Healey appointees tasked with ‘transforming’ the Department of Public Utilities
There will soon be new leadership at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. Gov. Maura Healey announced her picks Wednesday morning for the three-person commission that oversees the agency.
Jamie Van Nostrand, a law professor at the West Virginia University College of Law, will serve as chair. Staci Rubin, vice president of environmental justice at the Conservation Law Foundation, and Cecile Fraser, the acting chair of the DPU, will serve as commissioners.
Environmental advocates praised the governor's choices, saying their deep experience in energy issues and commitments to environmental justice are critical for the agency.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities regulates electric, gas and water utilities, as well as the rates the utilities charge. It oversees the energy siting board, which reviews projects like gas pipelines and electrical substations. It’s in charge of transportation and gas pipeline safety. All of those duties taken together means it plays a critical role in whether Massachusetts can meet its ambitious clean energy goals in a fair and equitable way.
Historically, environmental and consumer advocates have complained the DPU hasn’t been transparent, and that it's shut out the public from its decision-making processes.
The DPU has “been set up to serve the needs of the energy sector,” said John Walkey, director of waterfront and climate justice initiatives at the environmental nonprofit GreenRoots. He added it doesn’t adequately prioritize “the equity and sustainability concerns of the public."
Mireille Bejjani, co-executive director of the environmental group Slingshot, agreed.
“The DPU has not fully embraced the role that it has to play in accelerating a clean energy transition and centering environmental justice,” she said. “If Massachusetts is to be a leader in creating a just, renewable future, the DPU needs to step up its game.”
In naming Van Nostrand, Rubin and Fraser to the commission, the Healey administration said that’s exactly what it’s hoping to do.
“The next era of the Department of Utilities will be marked by a commitment to transparency, equity, and innovation,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper in a statement. “Our goal is to build a 21st century DPU rooted in these values.”
The administration has set out four broad goals for the department’s new commissioners:
- Help the state achieve its climate goals by facilitating the growth of the renewable energy industry, modernizing the electrical grid and promoting energy resiliency.
- Be more transparent and make sure communities can engage in public processes in meaningful ways.
- Integrate equity and environmental justice concepts into department decisions, and ensure low-income ratepayers and other vulnerable environmental justice communities have a voice.
- Make sure the DPU is fully staffed with employees who are independent of outside influence and who are experts in areas like rate affordability, consumer protection, emissions reductions and transportation safety.
As the former attorney general and ratepayer advocate, Gov. Maura Healey and many in her cabinet are familiar with the DPU and how it operates.
“We know how critical it is that the DPU leadership understands that the transition to a clean energy economy is a pocketbook issue and will be thoughtful in how we evolve our grid and economy for the future,” Healey said in a statement. “I have full faith in Jamie Van Nostrand, Staci Rubin, and Cecile Fraser to uphold those values.”
Many in the clean energy and environmental justice community also praised the appointments.
Dale Bryk of the Harvard Environmental & Energy Law Program said in a statement that “Nostrand brings unparalleled technical expertise, a pragmatic approach and a deep commitment to equity that will enable him to lead a just and orderly transition to a clean energy economy in Massachusetts.”
Dwaign Tyndal, executive director of the nonprofit Alternatives for Community & Environment, called Staci Rubin a "great choice" for commissioner. He added that her “commitment to environmental justice populations is real. She has a deep understanding of how Black, Brown, immigrant, and low-income residents are excluded from policymaking, and she’ll know how to bring them into the process.”
Rubin previously worked at the DPU as as senior counsel and hearing officer before joining the Conservation Law Foundation.
Others were pleased to see that Fraser, who was appointed to the commission by Gov. Baker in 2017, will stay on for another term. Joe Curtatone, president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, said Fraser “was instrumental in developing a regulatory model to unleash solar development in Massachusetts and I look forward to her leading DPU through this transition.”
While many are celebrating the new appointments — and the new “21st century DPU” the Healey administration is attempting to usher in — the three-person commission has several big challenges ahead.
One of the more contentious proceedings this group will inherit is figuring out how to phase out natural gas in order to meet the state’s climate goals. While the agency is still working on its final plan, climate and consumer advocates have criticized the DPU for letting gas utilities drive the process and draft their own plans.
Larry Chretien, of Green Energy Consumers Alliance, said that if the Healey administration is serious about achieving net zero emissions by 2050, the new DPU commission will need to act deliberately and quickly on the “future of gas” proceeding.
Beyond climate, the DPU is also charged with overseeing the safety of several transportation industries like buses, ride-hailing companies and the MBTA. A WBUR investigation published earlier this year found that the DPU failed in its oversight of the MBTA and contributed to a lax safety culture.