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Pay up for seismic studies, people

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The state’s chief regulatory agency for utility companies has handed Pacific Gas & Electric a key victory in the utility’s fight to recover expenses for the controversial seismic studies off the Central Coast.

On Sept. 13, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved PG&E’s aim to recover $64 million for its upcoming three-dimensional offshore studies, as well as low-energy onshore surveys already completed around the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

A CPUC administrative law judge ruled that PG&E has fulfilled its obligations in working with a third-party oversight panel—a condition for seeking the recovery—and may charge ratepayers for the testing, as opposed to shareholders absorbing
the costs.

In his ruling, Administrative Law Judge Robert Barnett echoed PG&E’s claims that the charge to ratepayers is appropriate given that the testing will improve public safety.

“Enhanced knowledge of the seismic hazard near Diablo Canyon provides a clear benefit to PG&E’s customers as it enables PG&E to continue its safe operation,” the ruling reads.

It continues: “Additionally, enhanced knowledge of the seismic hazard near Diablo Canyon provides a clear benefit to PG&E’s customers in that, as noted above, it enables PG&E to continue the safe operation of this valuable generation resource.”

It’s that “enabling” that caused the nonprofit ratepayer advocacy group, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, to cry foul. They argue it’s not a regulatory agency’s role to “enable” the utility it regulates.

“[The Alliance] agrees that continued operation of the nuclear power plant is one potential outcome of the studies, but believes that enhanced knowledge of the seismic hazard is an end in itself,” John Geesman, attorney for the Alliance, wrote in response to the CPUC’s proposed ruling, released in early September.

The Alliance hasn’t responded to the final ruling as of press time.

PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones has previously told New Times the seismic surveys should be paid for with ratepayer money because they’re going to improve the public’s knowledge about the capabilities of seismic faults surrounding Diablo Canyon.

Following the CPUC approval, PG&E still needs a sign-off from the California Coastal Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Fish and Game, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation—all going according to schedule, according to Jones.

Should all go according to PG&E’s plan, offshore surveys could begin by Nov. 1.

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