More backroom policy talks with the California Public Utilities Commission

A dining area at Cavallo Point, the resort where utility regulators and utility execs will attend a private conference.

On Dec. 8 and 9, high-ranking state government officials will attend a private conference with executives from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), Chevron, AECOM, and other major energy industry players at Cavallo Point, a luxury resort in Marin County to talk about distributed generation, a decentralized system for renewable power. It’s a gathering of top governmental officials and industry leaders to talk about policy issues with far-reaching effects on California’s energy future, but members of the general public are not invited.

As officials pack their bags for the conference at the plush resort, California Sen. Leland Yee is preparing two separate pieces of legislation designed to promote transparency within the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and to make it harder for energy company executives to transition seamlessly into posts at the CPUC, the governing body that regulates utilities.

The conference is being organized by the California Foundation for the Environment and the Economy (CFEE), a nonprofit funded by investor-owned utilities and other corporations that wield tremendous influence in the Bay Area.

The Guardian spotlighted CFEE in an article about California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) President Michael Peevey, who regularly participates in educational travel excursions funded indirectly by the companies his commission oversees.

When CFEE spokesperson PJ Johnston was interviewed for that article, he justified CFEE events by saying, "The idea for us was that it made sense to have someplace where it was nonconfrontational to engage in policy, work-type discussions," and added they’re "all about policy, on the 30,000-foot level.”

Peevey will be attending this conference, according to a list of participants posted on CFEE’s website. So will PUC commissioners Mark Ferron, Michael Florio, and Nancy Ryan. By press time, the CPUC had not returned calls seeking comment about why commissioners are participating.

More than a dozen California senators and assembly members are listed as conference participants, as are the director and deputy director of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Planning and Research, Ken Alex and Wade Crowfoot. (Crowfoot previously served in former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration as an environmental advisor. Newsom now serves at the state’s lieutenant governor.) Executives from Shell Energy North America, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Southern California Edison, and other heavy hitters in the industry will attend the conference too.

The conference agenda features educational sessions on distributed generation and state renewable energy goals. Several environmental and consumer advocacy groups will be present as well.

Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group, also plans to attend. “Events like this give the utility industry and energy regulators an opportunity to have policy discussions and to influence policy decisions outside of the political process. It’s a privileged space,” Toney acknowledged. “We don’t think this is a good way to make policy.”

Yet he said advocacy groups like his own face a dilemma when deciding whether to participate in such events. “On one hand, we could decide we want to have nothing to do with it. But if TURN isn’t represented, then the view of ratepayers and consumers won’t be represented by anybody.” He stressed that while TURN attends daylong conferences hosted by CFEE in order to gain access and hopefully have a positive influence within that priveleged space, the group does not participate in travel excursions organized by the organization, which have drawn controversy in the past. “It’s kind of a judgment call,” he added.

Closed-door, backroom policy discussions aren’t the only CPUC transparency problem drawing scrutiny lately. Recent press reports have spotlighted instances of the CPUC denying public access to safety reports, a highly sensitive issue given the fatal pipeline explosion that destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno last year.

On Nov. 29, Sen. Yee announced he would introduce legislation in early 2012 to subject the CPUC to the California Public Records Act, by stripping away provisions that allow the commission to block the release of information. It would place the body on the same footing as other state agencies with regards to information sharing.

“If you want anything out of the PUC, it takes an affirmative vote of the commission,” explained Adam Keigwin, Yee's legislative aide. Secretary of State and former Assembly Member Debra Bowen initiated a similar push for transparency at the CPUC in 2006, but the effort did not go anywhere. On Nov. 30, Yee sent a letter to Peevey, the CPUC president, asking for the results of a study on transparency issues that the commission was supposed to undertake nearly six years ago when Bowen was pushing for the bill.

Keigwin added that Yee is also looking at legislation that would bar utility executives from serving on the PUC for a certain length of time, so as to prevent undue influence.