SoCalGas charged customer account to stymie efficiency standards, new document shows

By Colby Bermel 10/02/2020 08:07 PM EDT

Southern California Gas charged a ratepayer account from 2014 through 2017 to pay for lobbying work against stronger energy efficiency standards, according to a new document published Friday.

Impact: A joint statement of stipulated facts was posted by the company, environmentalists and state consumer watchdogs but is not an admission of guilt by SoCalGas. However, it lays the foundation for the possibility of sanctions against the company for the improper use of customer cash.

Background: The Public Advocates Office, an independent branch of the Public Utilities Commission, has investigated SoCalGas since last year for booking certain costs to ratepayer accounts, money from which was allegedly used to finance lobbying and campaigns against climate policies at the state and local levels.

The PUC has also gotten involved, albeit on a separate track, with Commissioner Liane Randolph last December ordering SoCalGas to explain why it shouldn’t be punished for spending customer cash opposing energy efficiency standards. The company, the PAO and environmentalists have since been in talks on how to resolve the order.

Details: Friday’s joint statement of stipulated facts fleshes out the initial details spelled out in Randolph’s order. The document’s purpose is to establish a common ground that a PUC judge can use when reviewing the SoCalGas case.

The joint statement listed eight instances from 2014 through 2017 when the costs to prepare SoCalGas public filings on energy efficiency were booked to a ratepayer account. Dollar amounts, however, were not specified.

Additionally, the document lists four instances in 2019 and 2020 when the company lobbied local governments on their “reach codes,” which aim to phase out the use of natural gas in new buildings. Two instances last year involved San Luis Obispo, which received attention this year when a SoCalGas labor union threatened to hold a protest, with no social distancing, of the city council for its reach code.

The company has touted 114 local governments that have passed resolutions supporting the continued use of natural gas. On the other hand, 34 California cities have moved to either phase out or entirely ban gas in new buildings. Environmentalists claim that SoCalGas is behind a lawsuit against Berkeley for its first-in-the- nation gas ban.

What’s next: Opening briefs in the “order to show cause” proceeding are tentatively slated for Nov. 5, Earthjustice attorney Sara Gersen said in an interview. Those filings, she said, will “tell a saga about the advocacy against efficiency standards being directed from the top levels of the organization and pretty viciously trying to undermine California policy. Soon you’ll see that argument, but with footnotes and documents that spell it all out.”

In an unrelated Thursday filing, SoCalGas said it “has a long history of supporting energy efficiency in California, of prudent stewardship of ratepayer funds, and of achieving the aggressive environmental goals of the State of California.” According to the company, its efforts last year resulted in cutting more than 475,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

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