Utility employees and contractors who come forward in a California pipeline safety rulemaking proceeding will have protection, according to a March 14 ruling.
In the California Public Utilities Commission's proceeding to establish new intrastate pipeline safety regulations, Commissioner Michel Florio sided with a motion filed by the Utility Workers Union of America. On an interim basis, Florio granted a directive to protect employees participating as witnesses or sources of information, in an effort to cut down on concerns that companies could coerce potential witnesses into silence.
The CPUC is looking to adopt a regulation on whistleblower protections, but until that decision is made, Florio agreed, an interim directive is necessary.
"Gas utility employees are invaluable sources of information regarding the safety and reliability of the gas systems," Florio wrote. "It will serve the public interest for all California natural gas public utility employees to be able to provide the Commission or its staff with information concerning unsafe conditions without fearing employment retaliation from the utility."
Southern California Gas Co. opposed the UWUA motion, saying the union did not consider existing laws that protect employees from retaliation and the motion was to some extent based on speculation. SoCalGas, a Sempra Energy subsidiary, also argued that the motion was too broad and that it would grant employees complete immunity from any disciplinary action no matter what their misconduct.
Florio rebuffed most of SoCalGas' concerns, but he stipulated that this protection to gas utility employees is related exclusively to the safety information they provide to the commission and does not give immunity to unrelated disciplinary actions.
"I ... agree that the need to encourage a dialogue between gas utility workers and this commission or its staff about gas safety and reliability problems which threaten the general public, as well as the workers, outweighs the possible harm that could result if the motion is not granted," Florio wrote.
The proceeding was initiated after the fatal 2010 San Bruno, Calif., explosion of a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline. The PG&E Corp. subsidiary, an active participant in this rulemaking, did not file any opposition to the UWUA's motion.
(Originally published March 19, 2012, in SNL Energy Gas Utility Week.)
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