California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) President Marybel Batjer announced on Tuesday that she would be resigning her post more than 5 years before her term was set to expire.
Batjer had been the President of CPUC since August 2019, following the retirement of longtime CPUC President Michael Picker. Batjer’s short 2-year tenure has been meet with much criticism. As she stepped into the role, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) was under bankruptcy duress following the 2018 Camp Fire. Batjer largely took over the role of handling PG&E, with the company being elevated out of bankruptcy in July 2020. However, since the start of her tenure, PG&E has accumulated nearly 100 felony convictions in court, including pleading guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in the Camp Fire from the town of Paradise being destroyed. 31 more charges, 11 of them criminal, have also been levied against PG&E in the last week alone, these charges stemming from the 2020 Zogg Fire.
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Despite the numerous charges and losing tens of billions through settlements and payouts, including paying $13.5 billion in the Camp Fire settlement alone, an ABC investigation earlier this year found that Batjel was one of the main Newsom administration leaders that helped PG&E avoid more serious financial consequences in future wildfires, allowing the utility to keep it’s safety certificate and lifting much of the burden and blame associated with utility power caused wildfires. All the while Batjel has been silent about PG&E moving added costs directly to the consumer, even asking for an 18% rate hike earlier this year.
PG&E’s ties to the Newsom administration have already heightened this year, with Governor Gavin Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, having been found to receive money from PG&E indirectly through her non-profit organization, with donations from PG&E and other companies coming out partially as Newsom’s $2.3 million salary with the Representation Project. Governor Newsom himself has also received campaign funding from PG&E.
Additionally during Batjer’s term was her controversial firing of Alice Stebbins, a 30-year auditor and budget analyst who was hired to fix the finances of the California PUC. Stebbins was fired after finding $200 million for the state’s deaf, blind and poor residents was missing, Pro Publica reported.
Batjer allowed the first statewide rolling blackouts to happen in 20 years.
The growing discontent against her from members of the California legislature helped lead to her resignation on Tuesday.
“I do think the CPUC has lost track of its mission and lost track of who it is supposed to serve,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) earlier this year.
Batjer resigns two years into her seven-year contract
In her resignation letter, Batjer did not give a reason for leaving, simply saying that it “was a difficult decision made in the face of a changing climate and global pandemic.”
“I’m grateful to Governor Newsom and his continued support as I focus the remainder of my service to facilitate the transition of new leadership and better position the state to deliver reliable electricity amid challenging wildfire conditions,” added Batjer in her letter.
Newsom responded to her resignation on Tuesday by praising her time with CPUC and where she will be going in the future.
“For decades, Marybel Batjer has helped tackle the most persistent challenges confronting Californians head-on,” said Newsom in a statement. “She is a passionate, smart and thoughtful leader and I’m grateful for her service to the State of California and wish her all the best in future endeavors.”
However, many environmental groups, utility workers, and others said that they were happy to see Batjer leave on Tuesday and hoped Newsom would pick someone who could handle to job better and avoid ties with the executive branch.
“Batjer had just too much going against her,” noted utility policy advisor Ash Simmons to the Globe on Wednesday. “Some wasn’t her fault, like the wildfires, but she could have added more stringent measures to companies to avoid them, like threatening to remove their safety certificate. That’s the real protection, or companies against being held even more accountable for the fires.”
“It takes a lot to run a utility, and honestly, it’s really difficult to have continued upkeep to the point you avoid all equipment breakdowns. Especially when it happens out in the middle of nowhere. But even with that, under Batjer’s tenure, they could get away with a lot. PG&E paid out big on the Camp Fire, but there were other fires we don’t hear a lot about that did a lot of damage but were not really mentioned.
“But Batjer’s tenure had things break down between CPUC and utilities, with PG&E still managing to float by everything. It was also a lot to handle at once. Stress was probably a huge factor in this. With all the wildfires and utility problems, it was a lot to go over, and her decisions proved to not always be for the best.”
“Whoever Newsom picks, they cannot have any ties to PG&E and has to ignore any pressure from lawmakers to go easy on them or any other utilities for that matter. I’m sure I just heard a huge chuckle from your readers over this happening, but it’s what is needed, especially with the increased wildfire threat.”
Environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity also expressed hope for a better pick.
“Batjer’s departure is an opportunity to appoint a utility regulator who will actually hold PG&E and other utilities accountable for their dirty energy choices and grid failures,” added the Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice Program Director Jean Su on Tuesday.
Batjer’s term was expected to end at the end of 2026. Newsom is expected to pick a replacement for Batjer by the end of the year.
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