SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California Senate panel gave narrow approval Wednesday to Gov. Jerry Brown's two recent appointees to a powerful utilities commission after imploring them to restore public trust in an agency that's been damaged by scandals and environmental disasters, including the largest-known methane gas leak in U.S. history.
"You're getting out by the skin of your teeth right now," Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon said after the five-member Senate Rules Committee voted 3-0 to send the nominees to the full Senate. He abstained from voting alongside Republican Sen. Anthony Cannella.
Commissioners Clifford Rechtschaffen and Martha Guzman Aceves acknowledged the public's poor perception of the commission and said they are working diligently to implement legislative guidelines aimed at improving transparency and public safety.
The five-member PUC regulates privately owned natural gas, electric, telecommunications, water and rail utilities, and it has long been criticized for its relationship with the utilities it regulates. Investigations into a deadly 2010 Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline explosion revealed secret communications between PUC and utility executives.
Most recently, a July decision to re-open the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility two years after the massive methane leak is prompting criticism.
Both commissioners were appointed by Brown in December, but have a year to officially be confirmed to six-year terms. De Leon hasn't scheduled a vote on the full Senate floor, saying he still has more questions for both nominees.
The 2015 Aliso Canyon methane leak, which caused more than 8,000 Los Angeles-area residents to be evacuated, was the topic of several senators' questioning. In July, the PUC's executive director and the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources determined it was safe for limited gas injections to continue, but a full investigation into what caused the leak hasn't been completed.
Some critics argue the commissioners should have taken a stand against its re-opening.
"I was very disappointed the PUC decided to open Aliso Canyon without giving us any clear explanation whatsoever," said Alex Kim, a Porter Ranch resident evacuated from his home during the leak who showed up to testify against Rechtschaffen.
Rechtschaffen and Guzman Aceves are former Brown aides, and senators also questioned whether they can be independent voices.
Several consumer activist groups have criticized Rechtschaffen in particular, pointing to allegations that he was involved in the firing of two Brown aides who argued against issuing permits for certain oilfield injection wells.
"I think those allegations are extremely misplaced," Rechtschaffen said in response to a question from Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva. "I think it's critical that we avoid unduly close relationships with industry, but even the appearance of unduly close relationships."
Rechtschaffen now leads the PUC's Natural Gas Leak Abatement program, which launched in June and promotes better training, detection and repair of methane leaks at natural gas utilities. He acknowledged the PUC has failed in the past to focus enough on public safety, particularly leading up to the pipeline explosion near San Francisco.
Democratic Sen. Toni Atkins of San Diego said she appreciated both nominees' commitment to cleaning up the PUC but said much more work is needed.
"I really hope that you can help us turn this around, because real people have real concerns and fears," she said.
Representatives from more than a dozen organizations and environmental groups testified in favor of both nominees, calling them strong advocates for clean energy and public safety.
Guzman Aceves and Rechtschaffen said the PUC is now following much stricter rules on disclosing communications, based on legislation signed by Brown last year.
"We have a huge challenge," Guzman Aceves said. "The public doesn't feel like we're going to listen."