It’s time once more to roll out the lyrics of The Who’s classic 1971 song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” when examining the California Public Utilities Commission, which nominally exists to make sure monopoly utility companies don’t overcharge their captive-audience customers.
“Meet the new boss; same as the old boss,” went the words written by Peter Townshend. And with the PUC these days, nothing could be more descriptive.
Get rid of Michael Peevey, the conventional wisdom went last winter, and the PUC would likely return to its basic mission and stop constantly favoring utility companies over their customers in every decision related to rates.
And Michael Picker, the former adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown whom the governor named as PUC president after Peevey stepped down amid a still-ongoing investigation of corruption, made pious noises about transparency and openness.
But the first major decision under his aegis reveals that nothing has changed. The PUC, founded in the early 20th Century to limit monopolies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co., has once again given the utilities just what they want.
This decision essentially codifies a practice known as “robbing the hood.” Where for decades, the largest California electricity users have paid higher rates for their excesses, now they and small users will soon begin paying roughly equal amounts.
This was explained by Picker’s PUC (although the idea originated during Peevey’s tenure) as a means of ending the “subsidies” small users living in apartments enjoy at the expense of wealthy folk who use wads of electricity to power their hot tubs and Teslas.
Although specific new rates were not immediately set when the PUC early this month unanimously voted for the change, it is eventually expected to cost small users about 20 percent more each month, or approximately $10 extra for starters, the tab to rise as power costs go up. So it’s a reverse Robin Hood kind of thing, harming the poor and helping the rich. That’s how it earns the “robbing the hood” sobriquet.
Of course, the PUC didn’t mention that the really big beneficiaries of the change aren’t residential customers of any kind, not even the wealthiest energy hogs. The largest benefits will go to big businesses like oil refineries and computer chip makers, which use enormous amounts of power.
This proposal originated with PG&E, the same company indicted for criminal negligence in its fatal mismanagement of natural gas pipelines. The utilities will make billions of dollar more under the new system than they do now; just how much has yet to be determined.
The sad part of all this is that there appears little hope the PUC will anytime soon diverge from its longtime pattern of favoring big utility companies over their tens of millions of customers.
This pattern extended to natural gas during the early 2000s, when PG&E and Sempra Energy, parent of both Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric, got the Peevey-led PUC to push hard to bring liquefied natural gas (LNG) from places like Indonesia and Australia to California at enormous expense.
This state needed LNG, said both the utilities and the PUC, because a domestic natural gas shortage was impending and the PUC arranged for the state to give up most of its reserved space on two of the three big pipelines bringing natural gas here from Texas, Oklahoma and the Rocky Mountain region.
That plan was nixed when the state Lands Commission, then led by ex-Lt. Gov. John Garamendi and current state Treasurer John Chiang, refused to allow construction of pipelines across state-owned tidelands in Ventura County. Since then, hydraulic fracking has produced a surplus of domestic natural gas, putting the lie to all the PUC and utility company claims of impending shortage and consumers have saved billions compared to what they’d be paying if the companies were buying LNG.
Still, almost no one heeded the PUC’s constant favoring the utility companies over consumers. Similarly, there were no large-scale protests when the PUC this month changed the electric pricing system, to the great detriment of most customers.
Apparently, not even a criminal investigation can get reporters and the public they serve to see through the subterfuges used by PUC members and their utility company cronies.
Which brings to mind the classic observation of Thomas Jefferson: “In a democracy, the people get precisely the government they deserve.”