CPUC TO HOLD HEARING SEPT. 28 LOCALLY ON PROPOSED DECISION REGARDING WILDFIRE EXPENSE REIMBURSEMENT FOR SDG&E

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Update:  The CPUC has announced it will hold this agenda item slated for the Thursday morning hearing, meaning no vote will be taken on this agenda item.  Public comment will still be accepted before all five commissioners at the start of the mornng hearing .

Public comment will also be taken during an all parties meeting later in the day, but not all commisioners will be present at the later meeting. See more details at the end of this story.

By Miriam Raftery

September 26, 2017 (San Diego) –The California Public Utilities Commission will hold a public hearing Thursday at 9:30 a.m. in the Chula Vista City Council Chambers  (276 Fourth Ave., Chula Vista) on the CPUC’s proposed decision to deny SDG&E’s application to charge ratepayers $379 million for recovery of its uninsured losses related to the 2007 Witch, Rice and Guejito wildfires.  A similar request for $594 million was previously denied in 2012.

SDG&E sought to recover those losses through a Wildfire Expense  Memorandum Account (WEMA).  The proposed decision against SDG&E has drawn praise from some, including Supervisor Dianne Jacob, but concerns from others including a fire survivor and intervener in the case.  Some ratepayer advocates also warn that the CPUC could  change its mind on the proposed denial of SDG&E’s WEMA application or postpone action following ex-parte lobbying efforts by the utility company.

Two CPUC’s administrative law judges found, after hearing the evidence, that SDG&E “did not reasonably manage and operate its facilities prior to the 2007 Witch, Guejito and Rice Widfires.” Cal Fire found that equipment by SDG&E caused the fires, along with Cox equipment in one fire. SDG&E has denied that improper management or maintenance of its equipment caused the fires, but has paid out numerous settlement claims for damages to fire victims. The company has also made maor investments to fire-harden its equipment since then to prevent future fires.

Some ratepayer advocates note that SDG&E filed a notice of ex-parte communications revealing that SDG&E representatives recently met privately with CPUC commissioners’ staffers on this matter and that commissioner held a closed door meeting in San Francisco yesterday. 

  In addition, a second meeting at 1 p.m. scheduled with all involved parties and CPUC Commissioner Liane Randolph in the same location. “The All Party meeting is unusual and unneeded if the Commission decides WEMA in the morning If however, the Commission decides to put a hold on the proposed decision, WEMA will not be decided—at a very rare San  Diego meeting---for all to see,” says Diane Conklin, spokesperson for the Mussey Grade Alliance in Ramona.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob has praised the CPUC administrative law judges’ proposed decision, calling it the “right thing” for the judges to reject SDG&E’s effort to charge ratepayers for “the cost of wildfires it caused with its own power lines” during firestorms that cost many families their home.  She urged the full CPUC to also reject the proposal.

SDG&E, in its disclosure of ex-parte meetings held September 5th and 6th,  indicated that it asked that the proposed decision not be adopted by the CPUC because it commits legal error by failing to address the critical legal issue of the relationship between inverse condemnation and cost recovery, does not correctly apply the reasonableness standard, and contains factual errors in its review of and conclusions regarding the record evidence, particularly with respect to the wind and weather conditions in October 2007.”

Attorney Mike Aguirre, a ratepayer advocate representing parties in the CPUC proceeding,  issued a press statement yesterday voicing concerns.

“Utility customer advocates are warning that the CPUC plans to take away their victory in the San Diego fire case tried before a CPUC judge earlier this year,” Aguirre says. He voiced concerns that SDG&E’s ex parte meetings with only SDG&E and commissioners’ staff present, outside of the public eye, could result in the CPUC  “delaying or even reversing the decision” to instead favor SDG&E.

Christine Ross, DVM, suffered major damges in the 2007 wildfires. She has sued SDG&E and her case is currently in the Court of Appeal.  Regarding the WEMA application, she told ECM, "SDG&E's application is premature, as the civil case against them is still active."

Jennifer Betts, Esq., who lost her home in the 2007 firestorms, has been an intervenor who submitted briefs, exhibits and evidentiary hearing transcripts in the case.  In an email to ECM, she said the proposed decision “totally ignores all of the evidence presented by intervenors.”  She believes the CPUC sought to protect itself, as well as Cal Fire, from having certain evidence come to light. 

Because evidence she provided was omitted and not cited in the proposed decision, she says, “we are ineligible to request intervenor compensation…I believe that this proposed decision can only have a chilling effect to potential intervenors in future cases,” she says, adding that she has spent over $200,000 as an intervenor.  I know in my heart and mind that my efforts had absolutely everything to do with this proposed decision,” even though the evidence was inexplicably omitted, she says.

In short, the decision if sustained by the CPUC would benefit most ratepayers by preventing rates from going up to pay for the fires, but would be harmful to at least one fire victim who fought and paid out of pocket to stand up for the rights of fire survivors and ratepayers.

Sally Crossno, a fire survivor and one of many plaintiffs whose case was dismissed with zero payment, had this to say about the proposed decision. "SDG&E seeks to pass $379 million of wildfire costs to their rate payers. Some of the costs of insurance were approved in SDG&E's general rate case, subject to refund. The plantiffs in this case are asking the commission to proceed to the second phase so the commission can determine if the amounts paid out to insurance companies under inverse condemnation were indeed just and reasonable." 

Update:  Christopher Chow, information officer with the CPUC, sent this late-breaking update:

"The item about wildfire costs is held from our Voting Meeting on Thursday." 

However he adds, "The All-Party meeting will take place as scheduled at 1-2pm. It is intended as a forum for entities that are formal parties to the proceeding to highlight points they made in their comments on the Proposed Decision.   We will reserve a limited amount of time at the end of the All-Party meeting for public comment."

In addition, he states, "Since not all of the Commissioners may attend the full All-Party meeting, or may need to leave before public comment, we are encouraging non-parties to make comment to all five CPUC Commissioners at the 9/28/2017 Voting Meeting at 9:30 a.m., which is also in the Chula Vista Chambers.  All five Commissioners will be present at the Voting Meeting at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, and public comment in the Voting Meeting is always the first item on the agenda."

 People will be asked to sign up for Public Comment at the meeting itself or they can go online and sign up by going to either http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/Commission_Meeting/, or here https://ia.cpuc.ca.gov/requesttocomment/.