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Column: An alleged SoCal Gas front group withdraws from a PUC proceeding — but questions remain

Aliso Canyon
SoCal Gas crews working to relieve the Aliso Canyon disaster in 2015.
(Dean Musgrove / Associated Press)

When last we examined an organization called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, it looked less like a grass-roots policy group than an “astroturf” front for Southern California Gas Co.

That was important, because SoCal Gas is engaged in a proceeding before the state Public Utilities Commission on the future of natural gas in the state, and C4BES, as the group is known in shorthand, was applying to be treated as a named party in the proceeding.

Had it succeeded, environmental groups asserted, that would have given the gas company two voices in the PUC discussion — its own, and its front group. The Sierra Club asked the PUC to deny C4BES’s motion, or at least allow the club to delve deeply into C4BES’s connections with the gas company.

Just because you get caught doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for what you were trying to do.
Matt Vespa, Sierra Club attorney
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Sunlight — or the threat of sunlight — has once again shown its value as a disinfectant. According to a document filed with the PUC, C4BES on Tuesday withdrew its motion for party status in the gas proceeding.

The two-paragraph document, filed over the signature of C4BES Executive Director Jon Switalski, says the organization is bailing in order to avoid “devoting precious resources on defending against attacks that have nothing to do with the proceeding.”

(It’s the familiar “I don’t want to be a distraction” dodge often used by public officials who are forced to resign under a cloud of scandal but don’t want to acknowledge the real reason they’re losing their jobs.)

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The rest of the C4BES filing is mostly boilerplate about its desire to return to its mission of educating Californians “about the importance of maintaining a balanced energy portfolio in fighting climate change.”

But it also takes a swipe at the regulators and the Sierra Club: “It is unfortunate that the CPUC has allowed pro-electric interests groups to use a regulatory proceeding in such a manner as to ignore the viewpoints of millions of Californians who prefer to use natural gas, renewable natural gas, and propane.”

This sounds a bit like putting the cart before the horse because the PUC hasn’t yet officially ruled on the Sierra Club’s motion. But it’s unlikely that the filing by C4BES will close the book on accusations of wrongdoing by Southern California Gas.

“They’re trying to get this to go away,” says Matt Vespa, an attorney for the Sierra Club in the proceeding. “But just because you get caught doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for what you were trying to do.”

It always was predictable that California’s utilities would ask for a heap of government assistance to cover their financial liabilities resulting from two years of epic wildfires.

To recap: The PUC proceeding carries high stakes for Southern California Gas. It involves setting policies to “decarbonize buildings,” which essentially means shifting energy usage in homes, offices and factories from natural gas to electricity. That transition is vital to the state’s campaign to reduce greenhouse gases 40% below their 1990 level by 2030. Buildings and other fixed sources are the source of about one-fourth of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, so cutting them back would be a big deal.

After C4BES appeared on the scene, the Sierra Club and the PUC’s internal consumer advocacy unit, the Public Advocates Office, began looking into its origins. The office discovered that SoCal Gas had provided what the organization acknowledges was “seed money” to start it, and also that a SoCal Gas employee appeared to be engaged in recruiting members for C4BES’s board.

According to a spokesman for the advocates office, when the office sought to determine whether the gas company was using ratepayer funds for what amounts to lobbying — which isn’t permitted — “we got a lot of false statements” from the company. The advocates office has asked the commission to sanction SoCal Gas for “false and misleading” responses to its queries. C4BES’s withdrawal “doesn’t change a darn thing about that complaint against the gas company,” says Michael Campbell, a spokesman for the Public Advocates Office. It’s still awaiting a ruling from the commission, he says.

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SoCal Gas told me it has been “transparent about our role in and financial support to Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions.” Switalski said,“We’ve made no secret that we’ve been supported by the gas company.”

Well, not exactly. The organization’s initial motion to the PUC doesn’t mention the gas company’s role even once.

C4BES portrayed itself as just another public interest organization representing the interests of natural gas users, including factory owners and homeowners. Whether it’s something other than that is a good question.

Vespa says that the Sierra Club is still trying to obtain unredacted copies of contracts between SoCal Gas and consultants who were hired to work with C4BES. A motion by the Public Advocates Office for sanctions against the gas company for allegedly misleading the office remains before the PUC. Those motions will continue, Vespa says.


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