Senate Turns Up Heat on Gov Brown's PUC Nominee

At a confirmation hearing yesterday, Senate leader Kevin de Leon took the unusual step of withholding his support for Governor Brown’s nominees to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Cliff Rechtschaffen and Martha Guzman Aceves, arguing that they have many questions to answer before de Leon agrees to give them a vote by the full Senate.

The Senate has typically been more of a rubber-stamp than a check-and-balance of the governor’s appointments. However, few public positions have such wide-ranging impact on Californians’ health, safety and economic security than do the five members of the PUC, and few agencies or appointees have been as mired in scandal.

Both Rechtschaffen and Guzman received enough votes for their nominations to pass out of the Rules committee, but only, as de Leon put it, “by the skin of your teeth.” De Leon withheld his support, and is preventing the nominees from going to the Senate Floor until they answer questions to Senators' satisfaction. 

At the hearing, Consumer Watchdog, Food & Water Watch, Save Porter Ranch, and residents impacted by the Aliso Canyon well blowout urged de Leon and the committee not to confirm Cliff Rechtschaffen unless he could adequately explain why he fired tough oil well regulators and weakened well safety standards, at the behest of Occidental Petroleum, followed by many safety scandals, including contaminated groundwater and the Aliso Canyon methane leak.

He must be approved this year, or the governor will have to replace him. Senator de Leon says he’s going to demand answers.

The question now is: What are the questions?

For the public to have any confidence in the Senate’s oversight of the governor and the Public Utilities Commission, they must include:

  • Why did Rechtschaffen fire two key regulators who were enforcing well safety and permitting standards, and then weaken standards that could have prevented the contamination of our groundwater and the Aliso blowout?
  • What was Rechtschaffen’s role in the emergency proclamation issued by Governor Brown on Aliso Canyon that moved the investigation into the cause of the leak behind closed doors?
  • How does Rechtschaffen justify the reopening of Aliso Canyon in light of protests from Los Angeles County that a seismic review to determine the earthquake risk at the Aliso Canyon facility is necessary before its reopening? How does he justify the reopening, for reliability purposes, in light of a Los Angeles County study that found Aliso is not needed to keep the lights on?
  • What was Rechtschaffen’s role in the governor’s attempts to push California into a regional western electricity grid,  subject California to dirty energy imports and subordinate local regulation to FERC and Trump administration appointees?

During the hearing, Senators did raise important questions about Rechtschaffen’s ability to act independently at the PUC in light of his close ties and past actions in the governor’s office. His answers to the questions above will shine a light on that record. But Rechtschaffen cast shade on himself with his answer, refusing to commit to disclosing any conversations he has with the governor’s office regarding PUC matters. Perhaps it was this evidence of a penchant for secrecy that led the Republican vice-chair of the Rules committee, Senator Anthony Canella, to join de Leon in withholding his vote for Rechtschaffen.

The PUC has been mired in secrecy and scandal involving regulators’ too-close relationships with the industries they regulate. The Senate has spent the last several years trying to get PUC reform legislation approved, only to see their most important efforts vetoed by the governor. But the Senate has the final word on nominations. Will they insist on some real accountability from the governor and the PUC?   

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