POV: Advancing Environmental Justice at the California Public Utilities Commission

December 14, 2021

Written by Clifford Rechtschaffen, Commissioner, California Public Utilities Commission

In California, as in many other states, policymakers have known for a number of years that environmental harms are disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color.  This includes air pollution, unsafe drinking water, exposure to pesticides, proximity to power plants and oil refineries, and vulnerability to extreme heat.[1]  Over the past two decades, the state has set broad objectives requiring that environmental justice be part of the mission of state agencies and adopted specific mandates in various environmental and energy legislation.

In 2017, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) initiated a process to establish a commission wide Environmental and Social Justice (ESJ) Action Plan (Plan).  The impetus to develop this policy was several fold.  First, our environmental justice activities were scattered among different program areas, without much coordination or sharing of goals or best practices.  Second, we wanted to expand our existing policies to cover a broader range of program areas, including those that are not strictly environmental, such as communications, regulation of ride sharing companies, rail safety, and consumer protection. We also wanted to integrate environmental justice into the many different contexts in which Commission staff act—regulatory, planning, permitting, administrative and enforcement.  And, finally, despite the State’s efforts, benefits from many of our clean energy programs still have not yet been equitably shared.  For example, electric vehicle adoption has been heavily concentrated in higher income communities in California. [2] Likewise, rooftop solar has disproportionately benefited wealthier households, with residents in the highest income quartile installing solar at 3-4 times the rate as the lowest quartile.[3]  

Over a period of 18 months we developed a draft plan, consulting extensively with outside stakeholders and environmental justice groups, and held several workshops to obtain feedback. In early 2019 the Commission adopted the Plan.[4]  It contains nine overarching goals and a detailed list of action items for achieving those goals. These include the following:

  • Increasing investment in clean energy resources in ESJ communities, especially to improve local air quality;
  • Improving access to high-quality water, communications, and transportation services for ESJ communities;
  • Increasing climate resiliency in ESJ communities;
  • Enhancing outreach and public participation opportunities for ESJ communities to meaningfully participate in the CPUC’s decision making process;
  • Enhancing enforcement and consumer protection in ESJ communities; and
  • Promoting business and workforce development opportunities in these communities.

The Plan defines “environmental and social justice communities” broadly, to include those where residents are:

  • Predominantly communities of color or low-income;
  • Underrepresented in the policy setting or decision-making process;
  • Subject to a disproportionate impact from one or more environmental hazards; and
  • Likely to experience disparate implementation of environmental regulations and socio-economic investments in their communities.[5]

The Plan is implemented by a team of liaisons from each of the Commission’s industry divisions (water, energy, telecommunications, rail, consumer protection), with staff from the news and outreach office in the Commission’s executive office serving as primary staff lead. This broad participation reflects our intent that equity considerations should be embedded in all of the Commission’s varied activities. 

What does implementing the Plan mean in practice? Here are a few concrete examples.

We have developed internal guidance and a standard template for staff to use at the beginning of all proceedings to ensure that the proceeding record incorporates meaningful discussion of potential impacts to ESJ communities.  This includes language that can be used in scoping memos that define the issues a proceeding will address, as well as suggestions for determining an outreach plan and other processes for reaching potential impacted communities.

To promote clean energy investments in ESJ communities, we have directed that program spending be targeted to disadvantaged communities.  For example, our recent decisions authorizing utility investment in EV charging infrastructure require that 40-50% of charging stations and supporting infrastructure be in disadvantaged communities. [6]  We also created an Equity Resiliency incentive program for low income and medically vulnerable customers to fund batteries for backup generation during electricity outages.[7]

To help provide us with recommendations about how we can maximize workforce development opportunities in ESJ communities, the CPUC entered into an MOU with the California Workforce Investment Board.[8]  Our initial collaboration with the Board is focused on promoting these opportunities in the CPUC’s energy efficiency and transportation electrification programs.

In our climate adaptation proceeding, which examines actions that utilities should take to prepare for the impacts of climate change, we established a new definition of “disadvantaged vulnerable communities” to reflect the relative adaptative capacities of different communities. We directed utilities to engage in additional, targeted outreach to these vulnerable communities as part of their preparation of climate vulnerability assessments.[9]

We’ve also taken a number of steps to enhance outreach and public participation opportunities for ESJ communities. These include adding a new public comment feature to the online docket card of our proceedings, requiring utilities to communicate in indigenous languages in some high impact activities, such as those relating to wildfires, and undertaking more proactive engagement with groups who are not usually parties in our proceedings, such as in our rulemaking examining the future of the gas infrastructure system.   

Another goal of the Plan is to improve training and staff development, and to advance that we’ve introduced a new ESJ module into our new employee onboarding curriculum, and sent staff to statewide trainings on racial inequities.

Finally, the Plan is intended to be a living document; it directs staff to regularly evaluate the CPUC’s progress in meeting the plan’s underlying goals and to update the plan as needed every two years (we are currently working through some proposed changes to the Plan’s goals and objectives).[10]

Overcoming the legacy of environmental injustice in California will likely take many years.  The CPUC’s ESJ Action Plan is an important first step in that direction, one that hopefully can provide an example and resources for other commissions around the country.

Clifford Rechtschaffen is a Commissioner on the California Public Utilities Commission and a member of the FRI Advisory Board. Commissioner Rechtschaffen was appointed to the CPUC in January 2017. Prior to his appointment to the CPUC, he held several positions related to conservation and environmental issues, including teaching environmental law at Golden Gate University School of Law. POV pieces are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of FRI or the University of Missouri.



[1]See, e.g, Evan Halper & Anna M. Phillips, California Has a New Battle Against Environmental Justice. The Nation is Watching¸ LA TIMES, Nov. 18, 2021;  Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy,  Research Brief, Natural Gas Power Plants in California’s Disadvantaged Communities (2017), available at https://www.psehealthyenergy.org/our-work/publications/archive/natural-gas-power-plants-in-californias-disadvantaged-communities/ (close to 50% of gas plants in CA are located in communities with the highest environmental burdens, double the rate of population in those areas) Manuel Pastor, et al, , Minding The Climate Gap: What’s at Stake if California’s Climate Law isn’t Done Right and Right Away (2010) (people of color in CA experience over 70%  more pollution from major greenhouse gas polluters than white residents).

[2] See Eric Daniel Fournier, et al,  On Energy Sufficiency And The Need For New Policies To Combat Growing Inequities In The Residential Energy Sector, Elementa: Science of the, available at https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.419  (Figure 3).

[3] Verdant Associates, Net Energy Metering 2.0 Lookback Study, January 21, 2021, https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/-/media/cpuc-website/divisions/energy-division/documents/net-energy-metering-nem/nemrevisit/nem-2_lookback_study.pdf, Figure 3-6, p. 33.   Another study found that solar adoption rates are eight times lower in California’s 5% most disadvantaged communities versus least disadvantaged communities.  Boris R. Lukanov & Elena M. Krieger, Distributed Solar And Environmental Justice: Exploring The Demographic And Socio-Economic Trends Of Residential PV Adoption In California, 134 Energy Policy 110935 (2019); https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2019.110935

[4] The Plan can be found at https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/news-and-updates/newsroom/environmental-and-social-justice-action-plan

[5] These communities include tribal communities as well as those that are the most environmentally disadvantaged in California based on “CalEnviroScreen,” a tool the State has developed to measure and compare the environmental burdens faced by communities based on their exposure to pollution and their vulnerability to the effects of pollution because of various social and economic factors,  see https://oehha.ca.gov/calenviroscreen 

[6] See Decision Setting Near-Term Priorities For Transportation Electrification Investments By The Electrical Corporations at http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/SearchRes.aspx?DocFormat=ALL&DocID=394347617 and Decision Authorizing Southern California Edison Company’s Charge Ready 2 Infrastructure and Market Education Programs at http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/SearchRes.aspx?DocFormat=ALL&DocID=346230115

[7] Self-Generation Incentive Program Decision 19-09-027.

[8] See https://cwdb.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/43/2020/10/Signed-CWDB-CPUC-MOU-9.14.2020_ACCESSIBLE.pdf

[9] Decision 20-08-046, Order Instituting Rulemaking to Consider Strategies and Guidance for Climate Change Adaptation (Rulemaking 18-04-019).

[10]Proposed revisions to the plan can be found at https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/news-and-updates/newsroom/environmental-and-social-justice-action-plan