For many years before formal investigations by both state and federal authorities began, it was clear the California Public Utilities Commission consistently favored big utility companies over consumers at every opportunity.
But until a court order produced tens of thousands of emails between utility commissioners and executives of the companies they regulate, no one could prove either the cronyism that has long existed or the mechanism by which it operated.
Now it is gradually becoming clear that national agencies like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) also consistently favor big utilities over the citizens the commissions are sworn to protect.
Example A involves the now-closed San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, often known as SONGS. When that plant first lost power on Sept. 8, 2011, several months before it formally closed, the outage caused a blackout over an area as big as northern Europe, covering much of Southern California and northern Mexico. FERC's initial investigation blamed a single bungling utility worker in Arizona, letting Southern California Edison Co., the plant's operator, off the hook.
FERC's investigation did not freeze Edison's internal emails, allowing the utility to destroy them. Edison in effect admitted this in a Sept. 16, 2011, letter to FERC just unearthed by the San Diego law firm of Aguirre & Severson.
"It should be noted that certain electronic documents related to the outages, particularly electronic mail, may have been deleted prior to the receipt of your Sept. 12 letter (demanding those emails)," the letter said.
In short, said ratepayer attorney Maria Severson, "Edison destroyed evidence "within days after the blackout. Evidence shows that FERC did nothing to stop them."
Of course, neither FERC nor the NRC has done anything to penalize Edison for destroying evidence, and the NRC also has done nothing to sanction Edison for its big-money purchase of new steam generators for SONGS, despite the fact executives knew in advance they were faulty.
Edison is now trying to get almost $1 billion back from Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for that misdeed, but even if it gets all it's after, customers will still be stuck with the lion's share of the costs for decommissioning SONGS, unless the PUC does a sudden about-face and cancels a 2014 settlement with Edison.
The corruption of that settlement has been well documented through emails proving the outline was agreed upon in private meetings between former PUC President Michael Peevey and Edison executives during a junket to Warsaw, Poland, the year before.
The bottom line on SONGS is that only luck spared California the same sort of radiation exposure endured by Japan in the Fukushima disaster that hit about a year before SONGS closed.
But federal negligence in protecting Californians goes beyond San Onofre. There's also the NRC's handling of potential danger from major earthquakes at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
In a meeting last spring, the NRC allowed PG&E to continue a $64 million study of earthquake dangers to Diablo Canyon, saying it knows no reason to shut down or limit operations at the plant.
The PG&E report, for which the company now wants consumers to pay, has been called a "scientific fraud" by area activists and allied engineers, including former Republican state Sen. Sam Blakeslee.
Said David Jay Weisman, head of the San Luis Obispo-based Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, "The NRC seems to always accept anything PG&E tells them." PG&E is far from unique in its favorable treatment from that commission. The NRC has never denied a license request for an atomic power plant from any utility.
"The NRC is a rubber stamp for the utilities," Weisman said. In fact, the commission has "accepted" PG&E's seismic study, but also gave itself 18 months to examine the report and then issue a final ruling on Diablo Canyon's earthquake safety.
All of which means that anyone unhappy with the pattern of utility favoritism at the PUC can expect little or no comfort and support from any federal commission.
The patterns of behavior by FERC and the NRC are similar enough to what the PUC did for decades without any legal challenge that these two agencies also should get careful and constant observation to ensure against continued outright favoritism of the big utilities.