Bruce Kauffmann An interview with 2011 NARUC President Tony Clark

It isn’t every public utility commissioner who can boast being a Boy Scout troop leader and an Eagle Scout, but this year’s president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, Tony Clark, has that distinction, and in an interview in this month’s issue of American Gas magazine, he talks about why the Boy Scout’s motto, “Be Prepared,” is particularly relevant to his job.

According to Clark that is one reason “NARUC plays a key role in training and educating the nation’s utility regulators,” especially since there is a lot of turnover on regulatory commissions.  “The average commissioner’s tenure is between only three to four years,” Clark says, so getting new commissioners up to speed as quickly as possible is critical.  “No one benefits from poorly equipped and trained regulators.”

In the interview Clark also shares that commissioners need to do a better job of communicating to their key audiences—especially the general public—what it is they do, and why.  Because regulators deal with a number of complicated procedures, including due process rights, notice requirements, ex parte communications and evidentiary-based records, Clark admits, “The regulatory world can be arcane.”

Clark’s prescription is better transparency.  “We regulators need to ensure that all parties feel as though they have an open, transparent way of communicating with us, and us with them.  To do otherwise risks alienating the very people we are there to serve.”

Speaking of being prepared, Clark stresses that with respect to the natural gas industry, the highest priority for both the regulators and the utilities they regulate is the safety of the natural gas delivery system.  Clark notes that among the many issues regulators need to address —  especially in light of a number of recent natural gas pipeline incidents, including the tragic incident in San Bruno, Ca. — is whether pipeline safety program personnel, those responsible for safety inspections, are able to do their jobs properly with the resources they currently have.  According to Clark, “The answer coming back (from safety inspectors) is that more resources are needed.”

Clark also notes that the good news for the natural gas industry, the abundance of shale gas that is currently coming to market, is also good news for the consumer because it means stable, affordable natural gas prices.  As a result, even though some in the environmental community object to the environmental impact of the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process necessary to produce shale gas, NARUC is, for the most part, supportive of this new supply source.

“Because of the clear importance of the emerging shale plays to the affordability of gas to consumers, NARUC has asked the EPA to consider that state environmental regulators may be in the best position to assess the highly localized potential environmental impact of fracking,” Clark explains. “The concern is that regulatory overreach could shut down a major positive development for consumers, with limited environmental benefit to show for it.”

For a balanced, thoughtful interview with a thoroughly prepared NARUC president, read the entire story by visiting aga.org

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