itineraries. "To me," Lynch said, "they don't have anything to study in mind."
"PARTYING WITH THE JUDGE"
The CFEE trip to Spain included a briefing on developing wind energy from AES, a company working on wind and solar development in California that also operates polluting, gas-fired power plants in Huntington Beach, Long Beach, and Redondo Beach. There was a round table on solar energy featuring a presentation from the Independent Energy Producers Association, a trade group that regularly files petitions and comments on CPUC proceedings. The trip included a tour of a desalination plant, a talk from the president of the Madrid Chamber of Commerce, and discussions about California's energy market. Scheduled activities ended by midafternoon on some days, and the itinerary left a Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday in Sevilla wide open.
Asked to comment on concerns about inappropriate lobbying, Johnston said: "We're not guarding against anyone's potential behavior any more than we would be on the streets of Sacramento. We're not setting ourselves up as the guardians. We're not facilitating that, per se, either." He added, "I realize there are critics of any kind of travel and any kind of commingling. But it is wise for us not to close our eyes to the rest of the world, and there's not a great appetite for spending taxpayer money on these trips."
Yet Lynch countered that there is an important distinction between the roles of Sacramento legislators and that of utility commissioners. "Regulators are not legislators," Lynch said. "They're more like judges. Their decisions have the power of a judge's decision." By inviting commissioners along on these lavish getaways, she said, "it's as if you're partying with the judge."
Mindy Spatt, a spokesperson for TURN, echoed Lynch's concerns. "These ostensibly educational trips are essentially lobbying junkets, where utilities ... wine and dine legislators," Spatt said. TURN raised the issue several years ago, she said, when Peevey joined a CFEE trip attended by a representative of Southern California Edison "just coincidentally at the exact same time that he was penning an alternate decision in Edison's rate case." She added: "In TURN's perspective, the commissioners need to be more in touch with what actual utility customers are experiencing, rather than in touch with the top restaurants in Brazil."
While Peevey is only one of a host of officials who attend CFEE trips, he has more than just a casual tie to the nonprofit. From 1973 to 1983, he served as president of the California Coalition for Environment and Economic Balance (CCEEB), an organization CFEE grew out of and whose membership shares some overlap with CFEE.
Based in San Francisco, CCEEB was founded by Edmund G. "Pat" Brown (Gov. Jerry Brown's father) in 1973. CCEEB backed a late-1970s proposal to construct a series of nuclear power plants along the California coastline. More recently, the group honored BP with a 2009 award for environmental education — shortly before the company and lax federal regulators were responsible for the worst oil spill in U.S. history.