There are some indications that Clifford Rechtschaffen, one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s two latest appointments to the state Public Utilities Commission, would be more of an advocate for utilities than for consumers, ratepayers and those adversely affected by environmental issues.
That’s why the Senate Rules Committee needs to ask tough questions of Rechtschaffen in his confirmation hearing this week.
In December, Brown appointed two of his advisers on environmental and climate change issues, Rechtschaffen and Martha Guzman Aceves, to six-year terms as PUC commissioners. They replaced outgoing Commissioners Mike Florio and Catherine Sandoval in January.
Rechtschaffen and Guzman Aceves will face the Rules Committee, chaired by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, in their confirmation hearings Wednesday afternoon.
The two new appointees were in place when the PUC ruled it was safe to reopen Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility at a reduced capacity less than two years after the biggest methane leak in U.S. history displaced thousands of residents from the Porter Ranch area. Los Angeles County filed suit, arguing that the facility should not be allowed to operate until an independent investigation of the cause of the leak is complete — which seems a logical approach but was spurned by the PUC.
Liza Tucker of Consumer Watchdog sent an eight-page letter to de León, co-signed by leaders of Save Porter Ranch, Food & Water Watch, Rootskeeper and a law firm — opposing Rechtschaffen’s appointment “on the basis of Mr. Rechtschaffen’s record of favoring the oil and gas industry.”
The letter alleges that Rechtschaffen “fired two top oil and gas regulators, Derek Chernow and Elena Miller, who were trying to make oil and gas drilling safer.” Tucker cites a legal declaration by Chernow, as part of a lawsuit against the Brown administration and oil companies that claims they poisoned Kern County aquifers, as evidence that Rechtschaffen fired the two regulators at the behest of Occidental Petroleum, which subsequently donated $500,000 to support Brown’s Proposition 30 tax measure.
De León and the other senators on the Rules Committee need to get to the bottom of these allegations and satisfy themselves that they are groundless before confirming Rechtschaffen’s appointment.
They need to ask Rechtschaffen why he fired and replaced the two regulators. Was there pressure from Occidental or any other petroleum company to replace them? Did pressure, if any existed, come through the governor’s office?
And why the rush to reopen the Aliso Canyon facility? Could that decision not have been put off until the investigation of the cause of the blowout was complete? Did the decision put the financial interests of SoCalGas’s parent company, Sempra Energy, or anyone else ahead of the safety of neighboring residents?
The PUC’s reputation has been tarnished considerably by its failures in relation to the deadly explosion in San Bruno of a Pacific Gas & Electric gas line, and by alleged coordination between then-commission president Michael Peevey and Southern California Edison on who would pay for the San Onofre nuclear plant closure.
The Senate committee must satisfy itself that these new PUC appointees will represent the pocketbooks and the health and safety of the people of California above the financial interests of the state’s big utilities and energy companies.