State public utility commissions are most frequently in the news in connection with their role in setting rates for electricity, gas and other regulated services. Yet they have another responsibility: protecting the interests of utility customers by monitoring the safety and consumer protection practices of the corporations under their jurisdiction.
As part of the latest expansion of Violation Tracker, the Corporate Research Project has collected data on more than 2,000 enforcement actions brought by PUCs around the country over the past two decades in which a penalty of at least $5,000 was imposed. Policing the Grid, a new report authored by freelancer Adam Warner and myself, analyzes what we discovered in those cases.
We found that a total of $13 billion in fines and settlements have been collected since 2000 by the PUCs and by state attorneys general in related cases brought against regulated companies. This amount is not evenly distributed among the states.
California has by far the latest share, $8 billion, or well over half of the national total. This is largely the result of cases brought against Pacific Gas & Electric, which has been hit with $5 billion in penalties, primarily for the role its poor power-line maintenance has played in causing devastating wildfires in the state. Southern California Edison has paid $842 million in wildfire cases as well as for other offenses such as submitting falsified data to the California Public Utilities Commission.
New York ranks second in penalties, with a total of $896 million. More than half of that figure is linked to Consolidated Edison, which has paid $528 million for offenses such as failing to prepare adequately for severe storms.
Five other states—Missouri, Massachusetts, West Virginia, Arizona and Illinois—have penalty totals in excess of $100 million. Texas has the largest number of cases, at 365, but it has collected only $67 million. Another $2.9 billion in penalties resulted from joint actions brought by groups of state attorneys general.
Other states have done much less in the way of utility safety and consumer protection enforcement. Twenty-nine states collected less than $10 million in penalties since 2000, including four– Alabama, Alaska, South Carolina and Wyoming—for which no cases with penalties of at least $5,000 could be found.
Some large corporations paid penalties in multiple states. For example, power generator NRG Energy, which ranks third among the parent companies with $1.2 billion in fines and settlements, faced cases in five states along with a multistate attorneys general lawsuit. AT&T has paid penalties in 20 states and the District of Columbia, along with five multistate AG cases.
The Spanish energy company Iberdrola has, through its U.S. subsidiaries in the Northeast, faced the most enforcement actions (96), but most of the fines were relatively modest in size, keeping its penalty total to $27 million.
With the new utility cases, Violation Tracker now contains 512,000 entries from more than 400 federal, state and local agencies with total penalties of $786 billion.