As we move toward a just energy transition, public participation in energy regulatory processes must shift. Such participation, which requires clear pathways to engagement, accessible information, and dialogue, is critical to a just transition. Yet, historically, energy commissions and other related institutions have excluded their constituents from decision making. Grassroots movements are flipping that script; they are making energy commissions and regulatory processes more democratic and transparent by pushing for better oversight and enforcement, energy grid updates, fair rates, community energy, and more.
Commission Shift, a Laredo, Texas-based nonprofit, is working to reform the Railroad Commission of Texas (RCC). The nonprofit came onto the Texas energy scene in 2021, when there was no grassroots voice to hold the RCC accountable and help shift the energy landscape.
The RCC was established in 1891 to regulate Texas’ booming railroad industry, but by the early 1900s, its focus had shifted to regulating the state’s expanding oil industry. The RCC has since broadened its regulatory power and now oversees Texas’ gas utility service, uranium mining, and, most importantly, oil and gas development. The RCC’s mission is to steward Texas’s natural resources and environment. Unfortunately, its record of accomplishment says otherwise, as, for years, communities have been placed at risk in the interest of the RCC’s bottom line.
Virginia Palacios, Commission Shift’s executive director, points out that one of the legislators on Texas’ House Energy Resources Committee is closely related to an RCC commissioner, in direct conflict with fair governance. “There’s sort of like this family business,” says Palacios. The RCC hosts open meetings once or twice a month where the public is supposed to have the opportunity to voice their opinions and needs. The public can participate in two ways—sign up to comment on an agenda item or speak at the end of the meeting during public comment. However, as commissioners choose whether to call on someone during an agenda item, voices often go unheard. During public comment, the RCC will only hear issues unrelated to agenda items discussed in the meeting. This means that if members of the public want to voice a concern or bring an alternate perspective to bear on a critical issue, they can be shut down. “It kind of just shows that they’ve made up their mind before they hear from the public,” says Palacios.
The Texas legislature likewise has a pattern of excluding the public from participation in its workings. For example, last month, the Texas House Committee on Environmental Regulation held a public hearing in Odessa, Texas, that was initially open to the public. However, a week later, the hearing was changed to invitation only. Commission Shift’s request to participle was granted, enabling the group to comment on a prominent issue on the table—abandoned gas wells. However, navigating such public processes can be complicated without the resources and know-how.
Meanwhile, in California, the Reclaim Our Power Utility Justice Campaign is working to increase the accountability of PG&E, the state’s largest investor-owned utility. PG&E is overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which, over the years, has allowed the utility to neglect its responsibility to provide safe and reliable power, leading to some of California’s deadliest wildfires. The campaign has brought attention to how CPUC’s Oversight and Enforcement Process for PG&E falls short as random electricity shutoffs and rate hikes have severely impacted frontline communities, with PG&E citing “unnecessary costs” and resisting much needed reforms. In addition, the commission has systematically violated the Public Records Act, denying public access to documents detailing how natural disasters, such as the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, and corporate scandals were handled. In 2020, the commission also waived a $200 million fine leveraged against the utility in response to its electrical equipment neglect. “Rather than motivating PG&E to improve its abysmal safety record, a permanently suspended fine would encourage PG&E to devise future stratagems to avoid penalties,” a public advocate said in a KQED article. In May of this year, a lawsuit was heard in a state appeals court that challenged the commission’s decision and called for more transparency.
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Updated energy grids are key to building climate resilience in the places that are especially vulnerable to climate impacts. February 2023 will mark two years since Texas’ deadly freeze, when winter Storm Uri caused temperatures to plummet, compromising the state’s power grid. When Uri hit, energy generation slowed from all energy sources, including natural gas, because power plants and natural gas wells could not operate in such low temperatures. Power outages, some planned to stop further damage to the grid, exacerbated the problem. Following the freeze, the Texas legislature required electricity regulators to weatherize to be ready for similar future events. However, this requirement did not include the RCC.
In May 2022, Commission Shift and Texans for Public Justice released a report analyzing the RCC’s initial efforts to designate parts of its natural gas infrastructure as “critical” and in need of updates to handle extreme weather. These efforts follow decades during which the RCC failed to implement regulations requiring gas facilities to update their infrastructure. The report details that its conclusions have major caveats as the RCC chose not to specify what weatherization regulations gas facilities will be subject to and classified much of the critical infrastructure data that goes into the electricity supply chain database, further compromising public knowledge and participation.
This same pattern follows in California. Due to constant neglect of its equipment and transmission lines, which CPUC has allowed, PG&E has been responsible for some of California’s deadliest wildfires, such as the 2013 Camp Fire, 2020 Zogg Fire, 2021 Dixie Fire, and more. In April 2021, Reclaim Our Power launched one of its most successful campaigns leading up to the CPUC’s vote on initiating PG&E’s safety certificate and accountability process. The campaign’s organizing swayed the CPUC to vote to put PG&E into the first step of its Enhanced Oversight and Enforcement Process. This will allow CPUC to closely watch the utility’s performance in delivering safe, reliable, affordable, clean energy. The accountability process also prompted CPUC to start hosting public workshops to share information about and obtain public feedback on the Corrective Action Plan that the utility submitted to the commission. Currently, the campaign is also fighting against the impacts of SB 884, which is projected to raise rates, undercuts regulatory oversight, and narrowly deems underground power lines the only way to stop wildfires from spreading.
Commission Shift and Reclaim Our Power have their work cut out for them as they challenge heavily resourced commissions and the entities those commissions oversee and regulate. Both movements successfully use strategies to show up and insert public voices in whatever way possible. Commission Shift takes advantage of every public meeting to submit comments and educate the public on how to can access the meetings. Reclaim Our Power pulls on its partner organizations and launches regular digital action campaigns to get demands in front of the CPUC and PG&E.
On a federal level, the pattern of excluding the public from participation is starting to change. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates interstate energy infrastructure like pipelines, has long limited who can participate in its proceedings. In December 2020, Congress asked FERC to establish an Office of Public Participation plan, and in January 2021, FERC announced that it would launch an Office of Public Participation to consider public recommendations and provide opportunities for those interested in engaging with the commission’s decision-making processes. More on FERC’s strategic goals, structure, and how it will facilitate participation can be found in the commission’s Office of Public Participation June 2021 report.
These changes create a critical opportunity to insert equity and environmental justice into the energy industry conversation. Such work, however, must start by expanding public literacy. “Expanding stakeholder conversations to include consideration of who is excluded, or what the unintended consequences of energy policy are, represents another opportunity for needed change,” said Damali Harding, Managing Principal of the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), at last month’s 2022 PJM General Session. Grassroots movements will continue to galvanize this progress.