If no one ever explained this, Californians might want to know that the California Public Utilities Commission has constitutional status. The PUC is where the buck stops on regulation of investor-owned utilities, so what it says goes—even when the billion-dollar projects it approves are needless and destructive of the environment.
The only way anyone can challenge a PUC decision is to go to the Appeal Court, not to the Superior Court where any other state agency decision can be challenged. It’s up to the discretion of the California Court of Appeals whether they take up the case. In the vast majority of circumstances, they don’t, and the PUC decision holds.
That’s what independent engineer Bill Powers and the Los Cerritos Wetlands Trust, won’t take lying down. After the Appeal Court refused to review their challenge to a PUC decision approving Southern California Edison (SCE) contracts for three new natural gas-fired power plants in the LA Basin, they petitioned the California Supreme Court.Consumer Watchdog (Capitol Watchdog's publisher) supported their petition in an amicus letter.
The argument is simple: the PUC’s own findings in a prior proceeding show that SCE has more than enough power to meet demand in the LA Basin. Any need that comes up can be met with clean, renewable energy alternatives that the state requires be prioritized over fossil fuel options.
As the petitioners argue, when a dispute comes up about the legality of a PUC decision approving new gas plants, it’s not like an average case where the outcome affects just the parties to the action. As the PUC itself recognizes, power plants cost billions of ratepayer dollars and also have “significant environmental detriments.” Yet there is no right of appeal, only a petition for review.
If the Supreme Court were to review this petition, it would likely question why the PUC approved these natural gas plants based on hard evidence.
The petitioners argue that the decision to build more unneeded natural gas plants is “no exception to the back-room deal-making engaged in by key Commissioners” on a regular basis. In fact, a recent State Auditor's report condemned PUC practices such as the lack of a requirement that commissioners disclose ex parte communications, and the approval of contracts for insiders.
For example, in the LA Basin case, the PUC approved a $100 million battery storage contract awarded to Susan Kennedy, a long-time political insider and friend of PUC President Michael Picker. Her company was founded two months after SCE issued its request for offers and has no operating history, specifically identified technology, or creditor collateral.
The California Supreme Court should take up this case because the PUC’s decisions so profoundly affect consumer pocketbooks, the air we breathe and the emissions we create. As long as the PUC’s decisions are essentially immune from challenge, the PUC will remain above the law, with long-term implications that Californians just can’t afford.