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Pa. Senate committee advances bill to defang PUC amid broader deregulatory push


Ian Karbal, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
May 2, 2024

The Pennsylvania Senate advanced a bill Thursday that could sharply limit the Public Utility Commission’s regulatory powers in the interest of saving rate payers money. It was one of several bills that moved in the chamber this week intended to deregulate utilities and the energy producers that supply them.

Senate Bill 1174, which was advanced with a bipartisan vote by the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure committee Tuesday, would allow utility companies to request a waiver from any law or regulation enforced by the PUC. While those companies would have to alert the PUC to potential safety and reliability issues of bypassing regulations, as written, the commission would be required to only consider the financial impact on rate payers when making its decision.

Consumer and environmental advocates say the bill is far too broad.

“I think the problem here is this seems to be a really big hammer,” said Rob Altenburg, director of the Energy Center at PennFuture, an environmental advocacy group. “There’s other ways that we can address ratepayer impact.”

The bill sponsored by Sen. Patrick Stefano (R-Fayette) passed the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure committee that he chairs with most Democrats voting against it.

“This bill isn’t perfect, some stakeholders have shared concerns and I agree we should work towards addressing them as this bill moves forward in the Senate,” Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), the committee’s Minority Chair and the sole Democrat to vote in the bill’s favor, said in an email. “However, it helps further a discussion for how we can find creative solutions to lower energy costs in Pennsylvania. That is important and why I voted to advance the bill.” 

The Public Utility Commission regulates a broad number of utilities like energy, gas, water, wastewater, telecommunications, railroads and even taxis. Among other things, it enforces regulations that require utility companies to notify customers before shutting off their services. The PUC prevents gas and electric companies from shutting off service in the winter when it could result in customers losing heat. It requires energy companies to implement efficiency programs and ensure a certain amount of their energy comes from renewable sources. The PUC also oversees enforcement of the so-called One Call Act requiring utilities to mark underground lines to ensure homeowners can safely dig on their property.

Another bill, Senate Bill 85, passed through the Senate Communications and Technology committee Tuesday and would require the PUC to waive a number of regulations for telephone companies. It received no Democratic support in committee.

The PUC is not the only regulatory body for many utilities. The Department of Environmental Protection, for example, enforces the Safe Drinking Water Act. And the Department of Transportation issues permits for utility companies placing lines along highways.

Stefano, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1174, released a statement that said, “Consumers continue to see increases in their utility bills and we need to find ways to reduce them.” His office also noted that utility companies would be required to submit reports about how they will ensure safety and reliability of utilities, and that the PUC would have to take that into consideration..

But the bill’s language would require the PUC to “limit its consideration to the financial impact of the particular rate class indicated in the petition.”

“I just think there’s all kinds of ambiguities associated with [the bill] that aren’t clear,” said Patrick Cicero, the state’s Consumer Advocate. “Putting all those aside, it’s not a bill that would produce great public policy, in my judgment.”

Cicero also noted that, because Pennsylvanians generally can’t choose their utility companies, residents of different parts of the state could end up with utilities subject to different rules.

The bill will have to pass through the Senate Appropriations Committee and the broader Senate before moving to the Democrat-controlled House.

Along with the bills moving through the Senate that would strip regulatory authority from the PUC, a separate bill passed the Senate Wednesday that would reorganize the PA Energy Development Authority and grant the reduced board the power to waive regulations for new energy projects.

It passed the Senate along party lines, with Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) saying it would likely be dead on arrival in the House.

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